Gigabit LTE is growing fast, faster than any previous 3GPP release. The ratification of LTE-Advanced Pro took place during March 2016, and it was only eight months after, in January 2017 that the first Gigabit LTE network was lit in Australia, by Telstra. Now, 43 operators have embraced the technology and about 17 commercially available devices, including 11 smartphones, are powered by Gigabit LTE modems. The most important benefits of Gigabit LTE are enhanced speeds and network performance, not only in the center of the cell where signal conditions are excellent but also under moderate and weak signal conditions near the edge of the cell. While Gigabit LTE supports theoretical peak speeds of 1Gbps, due to several factors such as the location in the cell, number of users with simultaneous active sessions, signal condition, and backhaul network theoretical speeds are never achieved. With Gigabit LTE, however, it has been reported that a typical user could receive peak speeds of up to 300Mbps, compared with less than 10Mbps on LTE networks.
While improved speeds are essential, addressing one of the key network performance issues – network congestion – is perhaps even more critical to ensure optimum usage of network resources. Gigabit LTE with its three defining technologies of 4X4MIMO, 256QAM, and 3+ carrier aggregation (CA) with a minimum aggregated bandwidth of 60MHz, allows operators to improve network performance without having to invest in acquiring new spectrum or employing one of the traditional cell splitting or cell sectoring methods. And most importantly, 256QAM is mostly a software upgrade, which brings immediate benefits without major CAPEX investment. The hardware aspects of Gigabit LTE – 4×4 MIMO and 3+ CA – are also essential to prepare cell sites for 5G and more advanced features. With the first 5G commercial deployments expected in 2019, Gigabit LTE offers operators the opportunity to launch Gigabit LTE before 5G and continue the roll-out network-wide as they launch 5G to ensure a ubiquitous coverage layer.
In the end, though, one of the most important aspects of Gigabit LTE is that operators utilize their most precious assets more efficiently: cellular spectrum. The utilization and efficiency of licensed spectrum is enhanced with the technologies outlined above and operators that are unable to use licensed spectrum can also leverage unlicensed spectrum via Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) technology ratified in the same 3GPP release. LAA is currently based on the 5GHz unlicensed spectrum, but the availability of unlicensed spectrum above 6 GHz makes this solution viable in the long-term. The wide availability of unlicensed spectrum can make Gigabit LTE deployable over the next year by 90 percent of world’s operators with just 10MHz of licensed spectrum.
Commercial deployments of Gigabit LTE
Not only have the number of Gigabit LTE trials picked up since the beginning of 2017, but also initial deployments of Gigabit LTE networks. Commercial launches have taken place in Australia, Singapore, China, Hong Kong, United States and networks are in deployment in dozens of countries. Many LTE-Advanced operators have already laid out plans to upgrade to Gigabit LTE soon, including SK Telecom in Korea who offers up to 900Mbps theoretical download speed today, with plans to upgrade to Gigabit LTE by 2019.
Most recently, T-Mobile and Qualcomm held a demo of T-Mobile’s Gigabit LTE service in California. While T-Mobile’s Gigabit LTE service has been available in several of its cities since the launch of Gigabit LTE capable Samsung Galaxy S8 smartphones, this demo marked the first official announcement on the service. T-Mobile plans to continue rolling out Gigabit LTE in 2018, primarily using LAA. T-Mobile’s launch is also a significant milestone in the adoption of Gigabit LTE in terms of the number of Gigabit LTE devices supported by the network, available in more than 400 markets, and near-term plans to use unlicensed spectrum for further roll-out of Gigabit LTE. Based on the current and expected future commercial launches and announced plans of Gigabit LTE roll-out across networks, ABI expects Gigabit LTE subscriptions to begin large-scale adoption next year and reach about 350 million subscriptions by 2021.
Are there enough Gigabit-capable LTE smartphones in the market today?
Developments in the vendor ecosystem are critical to support the proliferation of Gigabit LTE services and devices since successful devices drive network commercialization. After all, a gigabit experience requires two components: an LTE Cat 16 device on a Gigabit LTE network. Furthermore, with four receive antennas in the end user device, Gigabit LTE improves user experience even when not the network doesn’t support all three Gigabit LTE technologies, but when the relevant LTE bands are supported. When comparing devices, a Gigabit LTE Cat 16 device outshines a Cat 12 device by 50 percent or more in peak speed performance depending on the network configuration; however, since there is an overall improvement in network performance when Gigabit LTE devices are used, the enhancements trickle down to all users.
