Path to LTE

With some of the world’s leading operators working to deploy LTE networks, CommsMEA looks at some of the main challenges facing telcos in the Middle East and beyond.

Tags: 2G3G4GBahrainMotorola IncorporationNokia Siemens NetworksSaudi ArabiaUnited Arab EmiratesZain - Bahrain
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Path to LTE Noel Kirkaldy says 2G operators in some markets could move straight to LTE, entirely bypassing the need to roll out 3G technology.
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By  Roger Field Published  October 13, 2009 Communications Middle East & Africa Logo

While a growing number of leading telecom operators around the world, including Sweden's TelioSonera, Verizon Wireless in the US, and NTT DoCoMo of Japan, have committed to deploying LTE networks in the next couple of years, operators in the Middle East, with the exception of Zain Bahrain, have been less vocal about their fourth generation network plans.

Zain Bahrain, which said it was planning to upgrade its network with LTE technology in a bid to "future proof" its operation, awarded the contract for the upgrade to Nokia Siemens Networks.

Zain Bahrain failed to provide a timeframe for the network upgrade, but similar projects in other parts of the world are expected to take more than a year to complete, from the time they were announced until launch.

TelioSonera, which announced a plan to deploy an LTE network with Ericsson in January 2009, expects to go live in 2010, while Verizon Wireless, which announced in late 2008 that it was planning an LTE network, expects to go live with a "pre-commercial" network by the end of 2009.

Despite a lack of news regarding LTE from Middle East operators, leading vendors in the region insist that plans are underway, and that a number of operators are actively looking at LTE.

Petri Moilanen, head of sales for MEA at Nokia Siemens Networks, said the vendor has been "running trials" in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and is in discussions in Kuwait. He adds that in the UAE, LTE trials are "becoming relevant" towards the end of the year.

For Moilanen, the wealthier Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain are likely to be the first countries in the region to deploy LTE, owing to their existing advanced mobile networks. Furthermore, operators in these countries also often have close ties with the government, which could make it easier for them to gain the required frequencies.

But operators face significant challenges before they can launch LTE networks, and not least they will need to gain new licences to gain the required spectrum. Moilanen points out that licences for LTE have not yet been issued.

"There is an interest in LTE but how viable and how fast LTE networks will be deployed, I think that is still a big question mark," Moilanen says. "LTE is on a different frequency than 3G so that will require new licences for new frequencies."

Technical evolution

But while LTE may attract significant attention as the next big technological shift in telecoms, many operators are also focusing on extracting further value from their existing 3G networks, using technology that can be upgraded to LTE at a later stage, according to Moilanen.

"Operators are now looking at how to upgrade 3G networks towards 3.5G, so mobile broadband is becoming more and more attractive to the operators as a business case, and the upgrading of other networks from 14Mb to 21Mb HSPA.

Moilanen adds that NSN will also have a 42Mb HSPA offering available in the first quarter of 2010 which will enable its customers to extend the life of their third generation networks.

The vendor also has what Moilanen refers to as a "pre-LTE flat architecture" that it has implemented to its 3.5G and 3G networks. "It is called iHSPA where we bypass this RNC controller and the data flows directly to the core and that will provide much quicker round trip times and provide a much better user experience through 3G altogether," he says.

With operators increasingly wanting to protect their investments, NSN's 3G base stations also support 2G and are LTE ready, according to Moilanen. "They are software upgradeable and there is a system module that will then support all these three technologies and I think that is one of the key things operators are looking for, that their investments in radio technology are reusable and can be upgraded with software," he adds.

Data support

Another technical challenge that operators face is that current networks do not necessarily support extended data rates. For this reason operators must look carefully at how they upgrade the transmission network.

"Today there is a clear trend, when they look to transmission, that they are IP enabled. That is one of the key trends and then secondly to look at how the backhauling will be done so that it has the capacity to provide backhauling from the radio to the core.

"That is also a bottleneck in certain way, in that when operators would like to launch higher data speeds they need also to get the transmission infrastructure upgraded to support these higher speeds."

But despite these challenges, Moilanen thinks operators are taking LTE seriously, and that the first deployments will start to become more widespread in 2012.

"It is a clear evolution path to the next generation of higher data speeds. However there is a certain hype about what is the time frame when LTE will be deployed. Our understanding is that in 2010 there will be about 12 operators expected to launch, then additional operators coming on board in 2011, and then it will be more widely deployed by 2012. And then mass market deployments in 2013," he says.

Regulator's choice

Noel Kirkaldy, director of wireless broadband for Motorola Home and Networks Mobility in the Middle East adds that from a regional point of view, regulators are aware of spectrum issues but have not been "as proactive as some of the American and European operators" in clearing some of their new bands for LTE.

He thinks that regulators in the Middle East will have a mix of 700 and 800MHz band, because a significant amount is currently sitting with the broadcasters.

"A lot of the regulators are coming out with timescales to free up this spectrum and we have seen certainly in Western Europe and North America that timeline has been accelerated because they understand the importance of mobile broadband for everyone and they are the two key bands."

While Kirkaldy thinks the allocation of spectrum will vary from country to country in the Middle East, he adds that Motorola is keen to continue working closely with regulators to open up the various spectrums, not least because this approach can only help the development of the broadband sector.

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