The leap into LTE: the next generation of mobile networks

Rogers Communications launched Canada's first LTE network this month, ushering in the era of 4G, the next generation of high-speed wireless technology. We take a closer look at what the mobile standard known as "long-term evolution" will mean for users.

Rogers has launched Canada's first 'long-term evolution' high-speed wireless network, but what does it mean for users?

A USB stick that provides access to a LTE wireless network run by the British provider Vodafone on display at the CeBIT technology fair in Hanover, Germany, on Feb. 28, 2011. Rogers sells a similar device called the Rocket Stick. (Tobias Schwarz/Reuters)

Rogers Communications launched Canada's first LTE network this month. While done with little fanfare, it effectively ushered in the era of 4G, the next generation of high-speed wireless technology, in this country.

The 4G label has been used  for some time in marketing by the telecom industry (including Rogers) to describe networks that are significantly faster than the standard 3G technology. That's caused confusion for the consumer, because these aren't really true 4G networks. 

To further muddy the issue, even Rogers's new LTE high-speed network is referred to by some as 3.9G, since it operates right at the bottom end of the official 4G speed range of 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps.

But marketing tactics and other debates aside, with LTE, Rogers is the first Canadian wireless provider to adopt a network infrastructure that has the potential to support the kind of data-transfer speeds considered to be the benchmark of the fourth-generation of wireless technology based on the standard known as Global System for Mobile (GSM). 

GSM is the dominant mobile standard in most parts of the world, although many North American carriers, including Bell and Telus, have long used a competing technology called CDMA. That's about to change — Bell has also been running its own LTE trials and expects to launch its first network later this year, and Telus will likely follow suit in early 2012.

So far, the Rogers LTE network is only available in Ottawa. The company chose Ottawa to launch the network partly because Ericsson, which built the infrastructure, has a large laboratory there. Rogers said it will roll out LTE in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver later this year and in 21 other cities next year.

Rogers Communications CEO Nadir Mohamed prepares to address shareholders at the company's annual general meeting in Toronto on April 27, 2011. the company said its new high-speed wireless network will open the way to new innovative products and services. (Fred Thornhill/Reuters)

While LTE operates at high speeds, it won't make your existing smartphone any faster since the mobile devices currently sold in Canada are not equipped to access the LTE network. At the moment, Rogers's new network can only be accessed via a USB stick (or "dongle") that connects your laptop to the LTE network.

LTE-enabled mobile phones aren't expected to reach the market in Canada until the end of the year. Even those will likely not be purely LTE handsets but rather hybrid 3G-LTE devices that require two separate chipsets to access both networks – and have a greatly diminished battery life as a result. The dual-chip design is necessary so that the phones can access both existing 3G networks and the new LTE high-speed data network.

Most industry experts predict that the first fully LTE-enabled smartphones and tablets won't hit the market until the summer or fall of 2012.

Still, when it launched the network on July 7, Rogers heralded it as a technological leap that would define Canada's digital future.

"This network will power the next generation of innovative products and services in ways we've never seen before," said Rob Bruce, the company's president in charge of communications, at the time of the launch. "And it will be the backbone of Canada's digital economy as we continue to move from a wired to a wireless world."

More data, faster

So, what can users expect from these new high-speed networks, and how will they affect the way we use our mobile devices?

LTE stands for long-term evolution. The group of telecommunications companies that developed it, known as the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), chose the name because LTE evolved out of the existing 3G technology and did not entirely supplant it, as was the case with the third generation of GSM-based wireless technology (known as UMTS).

The technology behind LTE amounts to a reorganization of the way data is transported over existing wireless bandwidth, allowing more data to be transferred faster and more efficiently. LTE networks can transmit data 10 times faster than 3G networks. They're about three times faster than the advanced High-Speed Packet Access+ (HSPA+) networks.

The 3G-4G classification is a tricky one for the consumer, though, because of the way phones and wireless plans are marketed. 

HSPA+ was initially called 3.5G, for example, since it did not reach the 100 Mbps speeds considered a minimum for true 4G categorization. But in December 2010, the International Telecommunication Union, which develops mobile standards, ruled that providers could refer to HSPA+ networks as 4G.

Even LTE, although based on fourth-generation wireless technology, is technically considered a precursor to true fourth generation mobile standards, since those require that a network accommodate speeds of 100Mbps to 1 Gbps. As a result, LTE is sometimes referred to as 3.9G because it runs at 100 Mbsp. The full breadth of 4G speeds won't be achieved until the release of something called LTE Advanced, which likely won't be until 2013.

All this confusion over what exactly is and isn't 4G is perhaps what motivated the tagline for Rogers's new LTE network: "Beyond 4G."

