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GSMA Warns Of LTE Chaos Over Spectrum Issues

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The lack of global standards risks future problems with the rollout of 4G LTE services, the GSMA warns

The next generation of mobile phone networks could inherit a number of device interoperability problems because of a lack of global standardisation on the 4G LTE technology.

So warns the GSMA, the industry body that represents mobile operators around the world.

Spectrum Fragmentation

The GSMA’s Wireless Intelligence service pointed out in a new report that the global rollout of LTE networks is set to accelerate to 2015, but warns of the problems associated with spectrum fragmentation.

It is currently forecasting that by 2015 there will be 200 live LTE networks, but alarmingly these network will use 38 spectrum frequency combinations.

These fragmented spectrum frequency combinations risks possible device interoperability issues, which could hold up LTE service uptake. The fragmented scenario will be “fuelled by ongoing spectrum auctions, licence renewals and re-farming initiatives across a wide range of frequency bands,” said the GSMA.

The GSMA says that harmonised spectrum band plans must be achieved in order to avoid this.

“The lack of spectrum harmonisation represents a key challenge for the emerging LTE ecosystem, potentially preventing vendors from delivering globally compatible LTE products such as devices and chipsets, or requiring them to increase prices,” it warned.

Compatibility Issues

“Spectrum fragmentation has the potential to hinder global LTE roaming if device manufacturers are required to include support for many disparate frequencies in their devices,” said Wireless Intelligence senior analyst and report author Joss Gillet. “Given the backwards compatibility already required for either HSPA or EV-DO connectivity, we are unlikely to see a ‘world’ device in a handset form-factor soon.”

At the moment, Wireless Intelligence states there are approximately 40 LTE networks in 24 countries currently, but forecasts more than 200 live LTE networks in over 70 countries by 2015.

The report notes that the IMT-extension band (2500/2600MHz) is the most globally harmonised band used in LTE deployments to date, accounting for over half of live networks in 2011.

According to the GSMA, more than two-thirds of global LTE connections today relate to deployments at 700MHz due to the large-scale rollouts underway in the United States. Asia Pacific apparently has the most varied spectral combinations of all the global regions despite significant support for LTE at 2100MHz (Japan), 2500MHz (China) and 1800MHz (Southeast Asia).

Asia Pacific, Africa and the Middle East will represent a joint 50 percent of global LTE connections by 2015, which further underlines the urgent need for spectrum harmonisation, says the report.

UK Delays

Another problem adding to the spectrum fragmentation, which is set to increase over the next four years, is down to the deployment of LTE networks in the so called ‘digital dividend’ spectrum (i.e. 700/800MHz) and re-farmed frequency bands. The 700/800MHz band is expected to be used in around a quarter of LTE network deployments going forward, compared to approximately one-third for the IMT-extension band and one third using re-farmed spectrum.

“Spectrum re-farming will grow in importance as an interim solution as operators await additional spectrum to be allocated by governments and regulators,” said Gillet. “Our research indicates that one-third of LTE operators around the globe will be unable to secure any additional spectrum in the 700, 800, 2500 or 2600 MHz bands before 2016 at the earliest – which will further exacerbate data capacity issues and limit LTE coverage expansion plans.”

Earlier this month the British communications regulator Ofcom warned next-generation 4G mobile networks may not be “widely available” in the UK for another four years. The regulator recently lashed out at mobile operators in the UK for threatening legal challenges to the spectrum auction, actions which have caused the already much delayed 4G spectrum auction, to be further delayed.

Services using Long-Term Evolution (LTE) have already been launched in the US, Germany, Japan and emerging markets such as Uzbekistan, while France’s auctions 4G spectrum auctions are currently underway.

The EU meanwhile has already told member states to get the 800MHz band cleared for mobile broadband by the end of 2012, stating that they must deliver 4G mobile broadband by 2013.

But there is little doubt the UK is falling behind other European nations regarding LTE. Indeed, the plan to only start deploying 4G networks in 2013 will be four years behind the world’s first LTE deployments in Oslo and Stockolm and three years behind the first commercial service in the United States.

This delay comes despite a survey from the policy advisory group Open Digital in October, which warned that the delay in rolling out 4G will cost British businesses £730 million a year.