A long-term evolution

A shortage of spectrum and devices could hinder the adoption of LTE
Smartphones and tablets are driving demand for mobile broadband networks with greater capacity.
Smartphones and tablets are driving demand for mobile broadband networks with greater capacity.

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Operators and vendors have generated much hype around LTE in the Middle East. In particular, operators have made some bold announcements at each step, from starting their first tests with vendors, to initiating the deployment of their networks.

The situation is similar to the excitement that was generated around WiMAX a few years ago, which inevitably failed to live up to the hype, even if the technology has proved itself to be a versatile workhorse.

Some operators in the Gulf have already had to backtrack from some of their earlier claims. UAE operator Etisalat said originally that it would become the first operator in the Middle East to launch LTE, in the first half of 2011, although the telco can now only confirm that the launch will be before the end of the year.

Last month, Saudi Arabian operator Mobily, which is 27.4% owned by Etisalat, said it planned to launch LTE by Q3, which could give it the title of the region’s first LTE operator.

But whichever operator is first to launch will make little difference, given that - as its name suggests - LTE will be far more of an evolution than a revolution.

This was an important theme to emerge from last month’s LTE Mena conference in Dubai, which included frank discussions about some of the factors which could hinder the deployment of LTE services in the region, such as a lack of the required spectrum.

Speaking at the conference, Marwan Zawaydeh, CTO, Etisalat, said that the telco’s LTE deployment, which will be initially in ‘hotspots’ around the UAE, will also be limited to outdoor use due to the available spectrum.

Indeed, Etisalat will initially be using 2.6 gigahertz spectrum, which is only suitable for outdoor use. While Zawaydeh insist that this spectrum has the advantage of being supported by most vendors and the availability of devices such as USB dongles, he admits that Etisalat will need more spectrum in order to launch the kind of services that customers will expect.

Abdulaziz Al Tamami, COO of Mobily said that his company was also experiencing some problems acquiring the necessary spectrum for LTE.

The problem is not limited to the Middle East. Maravedis, a Canadian research firm, says that operators around the world could struggle to get their hands on the necessary spectrum for genuine LTE services, as regulators have been slow to free up the so-called ‘digital dividend’ spectrum.

The picture that emerged from the LTE Mena conference was perhaps a more realistic appraisal of LTE and the way it will be deployed in the region. Just as with the early days of 3G, the deployment will most likely be limited to metropolitan areas where the demand is highest, with 3G and HSPA picking up the slack in areas with no coverage.

It may take some years for operators to gain access to the spectrum they really need, and for a true ecosystem of devices to develop. But while LTE may take some years to develop, there is no denying the enormous potential the technology holds.

In much the same way as the first telcos to adopt 3G a decade ago could not have foreseen the impact of applications such as Youtube and social networking, it is also difficult to predict where the superior bandwidth and efficiency of LTE will lead.

The only thing that looks increasingly certain is that the next couple of years will demand some patience from telecom operators and their customers.
 

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