4G services have experienced the fastest adoption rate of any mobile technology in history, with uptake ten times faster than 3G. ABI Research predicts the total number of LTE subscribers worldwide will reach 1.37 billion by year-end and surpass 3.5 billion by 2020.
The higher network speeds, which seem to increase almost quarterly as operators turn to the many flavours of carrier aggregation, are putting heavy demands on operators’ infrastructure and resources as users increasingly view video on their smartphones rather than on TVs.
Mobile video now accounts for up to 75 per cent of total traffic in many markets and is rising. 4K video will require an aggregate downlink rate of at least 30Mb/s, which means a peak rate of more than that. Connected Internet of Things (IoT) devices are forecast to hit 20.8 billion by 2020, according to a Gartner report this week.
GSMA Intelligence predicts that data traffic will rise tenfold between 2014 and 2019. And that is before super-fast networks enable cloud-based services such as artificial intelligence.
As mobile broadband uptake climbs, David Wang (pictured left), Huawei president of wireless networks, said operators will need to double the number of macro cell sites from five million to ten million and boost spectrum per site from the current 120MHz to 300MHz. “Operators will need to on average double their spectrum resources,” he warned.
But operators have a long wait before they have access to 5G frequencies, much less the technology, which we’re frequently reminded won’t be available until 2020 at the very earliest.
Bridging the gap
“We still have five years to go, but the end-user requirements won’t wait for 5G,” Huawei marketing chief Yang Chaobin said. He claims that demand for HD video and emerging IoT services is driving the need for 4.5G deployments.
An early adopter of that technology in the Asia-Pacific region is HKT, the largest mobile operator in Hong Kong, a hyper-connected market with a mobile penetration rate of 220 per cent.
HKT, which has invested heavily in its mobile network as well as fibre, together with Huawei this month demoed a peak download speed as high as 1.2Gb/s using four-band carrier aggregation (CA).
The operator, which expanded its market share from 12 per cent to 36 per cent with the acquisition of CSL from Telstra 18 months ago, showcased the first 4.5G network and strength of its fiber-rich network, said HKT group MD Alex Arena.
“The demo marks the beginning of the 4.5G era of wireless communications, with 1Gb/s as the new mobile broadband network rate benchmark,” said Ken Hu, Huawei’s rotating CEO and deputy chairman. He added that it’s a significant milestone towards the commercial availability of 4.5G, which is expected to be as early as next year.
To keep up with data demand in Hong Kong, which is increasing at more than 50 per cent per year, the operator is preparing for tri-band CA this year and is planning for four-band CA next year. It launched two-component CA, offering a theoretical peak download speed of 300Mb/s, and earlier this year demonstrated three-band CA with a peak downlink rate of 450Mb/s.
Telus in Canada is taking a similar approach. It is working to deploy a 4.5G network and is already preparing for 5G with the goal of building the next-generation city, said Eros Spadotto (pictured, left), EVP of technology strategy and operations at Canada’s third largest operator.
The building blocks to the project, he explained, are heterogeneous networks with dense micro-cell coverage, carrier aggregation, MIMO, SDN and NFV, and fibre to the home as well as for backhaul.
He said by putting in place the building blocks now, particularly fibre backhaul for micro cells, Telus will be prepared to move in four to five years when 5G networks are ready.
It has announced network investments of more than $1 billion in Vancouver and Edmonton, which are being built as next-gen cities. Its next-generation network will enable the next-gen city, but Spadotto said that the level of complexity it is introducing can’t work without plug-and-play. “It has to be easy to deploy.”
One thing that has been elusive across the industry is the convergence of wireless and wireline networks, he said. “5G will be the convergence platform for Telus.”
A number of big name operators across the Asia-Pacific region are trialling Huawei’s 4.5G technology as it touts progress for kit it says can bridge the gap between 4G and 5G.
A year ago at its Mobile Broadband Forum the company made its push into 4.5G, declaring the technology a genuine necessity rather than merely a marketing term.
A year on, the company has announced that China Mobile is testing a 4.5G network in Shanghai and Japan’s SoftBank is trialling the tech in Tokyo.
Adding weight to the case for 4.5G, Huawei’s Yang noted that standards body 3GPP officially approved the technology last month and gave it the moniker LTE Advanced Pro. When questioned by Mobile World Live, Yang said Huawei would likely continue to use the term 4.5G to promote the technology.
Huawei claims 4.5G will reduce latency from the current level of about 40ms to 10ms and provide peak speeds of 1Gb/s. As always, question marks remain over the availability of supporting chipsets and devices.