Gigabit LTE devices today include smartphones, cellular hotspot router modems, and the list is expanding to include virtual reality gear and computing devices such as tablets soon.
The first Gigabit LTE modem to be made commercially available was the Qualcomm Snapdragon X16 LTE modem launched in February 2016. Commercially available and shipping Gigabit LTE mobile systems on a chip (SoC) include Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 launched in November 2016, Samsung’s Exynos 8895 launched in February 2017, and HiSilicon’s Kirin 970 launched in September 2017. Most major smartphone manufacturers have launched Gigabit LTE smartphones including Sony, Samsung, HTC, LH, Sharp, and Huawei. Huawei’s smartphones are based on HiSilicon chipsets, while Samsung Galaxy S8 has Snapdragon 835 integrated for North America, China, Japan, and South Korea, and uses Exynos 8895 for other regions including Canada. All other Gigabit LTE smartphones are based on Snapdragon 835. Both Snapdragon 835 and Exynos 8895 support LAA, which is essential to support the expected deployment of LAA technology next year. Currently, HiSilicon does not support LAA.
Missing from this list of early movers are some user equipment and chipset vendors that have not yet launched products or announced shipments. Intel announced its Gigabit LTE class modem, XMM 7560, in February 2017, but has not announced any design wins so far. MediaTek and Spreadtrum Communications have also not made Gigabit LTE launches yet. On the device side, Apple’s most recent iPhone 8 and iPhone X do not support Gigabit LTE. While today Gigabit LTE is supported on limited and premium devices, driving it down to mid-tier devices will be pivotal for mass adoption. The increased support of mobile operators and mainstream OEMs means mass-market adoption will be imminent within the next four years and could even accelerate if additional chipset suppliers support the technology.
Unlimited plans create a need for higher network efficiency
The increasing mobile broadband data usage in combination with the threat of subscriber churn is driving operators to offer unlimited data, especially in mature telco markets. However, offering unlimited bandwidth comes with its own set of challenges. Trying to meet higher data caps and unlimited data is creating traffic congestion on operator networks. Verizon, for example, started throttling high-resolution video just a few months after launching the unlimited plan and more recently has begun making unlimited available for all video types for an extra charge. Creating tiers of unlimited data plans or limiting high-quality video especially during peak hours or creating additional conditions has become essential to deal with the congestion issue. This will only get worse as more video streaming occurs over mobile networks with 4K and 8K AR/VR streaming. As per ABI Research, video streaming/TV type of network traffic is expected to grow by a CAGR of 35% between 2018 and 2026, showing the strongest growth curve among all network data traffic types. This has, therefore, become a catch-22 situation for operators. The need to move to higher data plans and even unlimited data plans is contradicted by the current capacity of the networks.
While today all major operators in the U.S. offer unlimited data plans, in other regions few operators offer unlimited data, although many are taking steps in this direction by increasing the current data caps. It is, however, Gigabit LTE that will enable operators to offer innovative data plans and services with unlimited data or a substantial increase in data cap while also maximizing the efficiency and the performance of their networks. For example, after the launch of Gigabit LTE earlier in the year in Australia, Telstra now offers up to 120GB and Optus up to 140GB on some data plans. Furthermore, Gigabit LTE forms a foundational support for the launch of 5G Networks. 5G Networks deployed in the non-standalone mode (LTE network as anchor) will require interworking with the LTE radio access network to maintain service continuity. For a ubiquitous high-speed service, Gigabit LTE would seem very suitable to provide a consistent blanket of high-speed connectivity, augmented by ultra-fast 5G connectivity in areas that need it. From a data usage perspective as well, Gigabit LTE will educate to consume more bandwidth and get themselves used with high-quality content or content where Gigabit speed is necessary. This education will pave the way for operators to introduce 5G when the next wave of applications emerges – ones that will truly transform consumer and business trends.
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