Greater spectral efficiency

LTE technology basically enables providers to push more data across the same amount of radio spectrum. That means they need fewer cellphone towers to serve the same coverage area and can accommodate more users simultaneously without compromising speed. The latter will be especially important in the coming years as more and more people use mobile networks to access the internet.

Ali Shah, director of broadband strategy at Sony Ericsson, predicts mobile network demand in North America will grow over the next five years from 30 to 40 million gigabytes a month to 300 to 400 million gigabytes a month. 

"LTE can handle this huge surge," he said in a statement on the Rogers website outlining the features of the LTE network.

While 3G networks carry data over paired channels of 5 MHz each – one for uploads and one for downloads – within a certain bandwidth of radio spectrum, LTE technology will widen those channels to 20 MHz, vastly improving what is known as the spectral efficiency of the network, said Stefan Constantinescu, a Helsinki-based senior editor with the online publication IntoMobile, which covers all things wireless.

Under ideal – read, theoretical – conditions, LTE networks will transmit data at speeds of 100 Mbps (Rogers has given theoretical upper limits of 150 Mbps for downloads and 70 Mbps for uploads). In real-world terms, i.e. the world where everything from geography to the amount of radio spectrum providers have to work with can conspire to slow your connection, this translates to actual speeds of 12 to 25 Mbps, according to Rogers.

"Basically, you have an internet connection as fast as the one you have in your house anywhere you're in a coverage area, which is highly compelling," said Constantinescu.

It's just today's technology faster.— Stefan Constantinescu, IntoMobile

This super-fast connection will eliminate the delays and buffering – known as "latency" in mobile parlance – that make surfing the net on your smartphone so frustrating today. 

That means you'll be able to launch hyperlinks immediately; stream video and music seamlessly; upload, download and send photos quickly; use graphics-heavy applications; play real-time, multiplayer games; and video chat without interruption, echo or reverb.

"It's just today's technology, faster," said Constantinescu.

New frontier of mobile video

Video is the area where LTE is likely to have the most impact, said Duncan Stewart, director of research for technology, media and telecommunications at Deloitte Canada, a consulting firm.

"It is going to take our phones — and especially our tablets and, of course, computers with modems — from a world where they have essentially been able to do email really well and web browsing pretty well and video pretty badly … [to one where video] is almost as good as if you had a wire-line connection," Stewart said.

And while today's smartphones don't yet have the processors to fully take advantage of LTE speeds, it won't be long before they can shoot 16-megapixel photos and 1080p high-definition video, says Constantinescu. That is when LTE will start to make a difference to the consumer.

"Sending those huge files to your friends will be drastically faster with LTE," he said.

The three most important things in wireless access tend to be speed, speed and speed.— Duncan Stewart, Deloitte Canada

Stewart concurs that speed is LTE's biggest selling point.

"Remember how the three most important things in real estate are location, location, location? The three most important things in wireless access tend to be speed, speed and speed," he said.

While people talk about the importance of price and reliability, in reality, those factors don't play nearly as big a role as speed when it comes to how people choose a wireless network, Stewart said.

"The most popular smartphone in Britain today only gets a signal 78 per cent of the time!" he said by way of illustration. "So, although we talk about price and we talk about reliability, that's not really it."

Stewart cautions that LTE has limitations, too. Although LTE will approach DSL and cable speeds, hard-wired connections will still be much more reliable than even the fastest wireless network.

"Any time everybody in your neighbourhood turns on their iPhones or their Androids or their Blackberries all at the same time, your network speeds is just going to drop through the floor, and watching video is going to become almost certainly an impossibility," he said.

"At the end of the day, transporting video signals is extremely bit-intensive — it just takes a lot of bandwidth — and most of the time, people ought to do that over a wire."

No voice support

One thing to keep in mind when talking about LTE is that although it is a mobile phone technology, it does not handle the voice component of wireless service. Whether you're web surfing or talking, everything on an LTE network is transmitted as packets of data.

"LTE is very special because it's the first wireless technology to not include support for voice and SMS," said Constantinescu. "LTE is strictly for data only, and the operators around the world are arguing about how to best implement voice and SMS, because that's how they make cash."

The major wireless providers, including Verizon, Nokia, Ericsson and Vodafone, have teamed up to develop a protocol for voice service over LTE networks called the One Voice Initiative. It would see extra servers installed at operators' server farms that would enable voice and SMS, said Constantinescu.

Once a voice over LTE (VoLTE) protocol is implemented by the major providers, mobile users will be able to make calls and access the internet at the same time using only the LTE network.

In the meantime, though, voice calls and texting have to continue to be done over 3G networks while data is transferred over LTE, where coverage and dual-mode mobile devices exist.

Another aspect to consider when evaluating LTE is that while the technology is capable of transmitting data at speeds of 100 Mbps, there are many factors that affect whether the data you download or upload will actually travel at that speed.

