3G networks are now well-established, and the mobile operators are promoting them as a better alternative to Wi-Fi. Thoughts are turning to 4G, the next generation of wireless broadband, and the promise of 100Mbps and up.
The battle for 4G is between two technologies, WiMax — developed by Intel — and LTE, the long-term evolution of 3G promoted by the existing mobile industry. Both have high performance; WiMax was first out of the gate, while LTE has huge advantages in being the nominated heir of the current cellular industry — now at three billion customers and counting.
There are also questions about how and when any new standard can reach the market. Some possible spectrum is tied up with existing technology, and won't be available until analogue TV signals are switched off or older mobile-phone spectrum gets 'refarmed', and while the UK has an auction at 2.6GHz that's being delayed by legal appeals.
Some vendors believe LTE should be delivered through indoor base stations known as 'femtocells', reducing the cost of incremental rollout but seriously reducing the number of large outdoor base stations that operators will buy.
Ericsson is one of the biggest backers of LTE, and notably sceptical about both WiMax and femtocells. We spoke to John Cunliffe, Ericsson's chief technology officer for the UK.
Q: LTE is the main thing we should talk about. It's a fourth-generation phone technology. It's fast, it has Mimo [a multiple channel antenna technology] and OFDM [the modulation scheme]. We are now being told that it has fought off the challenge from mobile WiMax — unless you know something different?
A: I would concur. But there are places where WiMax is appropriate.
We don't build WiMax products — we decided not to because we think it is going to be a minority market. We install it, though; in the UK we are installing WiMax for Freedom4 (formerly Pipex). WiMax is simply a radio technology, so networks need backhaul and core network, plus equipment for authentication, authorisation and accounting, as well as the base stations.
However, LTE is coming from an ecosystem of over three billion devices. If you look at the volume and size of that mobile-broadband market, you'll get a perspective on the size of the WiMax market.
How fast will LTE be?
We've been doing some drive testing in Sweden with mobile clients. We were getting a peak of 154Mbps, a mean of 78Mbps and a minimum of 16Mbps download speeds.
So when is LTE going to happen?
There will be trials before the end of this year, and base stations ready for commercial service before the end of next . These will be multi-standard. The RBS 6000 we launched at Mobile World Congress this year will do 2G, 3G and LTE.
Shouldn't operators wait for LTE handsets that can use the network properly? />
They will probably roll out in advance of the handsets, so when the handsets are available, they are ready to go. In any case, handsets will start to appear in 2009.
What will happen with 3G and HSPA, while we wait for LTE?
There is a roadmap for HSPA. We have 7.2Mbps in the UK at the moment, coverage is good and plenty of handsets do it. With high levels of modulation like 64QAM and Mimo, we can get 42Mbps out of HSPA… and even 80Mbps with further optimisation. It is now being promoted as an alternative to Wi-Fi. It is easier to set up, and has roaming. New dongles don't even need a CD — the software's built-in, in flash.
If there is still life in HSPA, will the economic downturn delay LTE? We've had a downturn in the telecoms industry before, related to the internet bubble. This time, banks are involved, so operators wanting to upgrade may find it hard to get the credit to buy a lot of new equipment.
Conceivably — but I probably shouldn't comment.
Do people really need faster networks for mobile data? We can all do email and Facebook very happily with what we have.
If you look at what drives speed, it is always video content, whether on mobile or fixed lines.
We have a consumer panel, in which we interview 36,000 people in 11 countries, who use fixed or mobile broadband. I looked at their video usage, and found that, if you look at people...