PARTNER FEATURE – GSMA THRIVE 2020: Industry experts highlighted 4G as a critical foundation for operators’ 5G efforts during an LTE Summit, noting the technology provides key revenue streams and network benefits which will strengthen next generation deployments.

While much attention is given to 5G, speakers at the event pointed out 4G will continue to be the driving force behind global connectivity for the next several years.

Emmanuel Coelho Alves, CTO of Huawei’s wireless product line, noted 4G coverage is currently available to more than 80 per cent of the global population and more than half of all mobile data connections are carried on 4G.

More than that, though, he said the technology is a key revenue driver for operators, with three-quarters of their income expected to come from 4G connectivity in 2020 as well as in 2021 and 2022.

Peter Jarich, head of GSMA Intelligence, said 5G adoption is growing fast, with the technology forecast to account for around 50 per cent of connections in developed markets including North America, China and other parts of Asia by 2025. But he added “between now and then, and even when we get to 2025, LTE will be doing the heavy lifting…It will still remain the most important connectivity technology when we’re looking forward five years from now”.

5G head start
In addition to offering benefits on its own, the speakers noted 4G will provide a critical foundation for 5G, both in terms of network coverage and capacity and use cases which can easily be transitioned to next generation services.

Coelho Alves explained 4G can be used to boost the 5G experience, in combining both 4G and 5G New Radio speeds together based on a standardized 3GPP E-UTRAN New Radio Dual Connectivity solution, with legacy spectrum leveraged to help provide faster next generation speeds using technologies such as dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) and E-UTRAN New Radio-Dual Connectivity (EN-DC).

He provided an example from the UK, noting operator BT was able to secure a lead position as a 5G network provider in the country during 2019 despite having less next-generation spectrum than its competitors because it was able to tap its large reserve of 4G spectrum holdings using EN-DC. This allowed it to offer average downlink speeds of 185Mb/s, he added.

The Huawei executive said technologies which currently help deliver widespread 4G coverage can also be turned into a 5G advantage: “We do see today that 4G has extremely powerful capabilities already in place. For example, 4T4R has already been deployed in the past few years on 4G, which is an extremely good asset when you go later to 5G.”

Michael Martin, director of radio, transport and network operations for Switzerland’s Sunrise Communications, warned it is important for operators to take the time to lay the right 4G layer before abandoning the technology in favour of 5G deployments.

“If you do not have the proper 4G network with very good coverage and very good quality in all available frequencies then you should better not start building 5G on top of it because if you have a lousy 4G network then you will ultimately have a lousy 5G network.”

Growing 4G
The summit highlighted two operators that are hard at work building strong 4G networks: India’s Bharti Airtel and China Telecom.

Sandeep Gupta, EVP at Bharti Airtel, detailed the company’s effort to sunset its 3G network in order to allocate more of its spectrum assets to 4G, explaining the transition was driven by a rapid increase in 4G handset penetration and data consumption in recent years.

He said 3G devices accounted for 85 per cent of phones on its network four years ago, but by the end of 2019 that figure dropped to approximately 5 per cent. As more users obtained 4G devices, Gupta said data consumption on its fledgling 4G network skyrocketed, with a cumulative annual growth rate of between 70 per cent and 90 per cent over the past four years.

“Obviously that’s challenging in a way because we need to find ways to solve this 4G data subscriber consumption on the 4G network while we’re seeing that the 3G consumption was going down.”

One major obstacle was that before Bharti Airtel launched Voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) in 2017, the majority of its voice traffic was carried over its 3G network. So it had to work quickly to get 4G handsets into subscribers’ hands and transition that flow over to LTE in order to recycle its 3G spectrum.

With both of those objectives achieved, he said Bharti Airtel was able to shut down its 3G network last year, allowing it to use 25 per cent more spectrum and 33 per cent more cell sites for 4G.

Shaoai Shen, an adviser for China Telecom Group, noted it is also pursuing a strategy focused on reusing 2G and 3G spectrum for VoLTE, with the goal of hitting 200 million VoLTE subscribers by the end of 2020. She said a key focus there has been working with industry partners to make compatible feature phones available to subscribers at a very low cost, in some cases as little as CNY100 (approximately $14), including the support of VoLTE functionality.

Putting 4G to work
Coelho Alves and Martin both pointed to fixed wireless access (FWA) as an example of a use case that can help operators drive revenue from their 4G networks and easily be adapted to 5G.

The Huawei executive provided examples of three global operators already using 4G to deliver FWA services, including Globe in the Philippines; Telkom South Africa; and Dialog in Sri Lanka.

He noted Globe turned to 4G FWA as a way to gain competitive price positioning and time to market advantages as it sought to rapidly grow its home broadband business in the country, adding the broadband segment currently accounts for a significant percentage of the operator’s income. Dialog Sri Lanka similarly used 4G FWA to expand its home broadband market share and benefit from higher ARPU levels.

In Switzerland, Martin said the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic recently acted as a catalyst for FWA uptake, as subscribers previously hesitant to adopt the technology decided to try it in order to meet a need for better home broadband.

“We’ve been able to prove that our 4G mobile network, as well as the 5G of course, is able to deliver at least the same quality [as cable broadband], in most cases even better quality.”

4G for good
Sean Doral, ITU programme officer for digital inclusion, also highlighted the important role of widespread connectivity from 4G and other technologies in closing the digital divide. He declared broadband “vital” to achieving the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, noting it can be used to help improve education, gender equality, agriculture, healthcare and the economy.

While connecting the 3.9 billion people across the globe who remain offline is critical, he argued “digital inclusion is not just about connecting people”.

“We need to continuously train people to use ICT in a more meaningful way…The digital economy is expected to be creating a lot of job opportunities, tens of millions, and we need people with advanced digital skills to be able to support it at the end of the day.”