GCC operators study benefits of LTE ‘4G’ roll-out

January 28, 2010 3:34 pm

By Jim Mortleman

Suppliers such as Nokia and Motorola claim LTE eliminates many of the problems of speed, reliability and coverage that have plagued its predecessors, as well as being cheaper for operators to implement.

For business customers, the benefits should be more reliable, higher-speed cellular data networks that don’t drop out or lose speed as you move between cells. The networks will also be capable of handling the much greater throughput of data in real time that’s required to support such services as mobile video streaming and conferencing, web-based applications and services and the rapid transfer of large files. Where 3G has download speeds of 14Mb/second, LTE has a download data transfer rate of 100Mb/second.

Ihab Ghattas, Assistant President for the Middle East division of Huawei Technologies, which supplies LTE technology, says he expects the technology to be deployed in the region at the same time as other mature telecoms markets across the world, starting this year. Initially, he thinks it will get laptop use, rather than via handsets, as early adopters use dongles to take advantage of the technology’s fast speeds. But handsets will quickly follow, he says.

And for operators which have not yet rolled out 3G, he believes they should move directly to LTE from second-generation technologies. ‘There’s no point investing [in 3G] when there’s something else in the pipeline which looks much better and is more advanced,’ he told AMEinfo.com.

Middle East uptake

LTE has had a slower start in the Middle East than in regions such as Europe, but projects are now underway. Although many operators are keeping plans close to their chests, Zain Bahrain is working with Nokia Siemens Network to upgrade its network to the all-IP LTE, and hopes to be the first to go live in the region.

Zain is pushing the faster speeds as a core benefit, saying customers will have a ‘click-bang’ internet experience, with latency down to between 10 and 20ms. And although LTE, like 3G, is a data rather than voice technology, it is also preparing for standards-based voice over LTE. A Kuwaiti company, Zain plans to export its LTE experiences to its other territories.

David Tanner, principal consultant at Mott MacDonald, says regional players such as Etisalat and Zain want to implement the latest technologies, and so be seen as world leaders in them. ‘Both of these operators have been evaluating LTE using test networks for some time now and commercial launches can be expected either later this year or in 2011,’ he says.

However, most accept it will be some years before there’s widespread availability of LTE across the region. ‘At the outset, it’s likely LTE will only be deployed in urban areas where there’s high demand, which will take around two to three years. Deployment beyond these areas will be depend on individual operators’ technology strategies, in particular how they plan to use the plethora of standards (GSM, Edge, HSPA, HSPA+, LTE) to deliver service to their customers,’ says Tanner.

Wimax alternative

In addition, LTE is not the only ‘4G’ cellular technology in contention (while LTE is a big step towards 4G, it actually falls short of the specification, but many think it will ultimately be marketed as 4G). There’s also Wimax – another similarly high-speed, microwave-based wireless technology that is being used both for high-speed cellular networks and for extending the reach of fixed broadband networks into hard-to-cable areas.

Some are convinced LTE will win out. Lance Hiley, VP of market strategy for UK-based Cambridge Broadband Networks, says: ‘We are currently seeing a marked increase in the number of enquiries we’re receiving from mobile operators in the Middle East looking for LTE solutions.’ This, he says, is because where it’s not feasible to lay fibre to individual cells, these cells need to talk to one another wirelessly and operators recognise that ‘point-to-multipoint microwave scales better with LTE than other microwave alternatives’.

Kamal Mokrani, VP of sales and marketing at InfiNet Wireless, agrees. ‘When the world sees the first successes of LTE in the field, I believe most of the big players will forget about Wimax,’ he says.

However, some believe the two technologies will be complementary. Huawei produces products for both, and Ghattas says there are differences that will see them adopted. Wimax, he says, is a technology developed more for computers, while LTE is in the long term designed more for handsets. Equally, the licensing costs to buy the frequency for LTE is more expensive than for Wimax, so some operators will consider the latter a viable, cheaper alternative in remote areas for data transmission, while LTE will be considered a good option in more populated areas.

Complementary technologies

Rob Bamforth, principal analyst at Quocirca, also does not believe that Wimax is the new HD-DVD against LTE’s Blu-ray. ‘At one time it looked like some were trying to use Wimax as a wedge to upset the cellular operators’ business models, offering customers ‘all you can eat for a fee’, rather than charging per megabyte. But a shift in tariffs and a recognition that a licensed cellular network is a bit more than throwing a few access points together has meant the 4G world will be a bit less competitive, with LTE and Wimax sitting alongside one another.

‘Unlike the [HD-DVD/Bluray] battle, although the underlying technology (radio transmission of data) is pretty much the same, they look like slightly different animals in use. For example, the Middle East has a number of significant Wimax deployments to extend fixed wireless broadband into difficult terrains and specific communities.’

Of course, operators also need to strike a balance of charging enough for their LTE services to recoup infrastructural investments while still remaining an attractive proposition for customers.

This, in the end, is likely to be the key factor in LTE’s commercial success or failure. As yet, with the exception of Zain Bahrain, no one is showing their hand, but operators know that in the Middle East – and certainly in the wealthy GCC countries – the desire to be seen with the latest handset using the latest technology is likely to mean its adoption will be quite fast, no matter if end user costs are initially high.