Insight: While We're Waiting for 5G, A Look at 4G Opportunities

Posted by Mae Kowalke on Wednesday, April 15, 2015 with No comments

With all the hype around 5G, it's important not to lose sight of what's possible with existing 4G networks, both through more efficient management and technology upgrades like LTE-A. 

To its credit, Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA) addressed this very topic in its December 2014 white paper on 5G, stressing that many proposed 5G requirements (such as 100% coverage, 99.999% availability, and 90% reduction in network energy usage) should be achievable with existing technology; these shortcomings are constraints more of economics than technology.

Certainly, there are plenty of opportunities to profitably improve 4G/LTE and these are the things much more likely to happen in the next five years than building out a completely new system.

Operators are already making progress increasing data speeds of existing networks using dual-carrier LTE-A, capable theoretically of up to 300 Mbps downlink speeds. This represents a big opportunity for operators to develop profitable 4G services and meet mobile broadband demand for several more years.

Other potential technology opportunities around 4G include:

  • NFV and SDN to improve the performance of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) IT platforms, enable dynamic reconfiguration of network topology in response to load and demand, direct capacity to maintain QoS at peak consumption times, and potentially reduce operator CapEx and OpEx.  

  • HetNets to provision cellular networks using a combination of cell types and access technologies. This allows operators to potentially improve customer service consistency.

  • Small cell deployments to allow more flexibility.

  • Wi-Fi for data offload and roaming.

  • Wider use of multi-carrier aggregation (including unlicensed LTE and WiFi)

  • Beam-forming to increase throughput and cell tower range

Of course, there are some significant challenges around improving 4G, including:

  • Keeping up with the surge in data usage, a problem actually exacerbated because 4G users typically consume twice as much data per month as other users.

  • Achieving increased ARPU through LTE in all markets. Effectively monetizing upgraded networks is especially difficult in regions with relatively higher proportion of prepaid subscribers.

  • Interconnect for LTE roaming. Wide adoption of voice over LTE (VoLTE) is constrained by lack of a standard IP-based interconnect technology for voice.

But, those challenges should be overcomeable with innovation and time; 4G LTE is still in the early stages of its lifecycle and conceivably won’t peak until well into the 2020s. As such, 4G still represents significant growth opportunity for the mobile industry, and will for some time to come.
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