Will UK pay the price for a late LTE rollout?

At this rate, smartphones will be LTE ready long before the UK's networks, says James Bruce
Written by James Bruce, Contributor

Smartphone users around the planet are already starting to sample the delights of broadband-speed mobile data through LTE. Sadly, UK users are not among them — and they won't be for some time, says James Bruce.

The big discussion in mobile this year is about the potential for high-speed wireless standard LTE, or long-term evolution, to take mobile internet connection to a broadband level of performance.

Many see LTE as the enabling technology that will eventually produce a raft of powerful new services — including those that are hosted in the cloud — for businesses and consumers.

The LTE standards are in place and consumers around the world are starting to experience the improved data service that LTE brings. Unfortunately, in Europe network providers are lagging behind their global counterparts. 

LTE is the industry's first end-to-end internet protocol (IP) data network, which potentially provides mobile device users with the benefits of a mobile broadband connection for the first time. It will offer the data rates and responsiveness experienced using today's high-speed home broadband, cable or corporate network connections.

These capabilities will also continue to operate seamlessly when mobile users are on the move. So no more loss of service while on the train or bus to work.

Currently, most mobile devices connect to the internet using 3G, which delivers the web, data services, video and a range of applications working alongside voice calls and text messages. To date all these 3G solutions have been layered on top of a network that was originally designed solely for voice traffic.

3G has allowed many services to become the norm for mobile users. Some examples include mobile sat-nav, email on the go, uploading pictures straight to Facebook and location-based apps, such as Foursquare. In short, with the infrastructure available, the mobile application industry has been successfully driving innovation.

Streaming from the cloud to mobile devices

The consistent, broadband-quality connection with LTE will mean content streaming via mobile devices will be as stable as when using a home connection. With LTE's increased data bandwidth new opportunities for mobile innovation and applications are opening up, with the new broadband-level connection allowing for many services to be streamed seamlessly from the cloud to a mobile device.

Music will soon be stored remotely in the cloud, rather than locally on devices. The streaming quality will make the listening experience indistinguishable from locally stored music, and tracks and albums will still be accessed with a click of a button or swipe of the finger.

Broadband-quality connection with LTE will mean content streaming via mobile devices will be as stable as when using a home connection.

The same goes for films: we can imagine the situation where you can go to a venue with no landline internet connection, plug your mobile device into a big screen TV and stream HD movie content from the cloud, to the device and the TV.

The rollout of LTE networks may also help augmented reality realise its potential as an industry-changing application. Maps overlaid on streets in real time, with the speed to change as instantly as your location does, can potentially become the norm with LTE.

Of course, it is not only LTE that is making these innovations become a reality. The devices themselves need to be able to process the data and offer the desired applications from a limited power source.

The continued development of the super-phone doesn't appear to be slowing, as processing power in mobile devices is becoming more impressive while power consumption remains low.

Europe fails to keep pace with LTE

So, with the components undoubtedly in place, why has Europe not kept pace with the rest of the world when it comes to LTE? In the UK, the time the authorities have taken to set a date for the auction of mobile spectrum for mobile operators has been surprising lengthy. The auction is presently scheduled for mid-2012.

Realistically, due to this lack of mobile frequency, rollout doesn't show much sign of happening before 2013. Meanwhile, in the US many providers are already pushing LTE on a large scale, with Verizon and US Cellular already committing to rollout this year. It looks as if the UK is going to be playing catch-up.

The benefits of LTE are vast, and in a digital age where consumers are now demanding a broadband-level connection wherever they are, the technology is capable of delivering this.

Mobile device manufacturers are consistently pushing performance levels. They may soon end up with devices that are LTE ready, while the networks are not.

James Bruce is wireless segment manager at microprocessor design company ARM and is based in Silicon Valley.

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