LONDON -- Global Mobile Broadband Forum 2017 -- Carriers don't need to wait until 5G arrives before they can tap into gigabit speeds, ultra-low latency times and exploit new revenue streams. Why? Because there's plenty of room for innovation on the LTE platform.
This was a key message at the '4.5G Evolution, Road to 5G Summit,' hosted by Huawei Technologies, at the Global Mobile Broadband Forum. "When we see the requirements coming from verticals, should we really wait for 5G?" asked Veni Shone, president of Huawei's LTE product line. "The answer is no."
Zhang WenLin, president of Huawei's corporate strategy, was similarly enthusiastic about carriers taking advantage of the latest capacity-enhancing '4.5G' techniques surrounding massive MIMO (multiple-input, multiple output) antenna configurations, carrier aggregation (CA) involving three or more carrier components (CCs), and 256-QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation).
"There are so many services and opportunities", said Zhang. He argued that by embarking now on delivering enhanced consumer experiences and preparing business verticals for 5G, carriers can start laying the foundations of future 5G customer relationships.
"In all our products we have a principle, or tradition, where we adopt the new technology and the good ideas -- the future ideas -- into our current networks and products," claimed Zhang. "This is what we're doing with LTE. This is the way we're developing our solutions with our customer and industry partners. I envisage that the next ten years will be a golden era for LTE to keep on evolving towards 5G."
Speakers at the Summit included senior executives from a number of Huawei's carrier partners from around the world: EE (UK), Elisa (Finland), Softbank (Japan), Sunrise (Switzerland), Telefonica O2 (Germany) and UK-headquartered Vodafone Group. Each are in the process of 'scaling up' their networks into gigabit territory to meet growing customer demand for data as they embark on the 'road to 5G.'
In many cases they are using a combination of FDD and TDD airwaves to fully exploit their spectrum assets. Enabling massive MIMO on TDD frequencies has long been a major push by Huawei to complement FDD developments. "We can deliver [massive MIMO] on most mainstream TDD bands," asserted Veni, highlighting capability at 2.3GHz, 2.6GHz and 3.5GHz. Huawei is also focusing on 1800MHz FDD frequencies to support massive MIMO.
"It's a great opportunity to maximise massive MIMO performance by decoupling the uplink and downlink," said David Salam, EE's director of mobile core and data analytics. EE is using TDD at 3.5GHz on the downlink, and FDD at 1.8MHz on the uplink, to support its massive MIMO deployment. He said that recent LTE advances, in the shape of 4x4 MIMO and 256QAM, had given EE least a 30% uplift in terms of performance and throughput.
"MIMO capability is already giving you gigabit speeds, which is key to taking your 4G level network up to the standard of the 5G network so that all across the country you get an uplift in the experience," said Salam. "It's really important that 4G becomes an absolute foundation to underpin 5G when you are ready to launch."
Jaime Lluch, radio access network director at Telefónica O2 in Germany, lauded the "excellent results" from outdoor massive MIMO trials done in conjunction with Huawei. Running 16 terminals simultaneously over a 20MHz chunk of 3.5GHz LTE TDD spectrum, peak downlink rates of 650 Mbit/s were achieved. Telefónica said the trial was an important milestone passed by the Munich-based TechCity project. Launched jointly by Telefonica and Huawei, the aim of the TechCity is to test and deploy 4.5G Evolution and 5G technologies.
Shone said it was possible to get peak LTE data speeds of up to 2 Gbit/s, and boost average speeds into the bargain. "If we can better use our resources, we can reach average speeds of 150 Mbit/s, and maybe 200 Mbit/s, on the 4G network," he said.
These projections will no doubt please Vesa-Pekka Nikula, EVP of production at Elisa. His aim is to increase LTE capacity, ahead of 5G deployment, now that population coverage of 4G is pretty much completed at around 99%.
He thinks there is a natural progression in consumer demand for data, and that it would be a big mistake to hang around to meet that demand until 5G comes on the scene. It would be a missed opportunity. "The basic drivers [for mobile broadband] are there, so we shouldn't worry about the drivers," he said. "There will be an ever increasing demand for mobile broadband through video, VR, AR, IoT and the cloud."
Elisa appears to be bucking an industry trend, since its mobile service revenues are still growing in the high-single percentage digits. The operator offers unlimited data plans, but there are speed tiers. Consumers must pay more for the faster speeds, with the top package currently offering 450 Mbit/s. Elisa, then, has a business case based around the monetization of faster mobile broadband speeds.
