LTE- Advanced: It's Closer Than You Think
As the UK and Europe commits to 4G (LTE) technology, its successor LTE-A (LTE-Advanced) is already waiting in the wings to deliver the equivalent of a fixed-line broadband experience to the end user, promising peak data rates of around 3 Gbps. With LTE-A, services and applications such as HD streaming, online gaming and video conferencing will become standard offerings. Mobile operators will finally be able to provide a platform for wireless services that will be the equivalent of 'fibre to your phone'. This is the view of Paul Beaver, Products Director at Anite the LTE device testing company. However, according to Beaver achieving peak data rates of 3 Gbps over a mobile network poses one of the biggest challenges the industry has ever had to face.
Higher data rates are achieved through higher bandwidths, by using carrier aggregation and evolved antenna configurations. In order to support highly intensive data sessions, LTE-A can utilise multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) transmit and receive antennas in both base stations and devices. Up to eight antennas in the base station and up to four in the wireless device can be employed to improve single user peak data rates, maximising the potential of LTE-A. The advent of this new (LTE-A) technology with the need for up to four antennas in devices could lead to changes in the design and form factor of wireless devices in order to house additional components and may even lead to new device categories and wireless technology applications. Indeed, the development of design innovations for form factors that house four antennas is already underway.
The much wider transmission bandwidth is achieved through carrier aggregation, whereby a base station groups several radio channels of the kind currently used by LTE and treats them as if they were a single high-bandwidth ‘pipe’. Carrier aggregation and MIMO will therefore give rise to an even more complicated radio environment for LTE-A than its predecessor. If LTE-A is going to deliver on the promise of peak data rates equivalent to fixed line broadband, operators, chipset manufacturers, device vendors and the test industry need to collaborate to ensure the ecosystem works together to achieve the successful introduction of this new technology.
Beaver believes that the industry will need to adopt a rigorous lab-based testing to ensure the market readiness of LTE-A devices. Future LTE-A products can be put through their paces, and their performance measured, with no actual network required. Significant savings can be generated by this approach at the time of launch and over the lifetime of the device.
In terms of the timescale for LTE-A’s eventual deployment, according to Beaver there is no concrete answer. However, if you take recent 3GPP releases as a guideline, there is typically a development period of around two to three years, covering the finalisation of a release to the initial network trials and deployments. LTE-A is a release 10 specification, so the industry is undoubtedly getting ever closer to early adopter trial programmes and roll-outs. It is likely that a limited amount of LTE-A features will be rolled-out in early 2013, but the wider industry generally estimates that upgrade migration is likely to start in mid-2013, with the availability of the first production grade LTE-A enabled handset. Beyond this, LTE-A is likely to continue rolling out in earnest throughout 2014/15 and beyond.