LTE is the first wireless technology to not support voice and SMS, meaning providers have to develop a new protocol for delivering those services or rely on 3G networks. (Shaun Best/Reuters )

One of those factors is known as backhaul.

"Imagine you just got a brand new apartment," Constantinescu says. "You call up your provider to get internet access, and you get the 10 Mbps package — that's the backhaul. Now, you go to your local electronics store and you purchase a WiFi router and the WiFi router advertises itself as capable of 150 Mbps transfers. You will not be downloading stuff from the internet at 150 Mbps — even though the [WiFi router] technology is capable of transferring info that fast.

"LTE is capable of going ridiculously fast, but the backhaul — the cable component hooked up to the cellphone tower — that's the part that's handicapping everything, along with spectrum."

The importance of radio spectrum to the success of LTE networks is why Rogers has its eye on the 700 MHz band that will come up for auction next year — once it is freed up by Canada's transition from analog to digital TV this August — and is already being used by U.S. providers like Verizon to run LTE networks.

"LTE — just like any other wireless technology — is dependent on spectrum, so the more spectrum you have, the faster the network will run," Constantinescu said.

LTE mostly on laptops, not phones

Canada is playing catch-up to other parts of the world with the LTE rollout. LTE networks are already commercially available in 16 countries, according to the Global Mobile Suppliers Association  — 17 with the launch of Canada's first network. In most of them, however, LTE is not yet being used on cellphones. Instead, it is being accessed via a USB dongle or a mobile hot spot.

In Canada, Rogers has dubbed its dongle the Rocket Stick and is selling it for $79.99 on a three year data plan and $169.99 with no plan. (Prices of monthly data plans for the Rocket Stick vary from $45 for 1.5 GB to $90 for 9 GB). A Rocket Stick — or Rocket mobile hot spot — is also required to access its high-speed HSPA+ network on a laptop.

A prototype LTE-enabled tablet on display at the LTE Innovation Center at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas on Jan. 7, 2010. The device is a collaboration of NVIDIA, Verizon Wireless, Motorola and ICD, a Seattle-based engineering and design firm. (Steve Marcus /Reuters)

Verizon in the U.S. does sell LTE smartphones — the bulk of which so far have come from Samsung, HTC and LG — and AT&T is expected to start selling LTE-enabled devices this summer once it launches its own LTE network. But all of these devices require two separate chipsets so they can connect to both the 3G network, which supports voice and data, and the LTE network, which as yet supports only data. That dual-chip system is a huge drain on the battery life of the devices, says Constantinescu.

For LTE to be truly viable for cellphones, handsets will have to have a single integrated chip that can backpedal to 3G when it is not in a LTE coverage zone and to 2G when it is not in a 3G zone, he said.

Many providers that already offer LTE are holding off on providing handsets until the release of single-chip LTE devices.

One of them is TeliaSonera, the Swedish telco that was the first in the world to launch a commercial LTE network in December 2009 in Sweden and Norway. Today, Sweden is the country that is the furthest along in its implementation of LTE technology, with coverage in most major cities and networks that offer real-world speeds of 60 to 70 Mbps.

Other providers have been content to ignore LTE altogether and stick with their HSPA+ networks, which can reach theoretical speeds of 42 Mbps and actual speeds of 25 Mbps.

The chairman of Wind mobile, one the newer entrants into Canada's wireless market, told the Toronto Star that the company won't be upgrading its network to LTE any time soon.

"There's no or very, very few devices or tablets or handsets that can take advantage of the [LTE] speeds anyway," Anthony Lacavera told the paper.

Bulk of Canadians will have LTE access in 2 years

Stewart suspects that 60 to 80 per cent of Canada's population will have LTE coverage in their region within two years, with the bulk of the coverage being in urban centres — although in other countries, such as Germany, governments have made the sale of radio spectrum contingent on providers rolling out LTE in rural areas first.

But however widespread 4G networks get, they won't completely replace older mobile standards for some time, says Stewart.

"Fifty or 60 per cent of all the data traffic across one [Canadian wireless] carrier — I won't name them but one of the carrier's networks — is still GPRS," he said. "That's technology that's over 10 years old at this point!

"It takes forever for technology to finally stop being used. So, I expect us to be using a combination of LTE and HSPA+ and GPRS for years, if not decades, to come."

One standard that will likely not survive, however, is WiMax, according to Constantinescu. WiMax is the competing 4G technology that some providers, including Sprint in the U.S., have been using instead of LTE.

"WiMax is dead in the water," Constantinescu said. "There is nobody who is going to use WiMax in the foreseeable future."

Although the two standards are similar in terms of performance, the global trend is clearly toward LTE, which is why most new entrants will likely choose it over WiMax.

"You want to be playing with the stuff that everybody else in the world plays with," said Constantinescu.