I managed to get my hands on one of the latest LTE (4G) portable modems from EE – the new name for the Orange and T-Mobile combination cellcos – and have been putting the Huawei 5776 unit through its paces.
In an idle moment at the weekend I downloaded the technical specifications of the unit and nearly dropped my coffee, as along with LTE speeds of up to 150/50 Mbps (upstream/downstream) the unit is as near to what I would call a multi-topology/multi-frequency device as it is possible to get.
When I first started using 3G for my mobile broadband services around seven years ago, I used to joke that we would soon be using handsets that would lock on to the nearest available piece of damp string and upwards to achieve cellular connectivity.
Today – six years after the first iPhone was unveiled – we’re at last starting to reach that situation with mobile cellular. For example, the Huawei 5776 can support both FDD and TDD variants of LTE transmissions, as well as the DC-HSPA+ variant of 3G – supporting data transfer speeds of up to 43.2/5.76 Mbps.
Perhaps more importantly, the unit supports LTE and 3G variant transmissions on a soft frequency basis at 850, 900, 1800, 1900 and 2100 MHz. Put simply – providing the network supports the feature, the unit will support LTE at 900 and 1800 MHz, as well as the more usual 2100 MHz.
This is an important evolution, as the 2100 MHz waveband does not penetrate at all well into buildings. This means that, even though you may get a solid four out of five bars transmission signal near an office window, as you move into the room – and away from the window – the signal quality falls though the floor.
Kings Cross hotel
I was a hotel in London the other week, for example, and – even though the hotel was across the road from Kings Cross – the 4G signal at 2100 MHz was relatively weak, whereas the 3G-900 (MHz) signal was rock solid.
Now, whilst techies like me can go into the Huawei modem’s settings and force the unit to switch network topologies and wavebands, most users would stay on the 4G-2100 (Mhz) frequency and have to put up with fluctuating data transmission speeds of around 0.5 to 1 Mbps.
It was against this backdrop that I read – with great interest – Ofcom’s relaxation of the spectrum usage rules the other week, and which allow the UK networks to pretty well use any cellular network topology on any of their licensed wavebands.
In theory this will allow O2 and Vodafone to refarm their mainstay GSM (2G) wavebands for use with 4G services – allowing the 900 MHz signals to penetrate a long way into most buildings – including my Kings Cross hotel.
But the 1800 MHz waveband is already being extensively refarmed by the world’s cellular carriers for their 4G services, who are only too well aware of the limitations of the 2100 MHz waveband.
According to a report from Wireless Intelligence, in fact, 40pc of the world’s LTE user base now uses the 1800 MHz waveband for its 4G services.
Wireless Intelligence estimates that global LTE connections stood at 39 million as of Q3-2012 – comprising 93 live networks. The research firm predicts that, by the end of 2016, the global LTE market is will increase to more than 500 million connections via more than 200 networks.
However, the report says, LTE adoption is very much dependent on how much new spectrum mobile operators can acquire in the frequency auctions now taking place around the world, as well as how much of their existing 2G/3G spectrum they can refarm for use with 4G services.
The research firm goes on to say that there were 27 live LTE networks worldwide supporting the 1800 MHz waveband as at the end of last year – a figure that it expects to rise substantially as 2013 progresses.
According to Matthew Howett, a principal regulation analyst with fellow research house Ovum, Ofcom’s decision to liberalise the 900, 1800 and 2100 MHz wavebands for use with 4G mobile services will welcomed by operators.
“However, despite operators being able to deploy 4G services in these bands previously restricted to 2G and 3G technologies, most are unlikely to do so in the short term,” he says.
“They would first need to be cleared of their existing use through a process of refarming that would probably takes years rather than months, and so the spectrum recently auctioned by Ofcom will most likely be used for Vodafone, O2 and Three’s initial deployment of 4G services,” he adds.
Howett went on to say that EE was only able to refarm its 1800 MHz spectrum and launch 4G services in this band given their large and contiguous spectrum holding.
“As Ovum’s recent report `The Regulatory Consequences of Spectrum Refarming’ shows, Ofcom’s previous proposals to liberalise the 900 and 1800 MHz (wave)bands for 3G services were famously met with fierce opposition from some parts of the industry, since at one point it implied taking back spectrum from some operators and redistributing it to others in order to more fairly distribute the benefits that operators get from the refarming,” he says.
“Arguably those proposals heavily contributed to the delays the UK saw with starting its 4G auction which finally concluded earlier this year,” he adds.
Howett argues that as mobile technologies advance and demand for mobile data traffic increases, regulators have acted to liberalise certain spectrum bands from previous technological restrictions.
Many regulators, he says, have updated the conditions of the licenses to accommodate the principle of technological neutrality – which removes restrictions on spectrum use and allows operators to deploy other technologies in these bands.
“This is a positive move, a market-based management mechanism that lets the users of radio spectrum decide its real economic value and the best way to use it,” he explained.
In fact, the Ovum analyst notes, several mobile network operators have taken advantage of this decision to deploy 3G services, as this approach can deliver cost savings as fewer base stations are needed, and improve 3G coverage.
“On occasion, refarming has also helped operators to steal a march on the competition by rolling out 4G ahead of their rivals,” he concludes.
Will we see 4G services being rolled out faster as a result of these changes in the short-term?
Quite frankly I doubt it, but the fact that the cellcos can refarm their wavebands for use on their 4G – as well as their 3G – services will almost certainly redouble the efforts of the UK carriers as they roll out their initial 4G portfolio of services.
And that is no bad thing.