4G LTE coming soon to Flow/LIME, but what does it all mean?

A refresher on the LTE technology, and the likely user experience in Caribbean countries where it already exists, and where may soon be launched.
Last week, Cable & Wireless Communications plc (CWC), the parent company for the Flow and LIME brands in the Caribbean, announced that with support from global telecoms infrastructure and services provider, Ericsson, it will soon be deploying 4G LTE technology (Source:  CWC). Although no time frame was suggested, CWC, with Ericsson’s help, will be upgrading its mobile/cellular networks in the 42 countries across the Caribbean and Latin America where it has a presence.

It should be noted that Flow/LIME’s competitor in the mobile/cellular space, Digicel, has already rolled out LTE in some of the countries it serves; hence the technology is not new to the region. However, the terms 4G and LTE have been bandied about for several years now, and one might still be unsure of what they mean, and the implications therein. Here we offer a refresher on the subject.

What is LTE?

First showcased in 2006, Long Term Evolution (LTE) is the mobile/cellular broadband technology most telecoms network operators currently aspire to implement. According to the Ericsson 2015 Mobility Report, at the end of last year, less than 20% of the mobile broadband subscriptions worldwide were LTE. By 2020, an estimated 50% of mobile broadband subscriptions will be supported by LTE.

Figure 1: Evolution of GSM technology
Figure 1: Evolution of GSM technology

LTE has its foundations in GSM, the Global Standard for Mobile Communications, a second generation (2G) digital standard that was widely adopted and used worldwide, especially in the Caribbean.  The transition to 3G technologies, of which EDGE was the most widely implemented in the region, mainly supported voice, with data in a supplementary role. LTE is designed to carry data rather than voice. Hence its network architecture uses the Internet Protocol (IP) standard, but is still compatible with older and currently applied technologies.

Although LTE is widely communicated as 4G – a fourth generation technology – strictly speaking, it does not adhere to the established standard. Among other things, it cannot support download speeds of 1 Gbps and upload speeds of 500 Mbps, which can be achieved with LTE Advanced, a true 4G technology. For LTE, its best performance is around 100 Mbps, download, and 50 Mbps, upload. To varying degrees, and in the writer’s opinion, the use of the term 4G for LTE and other technologies, such as HSPA (High Speed Packet Access) and WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access), has been a marketing tactic to distinguish those newer technologies from those that have gone before.

Is improved performance assured with LTE?

LTE and 4G technologies can significantly increase mobile/cellular network capacity, but achieving superior performance will be dependent on factors, such as:

  • the budget that has allocated to support the upgrade of the existing network
  • the extent of the upgrades that will be undertaken
  • the amount of radio frequencies that has been assigned to the network operator.

Without a doubt, the upgrade of existing networks from EDGE or HSPA to support LTE would be considerable and costly. However, outside of the costs and infrastructure requirements, access to adequate radio frequencies bandwidth, especially for base station backhaul, is critical to support the traffic and bandwidth demands on the network.

Mobile/cellular broadband services work optimally in the 300 to 3500 MHz band of the radio frequency spectrum. However, in most countries, such as those in the Caribbean, this band is divided into a number of sub-bands that support a range of other uses, including aeronautical and maritime radio-navigation, maritime mobile, amateur radio and broadcasting (ITU Region 2). Hence, in order to be in a position to offer high-speed mobile broadband service to a significant number of customers simultaneously, there is a need for large amounts contiguous spectrum, which are already allocated to other services.

In summary, the upgrade of existing mobile/cellular networks in the Caribbean to LTE might introduce some efficiencies, which both the network owner and their subscribers might be experience. However, it is unlikely from the outset that users will experience truly high speed transmission – in excess of 10 Mbps – as the operator may not have sufficient bandwidth at its disposal to comprehensively manage the user experience on its network.

 

Image credit:  Paul Swansen (flickr)

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