India launched 3G at a time when most countries in Europe were doing 4G and LTE trials, last year, and is still waiting for 3G usage to pick up in a big way here, via mobile broadband, despite the fact that 3G is on its way to being phased out in most developed nations today.
However, the country that is not new to the prospect of leap-frogging technology, may be well on its way to catching up, where it left off – this time, by merely using unused spectrum waves to tap newer technologies like 4G and LTE, which offer speeds of 5 Mbps to 100 Mbps, and thus be on par with the rest of the world.
The spectrum for BWA, which has the bandwidth capability to support WiMax, 4G or TD-LTE, was auctioned to six service providers in June last year at a cost of $5.5 billion. However, till date, services using this spectrum have not been rolled out, although they are expected by the first half of next year.
In the run-up to the roll-out, a raging debate has been on whether India will adopt WiMax – an extension of the Wi-Fi technology, already present in the country, or go in for LTE – for which a whole new ecosystem will have to be created. Another thing is that since India does not have the bandwidth to support the global FDD LTE standard, it would have to go in for TD-LTE, the latter standard which has been successfully adopted by China. Both LTE and WiMax are competing 4G technologies, and technology vendors for both these technologies today claim they have devices and equipment ready for when India finally rolls out WiMax or LTE.
Telecom regulatory body, TRAI, which came out with a consultation paper on 4G recently, has received comments by several industry bodies on the same and is likely to come out with recommendations for implementing 4G by October this year. Meanwhile, it has identified at least six blocks of 20 MHz spectrum each which can be auctioned to telecom companies for rolling out 4G services. The spectrum identified includes the 700 Mhz band as well as the 2.5-2.6 gigahertz band, allowing eight companies to bid for the spectrum. According to TRAI’s 4G road map, voice-over-internet telephony between mobile and landline networks will be catered for. As of today, internet calls are allowed between PC and PC, but without any connectivity to a PSTN network. This will be a boon for the winners of the BWA spectrum, many of whom are not operators, and who may want to provide voice calling, without having to tie-up with an existing operator for the same.
According to an analysis by research agency Frost & Sullivan, the choice to go in for LTE or WiMax depends on a number of factors such as Operator strategy – which consists of legacy network and technology evolution path preference, CAPEX and OPEX considerations, and learning from global deployments; Technology considerations – which consists of peak data transmission speeds and latency; Regulatory situation – which consists of availability and cost of spectrum and regulatory compliance to technology standards; Market demand – which is based on population density and demand for high-speed data services; and Technology and Device ecosystem – which consists of support from infrastructure and equipment vendors, as well as the ecosystem of devices and content for consumers.
In India, LTE field trials have already been successfully conducted by leading equipment vendors like Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson, and four out of the six BWA winners have already committed to rolling out LTE in the 2.3 Ghz band or TD-LTE mode. Qualcomm – which is looking to tie up with an Indian investor to roll-out LTE and then exit the venture once the roll-out is successful, was one of the first to announce its plans to roll-out LTE. Other winners who have now pledged commitment to the technology are RIL, Aircel and Bharti Airtel. However, they state that the initial roll-out will be confined to a few metros and major cities, with RIL leading the launch, and nationwide roll-outs can be expected only by 2013-2014. India’s LTE CAGR is expected to touch 259 percent by 2017. On the other hand, India and Latin America are set to drive the WiMax user base to 100 million by 2015.
Some of the main drivers for LTE adoption are growing usage of smart phones and apps, driving the need for high-speed mobile broadband, poor fixed broadband penetration and cost-effectiveness of wireless technology as an access medium, commitment and support from equipment vendors and mobile operators, and the fact that LTE is an efficient technology – high capacity, low-latency, lower cost and spectrum flexibility for a high-end user experience.
However, one of the drawbacks of LTE is that the device ecosystem is still at a nascent stage, as is the technology, which is still undergoing field trials and thus a common standard for devices has not been zeroed in as yet. Other drawbacks, which make technologies like WiMax score over LTE include lack of clarity and standards for voice over LTE technology, and spectrum harmonization, or the challenge to provide seamless global coverage and roaming. WiMax, being an extension of Wi-Fi can also be easily phased into from 3G to 4G, and both technologies can work simultaneously to provide voice clarity and high-speed data. LTE, on the other hand, is great for data, but lacks on the voice front, due to lack of a common global standard.
According to research by Informa, in the lower-spectrum range, the 700MHz band which has seen wide-scale adoption in the US, may be used by very few other countries, while the 800MHz digital dividend band will be widely used in Western and Eastern Europe. The 900MHz band, which was used in early deployments in Sweden may also have just a couple of takers like NTT DOCOMO, outside the country. As far as the 2600 MHz FDD band is concerned, it is likely to be adopted in Western and Eastern Europe, as well as a few markets in North and Latin America and APAC. The 2300 MHz TDD band will continue to be dominant in China, while in Japan, deployments above 2100 MHz may be limited to Softbank’s expected adoption of the TDD band. Even within similar band ranges, regional differences in spectrum adoption, may cause some disputes for equipment vendors. For example, the paired 1700/2100 AWS spectrum (3GPP Band IV) extensively used in North America, may see no uptake outside the Americas, while the 2100MHz UMTS expansion band is likely to be adopted in parts of Latin America, Africa, India and Pakistan.
As of May 2011, 22 MNOs have already rolled out LTE services across 16 countries, while 305 global operators have announced their commitment to officially deploying LTE by 2015. Weighing the many pros and cons of LTE and WiMax, operators in India will have to be careful in choosing the right technology, as there will be no looking back after that.
By Beryl M