NEW BLOG: While it is true that spectrum is a scarce resource that operators can’t get enough of, it’s also true that not all spectrum is equally loved. While demand for the mainstream frequencies have led to bumper auction bidding worldwide, others have been less widely adopted.
One such band is 450MHz, which, nevertheless, is being used by a number of operators globally – albeit with significant gaps including much of Western Europe and the US. The technology of choice for these operators is CDMA 450MHz, with figures from Mobility Development Group (formerly CDMA Development Group) indicating it is used by 115 operators in 60 countries, in all regions except North America.
But, with CDMA having had its time in the sun, the industry is looking to LTE to provide a path forward for 450MHz. Touted benefits include improved speeds, increased capacity and reduced latency.
So why 450MHz? The inherent advantage of the spectrum band is coverage. Compared with higher bands, it requires a smaller number of base stations to give a broad reach, meaning there are economic benefits when it comes to covering large areas with a dispersed population. And while providing mobile broadband connectivity in remote areas is one key application for the technology, there is another area where it can shine: M2M.
Applications such as smart meters don’t require much in terms of bandwidth, but do need connectivity even in remote areas. And some industries, such as logistics, agriculture, forestry and mining, frequently focus on areas with small populations, where “traditional” mobile coverage does not make sense.
With mainstream consumer devices not including LTE 450MHz support (and unlikely to do so at any point soon), this band is also largely free of congestion, while having the potential to offload M2M traffic away from the premium frequency bands – leaving capacity for more lucrative services.
The trailblazer for LTE 450MHz is Ukko Mobile, which launched its network in Finland late in 2014. Using infrastructure from Huawei, it launched with 99.9 per cent coverage – putting it in top spot in the market using that metric.
The operator is focusing on enterprise, government and transport sectors, while also “targeting more remote areas and locations with sporadic peaks in demand, such as the 700,000 summer cottages in Finland”.
Alcatel-Lucent has also announced a deal with AINMT Holdings to deploy LTE 450MHz technology for its ice.net business in Norway.
At Huawei’s Global Analyst Summit in Shenzhen last week, I was able to catch up with the company about its efforts in this space – along with Alcatel-Lucent, it is one of the most active vendors both in CDMA 450MHz and LTE 450MHz.
According to the Chinese company, this year could see more players in the 450MHz camp making decisions with regard to their upgrade paths. Markets in Eastern and Northern Europe are likely to lead the way, with likely candidates including Poland, Denmark and Sweden.
And there are some other big markets in the pipeline, including Brazil and Russia. China may also be a possibility in the future, although at least for the time being the focus is on the more popular bands being used by operators to support their “mainstream” 4G rollouts.
Of course, there are always downsides, and in the case of 450MHz, frequency allocations are small – presenting a challenge for vendors and operators alike. With many operators already having a sizable installed CDMA 450MHz customer base, including lucrative enterprise customers, continued support for these deployments is a must.
Despite the limited spectrum available for 450MHz operators (sub 5MHz), Huawei said it is possible to migrate to a split arrangement, with two carriers assigned to LTE and one to CDMA. Then, with time, customers can be migrated to the newer network.
Even with the limited resource assigned to LTE under this arrangement, there is the scope for performance benefits in the early days.
In addition, legacy network resources can be used while rolling out LTE 450MHz, to preserve existing investments and reduce additional costs. Reuse of remote radio units and antennas also significantly simplifies deployment.
Of course, for any technology away from the mainstream, there is the issue of building ecosystem momentum. This is especially true of the current situation, where the lack of firm operator rollout plans means there is little in the way of a market for device makers.
But Eran Eshed, co-founder and VP of marketing and business development at Altair Semiconductor, has a positive view of the market.
“The size of the opportunity, in my opinion, is just large enough to attract a number of key players that will sustain a good business and keep economies under control. There are already two tier-one infrastructure vendors with LTE 450MHz products, as well as two chipset companies. We have more than a handful of customers already building products, so this is really not an issue,” he told Mobile World Live.
“The technology works – this is proven and not debatable at this point in time. Ecosystem is the next challenge, and I’m glad to say that from a chipset perspective, only Altair and Qualcomm are in the game – and our (Altair’s) products, being LTE-only, are much more attractive to customers,” Eshed continued.
With future development in the LTE 450MHz market set to include support for Category 0 terminals, enabling the delivery of low-cost devices for M2M applications, handsets supporting push to talk, and carrier aggregation with 800MHz and 1800MHz LTE networks, there is certainly plenty to appeal to operators as they make their decisions for 450MHz spectrum.
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.