We all are eagerly waiting for the launch of 4G LTE services by Reliance Jio Infocom. Reliance Jio has acquired 2.3 GHz spectrum band for providing 4G services in 2010. Bharti Airtel is also facing problems in providing 4G services so as the other operators globally. LTE certainly stands out in terms of its technical superiority and spectral efficiency. However, being an evolving standard it poses some significant challenges ahead of operators. The main barriers to LTE adoption can be largely categorized as, technical, regulatory, ecosystem driven, and ROI related.
Complexity and Backward Compatibility
For operators considering a network update, selecting the right technology is a major concern. They can either upgrade to evolved versions of 3G, such as HSPA, and HSPA+ or go for LTE. While upgrades within the 3G family may not require too many network architectural changes, transformation to LTE requires new radio access technology and core network expansion. This is not only cost intensive, but also highly complex. In addition, since existing 2G and 3G networks will not be phased out anytime soon, there is additional burden on operators to maintain two networks, support interoperability, seamless roaming, and handovers across multiple CSPs.
The advent of LTE will further ignite the surge in mobile data traffic due to increasing consumption of bandwidth hungry applications and services. This will exert additional strain on the existing backhaul capacity of operators. In Western Europe wireless backhaul capacity more than tripled between 2010 and 2015, to nearly 60,000 Gbps. Traffic from LTE applications is expected to account for more than half of last-mile backhaul demand in North America by mid-2015. Operators need to upgrade their existing backhaul capacity as failure to do so can negatively impact the end-user experience and the quality of service.
T1/E1 leased lines, fibre, and microwave are the most popular options for Telcos to upgrade their backhaul infrastructure. Backhaul networks, however, are expected to be a hybrid of microwave, fibre, and leased line depending on factors such as available capital, capacity requirements, and type of terrain.
Voice over LTE
One of the key benefits of LTE is its ability to carry all types of voice, video and data traffic. However, most of the developments in deployment of LTE have been focused towards providing faster data access, and voice standards are still immature. This is partly due to the unavailability of terminal devices and the existence of multiple standards for voice. There are three main approaches for operators to offer voice over LTE, namely, IMS-based “One Voice” approach, Voice over LTE via Generic Access (VoLGA), and Circuit Switched Fallback (CSFB).
It is expected that CSFB will be a short-term solution for operators given significant drawbacks such as high call set up times, coverage concerns, and low battery life. Though VoLGA is being backed by T-Mobile, it has received limited operator and vendor support and is expected to see limited adoption. The “One Voice” approach is expected to be the LTE voice standard of the future and has support from all ecosystem players including the GSMA.
LTE networks across the world are being deployed on disparate frequency bands as different regulators free up and auction different spectrum bands. For instance, while TeliaSonera has deployed its LTE network in the 2.6 GHz band, NTT has initially launched services on the 2.1 GHz band and extend coverage using 1.5 GHz; Finland and Hong Kong have allocated the GSM 1800 spectrum for LTE, and 700 MHz is the primary candidate in the US. In fact, even within geographies, there might be a disparity in LTE deployment frequencies. For example, in the US, while Verizon and AT&T are using the 700 MHz band for their LTE roll-out, Clearwire is testing in the 2.6 GHz band.
Despite a global technical standard, LTE deployments lack regulatory consensus on a standard frequency band globally. This poses a real challenge and increases complexity for operators, device manufacturers, and chipset vendors in terms of factors such as roaming difficulties and multi-band support for devices and chipsets.
Ecosystem Related Challenges
Availability of Terminal Devices
As operators start deploying and commercializing their LTE networks, one of the key questions they face is the ready availability of LTE enabled devices. Most operators are rolling out their data-only LTE networks on limited devices such as USB modems due to the lack of a mature device ecosystem. The unavailability of LTE compatible phones, smartphones, and tablets is an opportunity lost for operators in terms of revenue they could have earned from premium pricing.
Multi-mode and multi-band support is another factor which has slowed down the availability of LTE devices. For instance, TeliaSonera launched its first dual-mode LTE and 3G modem a whole 6 months after the launch of its LTE network. Multi-mode (GSM-HSPA-LTE) support is critical for the device to appeal to early technology adopters and help operators acquire a large subscriber base. Similarly, multi-band capabilities are critical for roaming handovers, as LTE will be deployed in multiple RF bands.
Hopefully, this challenge will be overcome as multiple devices are being introducing rapidly.
LTE chipsets ecosystem needs to address key barriers around selection of specific technologies and chipset performance improvement. Support for multiple technical parameters, backward compatibility, and reducing power consumption and chip size are some of the key challenges for chipset vendors. There is a direct correlation between the availability of chipsets and the launch of new LTE capable devices. As the chipset ecosystem for LTE gradually matures, we will see a large number of devices being introduced.
Return on Investment (ROI)
Migration to LTE entails high CAPEX investments when compared to HSPA or HSPA+, due to the high spectrum costs and upgrades in network infrastructure required. Typically, a tier one mobile operator in the UK would need to invest US$750 million in the first year to deploy a LTE network, while an upgrade to HSPA+ may cost just US$250 million. If I talk about India, operators have to pay millions and billions to government for spectrum. The biggest challenge therefore for an operator is to justify the ROI and business case for these high investments in LTE network deployment.
Today, while wireless carriers provide the access channel for provisioning content and various multimedia services on a large number of mobile devices, they hardly earn any share of the revenue pie. Most of the revenues on such services are scooped away by content developers and over-the-top players. Therefore, one of the key operator challenges is to introduce innovative services and pricing models which leverage their advanced LTE network capabilities.