Accelerating 5G: Taking Gigabit LTE to the Masses

Peter Jarich
Peter Jarich – VP, Consumer Services and Service Provider Infrastructure

Gigabit LTE (LTE networks, services and devices supporting theoretical peak speeds of a Gigabit or more) has been a big part of 5G discussions in 2017.  But it’s also – as the name implies – an evolution of LTE.  3GPP R13 LTE-Advanced Pro, to be specific.

It’s fair to ask, then, what’s the link to 5G?

While it would be technically inaccurate to position Gigabit LTE as a 5G technology, there’s no denying that it will support 5G rollouts and services.  As 5G rolls out in targeted pockets, Gigabit LTE will ensure consistent network-wide user experiences.  Likewise, as service providers investigate the specific IoT and broadband use cases 5G will support, Gigabit LTE will help them understand the options and opportunities ahead of them not to mention fundamental 5G technologies that start getting introduced into the network with Gigabit LTE.   

Oh, and just like so much of 5G messaging, we can expect to see lots of momentum beyond Gigabit LTE in 2017.

The 2017 Story

Per the GSA, there were 194 LTE-Advanced networks at the end of Q1, with 19 being LTE-Advanced Pro enabled and more than 25 others, “trialing, deploying, or planning” LTE-Advanced Pro networks.  That’s a good deal of runway for additional Gigabit LTE launches and commitments this year, joining carriers like Telstra, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, EE, T-Mobile Germany, NTT DoCoMo, SoftBank, KDDI and Singtel.  That momentum will be the 2017 story, taking Gigabit LTE from a cutting-edge technology experienced in a few markets towards the mainstream.

Beyond the understandable interest in technologies that improve the user experience for everyone (more on that later), two key dynamics will drive Gigabit LTE momentum in 2017: spectrum and devices.  Both are often the gating factors in new wireless technology adoption and both will get “solved” in some way.

  • Announced last fall, Qualcomm’s X16 modem was billed as the first to support Gigabit download speeds thanks to a Cat16 downlink. Others will follow.  In the meantime, pairing the X16 with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 (announced back at MWC) provides a solution for building Gigabit LTE into mass market devices.  So while we’ve already seen initial services supported by mobile routers, we’re in for a serious Gigabit LTE device ramp as routers are joined by smartphones from the likes of Samsung, Sony, Moto, ZTE and doubtless many other manufacturers.  If flagship devices are expected to deliver the latest and greatest capabilities, vendors will need to think about how they include Gigabit LTE in those offers.
  • Gigabit LTE speeds can be achieved in 60 MHz of spectrum – leveraging carrier aggregation across three 20 MHz carriers.  There are plenty of service providers that enjoy that level of licensed spectrum resources…but also many which don’t.  This is where License Assisted Access (LAA) LTE comes into play.  LAA extends LTE services into unlicensed spectrum.  And, if we include unlicensed spectrum in the mix, that 60 MHz of licensed spectrum an operator needs for Gigabit LTE can be dropped down to 20 MHz; here carrier aggregation is being used to pull together licensed and unlicensed spectrum.  With Gigabit LTE and LAA support in its latest silicon offer, it wasn’t surprising then to see Qualcomm playing up LAA-supported Gigabit LTE this year at Mobile World Congress.  With LAA commercialization expected later this year, support in those devices we talked about earlier sets us up for Gigabit LTE launches from operators both spectrum-rich and spectrum-poor.

What Next?

At a fundamental level, we’ve already discussed what’s next for Gigabit LTE in 2017: initial commercialization of the technology.  Driven by the resurgence of unlimited data plans and competitive dynamics, we’ll see deployments and service launches around the world.  Those launches will drive the adoption of applications which will cement the demand for ultra-broadband mobility.  Those applications will benefit from a broadening array of Gigabit-capable devices, not to mention the continued evolution of Gigabit LTE itself (you didn’t think it was standing still, did you?).  Those devices will help to drive more network and service launches.  It’s a virtuous cycle.

Yet, while this cycle plays out, other – less obvious – dynamics will help to move Gigabit LTE forward.

With Gigabit LTE networks in place, service providers and their customers will get an opportunity to explore use cases for the technology, both fixed and mobile.  In the near-term, it should help us move beyond the somewhat unimaginative discussions of enhanced mobile broadband supporting things like broadband to the home, AR/VR and high-definition video. Through the long-term, these explorations (and discovery) will drive continued interest in commercializing 5G.  And as 5G gets commercialized, it will benefit from Gigabit LTE commercialization as the technology evolves and operators (as well as vendors) get familiar with core Gigabit LTE innovations that will be critical to making 5G work.  Think the use of wider channel bandwidths, massive MIMO (starting with Gigabit LTE’s 4X4 MIMO), and the use of unlicensed and shared spectrum.

Ultimately, however, the most important thing for driving Gigabit LTE forward may be the realization that it’s about more than Gigabit speeds for the right people with the right devices.  While peak speeds may make for flashy marketing, the reality is that Gigabit LTE also improves the performance of non-Gigabit LTE devices.  The logic is relatively straightforward: improving the network performance for a set of heavy users frees up resources for everyone else.  In the process, operators on the fence about Gigabit LTE gain another a reason to move forward on the technology beyond use cases and marketing that only appeal to a subset of their customer base.

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