Road Testing LTE

A preview of the world's first commercial LTE network shows that LTE is ready to take mobile broadband performance to the next level

October 12, 2010

4 Min Read
Road Testing LTE

I've seen the future – and wow, it's fast. I had the chance to see one of the world's first commercial LTE networks in action in Norway a couple of weeks ago and was deeply impressed by its performance and stability.

The caveat is that I didn't get to actually use the service myself. I witnessed a demonstration of the Telia Company -owned NetCom AS LTE service while someone else ran tests on a laptop computer as we drove through the streets of central Oslo, Norway.

As far as everyone in the vehicle – including senior network engineers from operators around the world – could see, the demonstration was genuine. A standard Samsung Corp. LTE dongle was used, and there was no specialist antenna or other non-commercial enhancement that could've been used to inflate the results, as is sometimes the case in drive demos.

The network is deployed on Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. eNodeB equipment running the latest commercial software (released just weeks previously – hence the demonstration). It operates at 2.6GHz using 2x20 MHz bandwidth and 2x2 MIMO. I'm not sure if the number of live base stations has been publicly revealed, but coverage across the center of the city is pretty good for a Phase 1 deployment, especially outdoors.

We observed peak rates of 72 Mbit/s a few times during the demonstration, which is about what I'd expected from seeing pre-commercial test networks. It probably would've gone a touch higher to 80 Mbit/s if we had parked right next to a tower, but that wasn't the aim of the demonstration.

What really impressed was a solid 10Mbit/s downlink performance while on the move at normal city traffic speeds. Handover between cells appeared to work very well, and I didn't notice any glitches in the high-definition video streams we were shown. This is a notable improvement over trial LTE networks. Making handover work reliably in OFDM systems is challenging, and this is apparently one of the key features of Huawei's new eNodeB software release.

The route was several kilometers long and, while the demonstration obviously took place where there's good coverage, at times the signal did fade and performance dropped. As far as I could tell, it seemed like a fairly ordinary drive around Oslo, albeit one designed to showcase the service.

Latency was around 25 to 35 milliseconds. This is nothing short of incredible in a wide-area broadband wireless system and compares favorably to the 100 milliseconds seen in the better 3G networks. It's something an end user would definitely notice and makes LTE feel more like using WiFi on a decent broadband connection (with added mobility, of course) than 3G.

The uplink demonstrations didn't really give enough of an idea for me to say with confidence what performance would be like, but what I did see looked okay.

The applications we were shown included Web browsing, YouTube streaming, and some HD movie streams from a dedicated test server. We were also able to request a few speed test checks on the popular broadband benchmarking Websites. One of the sites, requested by several of the operators in the vehicle, is endorsed by the Swedish regulator as a way for consumers to check the actual broadband speeds they're getting from their ISPs.

What I didn't find out is what the service is like in everyday use – for example, in indoor locations, where I would expect performance to suffer. This type of controlled demonstration gives a pretty good idea of what a commercial LTE service is like, but it's not the same as having a device you can test over a couple of weeks in real-world conditions. It's also important to note that the network is currently very lightly loaded (that's the only way you can get to 70-80 Mbit/s).

All in all it was a very impressive demonstration. I found it interesting to compare the state of this LTE service to the UMTS and various HSPA services I've tested at commercial launch over the years. (See Review: Vodafone's 3G Data Card and The Fastest 3G Yet).

All were breakthroughs in their way, and I've now seen with my own eyes that LTE does today what 3G did then – it takes mobile broadband performance to the next level.

— Gabriel Brown, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

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