LTE migration in Asia 'encouraging'

Many operators in region committed to Long Term Evolution with most commercial services launched within next 3 to 5 years, earning the technology its place in mainstream, industry watchers say.
Written by Liau Yun Qing, Contributor

Long Term Evolution (LTE) rollouts in the Asia-Pacific region are ongoing and the 4G technology is fast becoming mainstream, according to industry watchers.

In an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, Mark Koh, senior industry analyst of Frost & Sullivan's Asia-Pacific ICT practice, noted that the number of operators in the region committed to migrating to LTE is "encouraging". Providers such as NTT DoCoMo in Japan, Smart Communications in the Philippines and CSL in Hong Kong have already launched LTE networks while 35 other service providers have implementation plans, he said.

Just this week, Singapore operator M1 announced the commercial launch of its LTE network.

Alan Hadden, president of GSA (Global mobile Suppliers Association) agreed. In his e-mail to ZDNet Asia, he said the Asia region is "consistently in the forefront of mobile communications industry developments and this will continue".

Aside from commercial launches of LTE FDD (Frequency Division Duplex) in Japan and Hong Kong, Hadden noted that the Asia-Pacific region is driving the commercialization of LTE TDD (Time Division Duplex) technology, with trials in China, India, Australia, Malaysia and Taiwan. Even operators in other regions including Europe, Russia, the Middle East and the Americas are "actively considering" LTE TDD following Asia's lead, he added.

Quoting figures from GSA's "Evolution to LTE" report released on May 11, Hadden said 208 operators across 80 countries have reported LTE investments, of which 154 have committed to deploying commercial LTE networks in 60 countries.

According to Hadden, LTE will shed its niche tag within the next two years. The May report found that 20 LTE systems had been commercially launched, and GSA expects at least 81 LTE networks to be in commercial service by end-2012, he added. "This is very near to the level at which GSA would regard a mobile system technology as entering the mainstream."

Another classification of whether a technology is mainstream is the availability of user devices, he said. Another report by GSA in March noted about 100 LTE-capable products were commercially available, with the majority supporting mobile computing. The hardware included dongles, embedded modules, PC cards and routers.

LTE smartphones have also entered the market, said Hadden. As smartphones are a major driver of mobile broadband today, he noted that the arrival of more LTE-capable smartphones in high commercial volumes this year is keenly anticipated.

Operators want to justify investment
Frost & Sullivan's Koh pointed out that different operators will migrate to LTE at different times but most would do so over the next 3 to 5 years. Service providers will need to migrate according to their network demands and business strategies due to the significant investments required--from the cost of spectrum to acquiring equipment--to migrate to LTE, he said.

Many service providers, he added, have already invested a significant amount in the rollout of 3G networks so they are now pondering their LTE migration plan.

That said, the growth in data traffic, especially video, will accelerate the migration to LTE, he noted.

Koh also reported that service providers are currently facing the challenge of "decoupling of revenue and cost" and find it increasingly difficult to justify huge investments in their infrastructure.

"Service providers bear most of the cost of rolling out their infrastructure, including LTE, to support the data traffic but increasingly more of the benefits and returns are being captured by over-the-top (OTT) players, he said. "So understandably service providers are not rushing in to roll out these technologies until they can figure out how to monetize it."

Backhaul tech important for user experience
While LTE promises better speed and data capacity, having the wireless technology alone is not enough to ensure good user experience, according to an executive from Swedish telecommunications giant Ericsson.

In an interview with ZDNet Asia, Stephanie Huf, Ericsson's head of marketing and communications for the Southeast Asia and Oceania region, said with the increase of volume of data traffic, operators will need to look at smarter backhaul technologies.

Backhaul has always been important for operators, said Huf. But with the rapidly growing data demands and usage, it is now more crucial for operators to prepare and be able to meet a higher volume of data traffic in the future, she said. Otherwise, operators may discover that they do not have enough data capacity when they introduce new smartphones and plans onto their network, she explained.

User expectations have also become higher in the recent years and they are less tolerant of slower data speed, she added.

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