LTE, 4G and the implications of the latest Ofcom ruling

Posted by Ross Coundon on September 5, 2012

Yesterday, Ofcom announced that Everything Everywhere was to be allowed to use portions of its existing spectrum to begin to rollout its 4G service as early as September.

This has angered EE’s competitors with both O2 and Vodafone voicing their views that giving EE a head-start is anti-competitive. O2, Vodafone and 3 will need to wait until the government auctions off additional spectrum frequencies, hoped to be next year, before they can roll out 4G commercially. Everything Everywhere was created by the merger between Orange and T-Mobile, by integrating the networks it has the option of freeing up some frequencies for use for 4G, something that its competitors cannot do.

Their concerns are borne out by what has happened elsewhere in the world (the UK is rather late to the 4G party) where those companies that were given a head-start experienced a significant competitive advantage.

So, with all this talk about 4G, what is it and what does this all this mean for the consumers and businesses that rely upon mobile technology for their daily lives and work?

LTE means Long Term Evolution, a particularly poor acronym that describes nothing about its meaning. LTEis one form of 4G that is the most natural upgrade for those networks that run a GSM or HSPA network (such as all those mobile networks in the UK). Chiefly it will provide much improved data transmission speed and network capacity. For example, for EE’s first rollout of 4G it is expected that data transmission speeds will be roughly 5x faster than what is currently possible with 3G.

Just as GSM received an upgrade to EDGE and 3G received an upgrade to HSDPA (sometimes termed 3.5G) in order to improve speeds, LTE can be further improved to offer speeds more than 10x faster than 3G.

So what are the benefits of 4G LTE?

Home broadband

Theoretically LTE could offer download speeds of up to 300Mbit/s, far in excess of what can be supplied by even the fasted UK wired home broadband connections. Many locations in the UK are without high speed broadband due to their remoteness and the associated cost of BT or Virgin Media running cables into these areas. Providing mobile broadband to customers in these areas will ultimately prove to be cheaper to provide than cable or ADSL allowing these communities to be able to fully enter the digital age. For those of us who have adequate ADSL or cable broadband the provision of a 4G option will challenge the dominance of Virgin Media and BT providing new competition which should hopefully benefit the consumer in terms of cost, speed and new innovation.

Network Simplicity

Most modern mobile phone networks are built using a mixture of technologies- IP/MPLS, TDM, ATM and Frame Relay (it’s not important to understand what these are). As with any integrated solution, the fewer technologies involved in the stack, the more simple it is to maintain. Building an LTE network requires an all IP/MPLS solution. Some networks, such as Vodafone, have been moving in this direction in order to help smooth the transition to 4G and reduce their costs.

By building out 4G capability the networks should, in time, be cheaper to run and more reliable due to this simplification of the technology stack.

User Experience

Unlike 3G, a Quality of Service (QoS) provision can be applied to LTE. This means that the latency in transfer of data is far reduced and is therefore made more reliable. With download speeds of up to 300Mbit/S and theoretical uploads speeds of up to 75Mbit/s LTE will provide a vastly improved experience for users. Downloading or uploading video or high resolution images to mobile devices will no longer have to be the preserve of wi-fi.

A common complaint for current mobile users is the reliability of calls or data transmission when travelling quickly, in a car or on a train, for example. LTE is designed to be far better at handling moving devices than 3G or 2G and so we can hope that the days of dropped calls while on our hands-free car kits or on trains will be a thing of the past. In fact, the specification deals with moving handsets in excess of 220mph.

Theoretically an LTE enabled phone will have a longer battery life due to the way the transmission protocols are designed as they require less power than existing technologies.

A broader range of frequencies can be used for LTE 4G meaning that in rural areas lower frequencies bands can be used in order to provide far better coverage for these more remote areas. In built up areas, very high frequencies can be used in order to better penetrate buildings and again, provide better coverage.

Voice call audio quality will be improved. Analogous to VoIP clients such as Skype, LTE makes use of IP for voice calls. Due to the large bandwidth a high definition codec can be used to encode and decode the voice during calls meaning much improved sound clarity.

Additional Services

The LTE specification allows the broadcast of televisual content. This means that television broadcast companies could decide to provide content via the mobile network rather than using the likes of DVB (e.g. FreeView) or FreeSat.

The possibilities for those companies that rely upon mobile for managing their workforces are exciting. Imagine a situation where a new engineer in your company is sent to fix a problem for the first time. That engineer can share a high definition video with a senior engineer in the depot and be talked through the resolution of that problem. Allowing employees to collaborate in this way will help reduce the company’s costs by allowing a single senior engineer to support numerous junior engineers. Customer service is improved because the first time fix rate will rise and junior engineers receive effective, on-the-job training and support resulting in improved skill levels across the workforce. This is just one example of how faster mobile networks can be put to use for business.

I hope this has shown you that there are many benefits to consumers and businesses of embracing LTE4G. For various reasons the UK has been left behind somewhat in the rollout of this technology and I hope the government moves quickly to auction the licences so that we can produce a truly competitive market and see the innovation that will drive the next wave of mobile.