For the business case to work, however, the Elisa man said that the LTE network needed to be in good shape. Using Huawei kit, he thinks it is. "Quality is key," he said. "Customers moving from one speed tier to the next must notice the difference. The business model does not work otherwise."
Elmar Grasser, CTO of Sunrise, said he was also seeing dividends from having a robust network that can handle sharp growth in data traffic volumes. "Switzerland is a quality-obsessed country," he noted. "It's not easy to beat the incumbent, but with the Huawei team we were able to beat them [in recent network performance tests]". Grasser said Sunrise's network performance scores were on an upward trajectory, "just like the company's stock price".
Diversifying into new services and tapping new revenue streams -- scaling out -- was flagged by both Softbank and Vodafone in the summit as a strategic play.
Makoto Noda, VP of Softbank's mobile network division, enthused about Huawei's ability to support Softbank Air, an LTE-based fixed wireless service that competes directly with FTTH offerings in Japan.
"SoftBank Air needs to cope with traffic data volumes associated with FTTH, which is about 20 times more than the normal mobile data usage," said Noda. "Customers don't want a different experience. It gives us another revenue source."
For its latest Softbank Air CPE equipment, 4x4 MIMO is deployed using 2.5GHz and 3.5GHz TDD spectrum. 2.1GHz is kept for wide area coverage. "We want to use our TDD band resource as much as possible to protect the smartphone experience," said Noda.
On the back of its MIMO trials in Germany, Lluch also flagged fixed wireless access as an area that mobile operators could now move into on the back of LTE technology advances.
Lory Thorpe, head of innovation & prototyping at Vodafone Group Enterprise, flagged narrowband-IoT, a 3GPP-backed standard for LPWA (low power wide area) networks, as the "first step to towards meeting the 5G massive machine tech communication requirements, and a fundamental step in journey towards 5G".
Following its first commercial NB-IoT launch in Spain, in January 2017, Vodafone Group has launched the LPWA standard in six markets. Huawei has been a key Vodafone partner throughout. In April 2016, Vodafone and Huawei set up an NB IoT Open Lab at the Group's Newbury, UK facility. The lab is intended to grow the NB IoT ecosystem by engaging with developer communities, module and chipset manufacturers, and various vertical industries. In February 2017, Vodafone opened another NB IoT Open Lab in Düsseldorf, Germany, in which Huawei is also involved.
Other services flagged by Huawei's Shone as having huge LTE potential included the connected car and video surveillance. He said it was a misconception that the connected car is really only suited to 5G because of its associated ultra-low latencies. Advances in LTE technologies, he said, could trim latency times to a sprightly 3ms. Camera surveillance, through the use of 'idle resources' on the LTE uplink, also gives operators the chance to enter into a new market.
Shone argued that LTE, bearing in mind VoLTE capability, was capable of offering carriers a 'full service' platform, obviating the need to run 2G and 3G networks simultaneously. This, he said, hiked up opex.
Indeed, controlling opex was an important theme of Shone's presentation. How do you manage data volume growth and multiple services without opex spiralling out of control? "Network intelligence is the only out for full services operation," he said. "A Wireless Intelligence-powered cognitive network that can re-allocate resources automatically to new services is something we've been working on with our operator partners. This target can't wait for 5G. 4G is the singularity for this type of wireless intelligence. We expect this intelligence will start to happen in the network next year."
The summit also drew attention to some clever small-cell Huawei innovations on the LTE path towards 5G. Nicolas Keutgen, chief Innovation and marketing officer at Schreder Group, an LED lighting specialist, is working with the Chinese supplier on developing its Shuffle Site product. An advance to its Shuffle product, a 'pole' that can accommodate various modules for smart city implementations (such as lights, security camera, loud speakers, EV charger), the 'site' product adds antenna and base station modules. In this way, it helps operators improve network coverage in dense areas without the need to secure extra sites: It uses existing infrastructure.
Ritchie Peng, president of Huawei's small cell product line, presented the latest iteration of Lampsite, the supplier's indoor small-cell solution, as much more suited to the 5G environment than traditional distributed antenna systems (DAS), which, Peng said, would suffer significant signal propagation difficulties when using the higher frequency bands associated with 5G.
Still some way to go
According to Joe Barrett, president of the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), which gathers market intelligence, only 28 carriers currently fulfil the LTE-Advanced Pro spec as set out by the 3GPP. This comprises at least 3 CC, 4x4 MIMO or above, and 256QAM in the downlink. "Only these operators are already deploying a gigabit LTE network in our opinion," he said.
It suggests that Huawei's summit was a timely one.
This article was sponsored by Huawei Technologies.
— Ken Wieland, Contributing Editor, Light Reading