With many of the Gulf region’s operators, including STC, Etisalat, Mobily and Zain, already having conducted LTE tests and some in the process of deploying networks, the region looks set to gain an early lead in the new technology.
UAE telco Etisalat, which is working with Huawei and Alcatel-Lucent on its LTE network, said that it planned to deploy the network before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, KSA operator Mobily, which is backed by Etisalat, confirmed last month that it plans to launch LTE services by the third quarter of 2011. Etisalat, which is working with Alcatel-Lucent for the rollout of LTE, said the decision to move ahead with the LTE network was in response to surging demand for mobile broadband in the country.
The reasons for deploying LTE are familiar to operators around the world, with telcos keen to keep on top of soaring data usage while also being seen as the operator with the highest capacity network.
However, a recent study from Canadian research firm Maravedis indicates that the roll out of LTE services might not be as smooth as expected. The report points to a lack of correct spectrum and a “trial and error” approach from LTE’s early adopters. “On the regulatory side, additional spectrum made available for 4G has seen much more progress in GSM refarming than in the digital dividend initiative. The latter is still many years away from full availability,” the firm said.
“Besides additional spectrum, there is an increasing array of options that need to be considered by operators as they plan their next-generation access networks.”
Marwan Zawaydeh, CTO, Etisalat, who spoke at last month’s LTE Mena conference in Dubai, pointed to some of the trends that had led Etisalat to start deploying LTE at a relatively early stage.
“There is ever greater demand from customers for greater connectivity, higher speeds and more bandwidth in this era of mobile broadband,” he says. “[Demand from] Smartphones calls for higher throughput and lower latency than existing networks can give. In such times, LTE technology has taken the world by storm.”
Zawaydeh adds that with services such as HDTV, gaming, and new applications including M2M communications widely viewed as major potential revenues in the next few years, LTE will prove vital for operators to continue to grow.
“These are the drivers of broadband and we can see that the future for the growth is going to be from the broadband data applications and existing networks cannot support such growth. This is combined with the fact that end-users are increasingly accessing services and applications such as Twitter, Skype, and Youtube on mobile devices.
“Smartphone customers are able to access various applications and social networking sites and are able to communicate and do various uploading and downloading, so traffic is moving now from the fixed to the mobile and that is really what is pushing the growth of mobile broadband network and services,” Zawaydeh said.
“If operators don’t look carefully at the capacity and the customer experience to support these new applications, it will be difficult for the existing networks to sustain such growth of traffic,” Zawaydeh added.
Abdulaziz Al Tamami, COO, Mobily, points to similar trends in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Saudi Arabia holds the record for being the country with the highest Youtube usage via mobile devices, which offers some insight into the surging demand for mobile broadband.
But while the reasons for deploying LTE appear straightforward, the way in which the networks will be deployed and growth is less clear. Indeed, Maravedis points out that there is “an increasing array” of technologies such as femtocells, small cells, repeaters, and distributed antenna systems that need to be considered by operators as they plan their next-generation access networks.
These systems give operators “infinite flexibility” in how they build and operate their mobile networks, and could make it difficult for operators to plan for the future. “In this context, trial and error is the only realistic way forward until enough experience is gained to establish best practices,” said Basharat Ashai, Asia analyst at Maravedis.
Another challenge that operators could face as they plan their LTE networks is a lack of spectrum. The research firm points out that operators could face a lack of spectrum as initiatives to free up the so called “digital dividend” spectrum for LTE remains “many years away from full availability.”
This is a situation that Zawaydeh is familiar with. He said that Etisalat will start LTE services on 2.6 gigahertz spectrum, although the telco is aware that this spectrum will be inadequate to meet the required coverage.
“We are starting with 2.6 gigahertz because today most vendors support it and the devices are available, especially the USB dongles, but we know that 2.6 gigahertz will not be able to meet the required coverage for outdoor or indoor, and will also be very expensive,” he said.
“We believe operators will have to consider using other spectrum. “Of course, the 700-800 would be ideal, because it gives the best coverage and we are working with the regulator to try to get the spectrum for that.
“At the same time I think operators will have to consider using other spectrum from the existing telcos like GSM.” This lack of spectrum is a particular problem given that one of the main trends in mobile broadband use is that about 70% of demand emanates from indoors, according to Zawaydeh.
“We all know that the indoor coverage is very important especially for data users because most of the traffic is normally generated from inside,” he says.
“Our study and vendor study showed that 70% of the traffic in the region came from indoor and to ensure good indoor coverage, capacity and customer experience, I think all operators will have to consider using other spectrum other than 2.6 gigahertz.”
In terms of the way LTE will grow in the UAE, Zawaydeh expects the technology to grow initially in “hotspots” with coverage expanding gradually over time. LTE deployments will operate alongside HSPA+ deployments for a number of years, he adds.