TDD Camp Sets Out Global Ambitions

HONG KONG -- There's no doubting the ambitions of the Long Term Evolution Time Division Duplex (LTE TDD) crowd.

"Our belief is, LTE is the next GSM," Bill Huang, general manager of China Mobile Ltd. (NYSE: CHL)'s Research Institute, told a packed seminar organized by Global TD-LTE Initiative (GTI), the industry body set up to promote the technology.

Huang said that by 2013, GTI's operator members will have 39 percent of the world's mobile population covered. "But I think it's not enough. We can cover 50 percent by 2015, or something close to that."

He also thinks China Mobile should go head-to-head with fixed-line broadband using TDD, "as long as we can get our costs down."

Justified or not, the confidence around TDD contrasts with the standard's forerunner, China's home-grown 3G standard TD-SCDMA, which failed to gain traction outside its 'home' market: The Chinese government mandated China Mobile to build a TD-SCDMA network, which is still the world's only deployment. In three years it has attracted a relatively paltry 43.2 million users, just 7 percent of the operator's wireless customer base (as of Sept. 2011). (See China Mobile Crunches Its Capex, China’s Operators Prep Next 3G Wave and China Awards 3G Licenses.)

The experience has evidently scarred China Mobile, which has been championing LTE TDD for several years now, seeking and building support for the technology so that when it migrates from TD-SCDMA to LTE it's not left alone to support a technology ecosystem. Thanks largely to its efforts, LTE TDD is riding a wave of industry support: A dozen chip firms are designing LTE TDD products and the GSM Association (GSMA) is pushing for the world's mobile device manufacturers to integrate support for both FDD and TDD LTE in their future products. (See GSMA: Dual-Mode a Must for LTE Devices.)

Nicole McCormick, a senior analyst at Ovum Ltd. , says China Mobile guided the technology through the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards process and was instrumental in gaining the support of other influential operators such as Japan's SoftBank Mobile Corp. , India's Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL) and Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD). In addition, China Mobile helped form the GTI, headed by former GSMA chairman Craig Erlich, and persuaded some WiMax operators, such as Malaysia's Packet One Networks (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd. (P1) and Australia's vividwireless Pty Ltd. to climb aboard. (See P1 Joins Global LTE TDD Group, Another WiMax Operator Converts to LTE, Going WiMax to LTE Down Under and GSMA Names New Chairman.)

The great unpaired
LTE TDD's big draw is that it can be deployed by those operators holding licenses for unpaired spectrum, which is currently used to provide WiMax services. FDD's paired channels work well for voice but are wasteful for data, which is mostly asymmetrical in nature. Additionally, the guard bands in FDD mean up to 30 percent of it is not used, compared with about 10 percent for TDD.

Those capabilities, and the availability of unpaired spectrum, has resulted in a growing interest in LTE TDD -- something reflected in the rising prices paid in spectrum auctions, according to Donald Lu, Beijing-based executive director of global investment research for Goldman Sachs & Co. "It's the unpaired spectrum that has made the difference. The value of unpaired has increased by comparison to paired," he said.

That said, the majority of awarded spectrum is of the FDD variety: Of the 185 LTE network projects underway globally, just 33 are trialing LTE TDD and of those only about 10 have absolutely committed to the technology, according to the Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) . And as Ovum's McCormick notes, while the FDD players might supplement their existing spectrum with TDD licenses, they're not going to switch from one to the other.

As a result the global LTE TDD market is not set to be enormous for the coming few years, at least while the ecosystem continues to grow. Goldman Sachs estimates that global LTE TDD capex will total US$15-20 billion during the 2012-2014 timeframe, while 40 million devices will likely be shipped.

— Robert Clark, freelance editor, special to Light Reading

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