A brief history of LTE
By Edwin Yapp April 30, 2013
- Next-generation wireless technology LTE aims to be the true global standard for the industry
- Much progress has been made in last decade; still, some factors that may slow its adoption
ANALYSIS Every 10 years or so, a major wireless technology evolution appears, touting the ability to disrupt markets, enhance raw transmission speeds and promising to provide the next wireless nirvana experience for end-users.
As analogue cellular phones gave way to digital systems via GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) in the early 1990s, so too GSM transitioned into third generation (3G) systems.
Today, about 20 years after GSM first came to this region, we’re once again at a crossroad of the wireless evolution and Long Term Evolution or LTE is the word on every wireless operator’s lips.
In a nutshell, LTE promises to have the following technical benefits:
- A theoretical download speed of more than 100Mbps (megabits per second) and 50Mbps upload speed. However, the practical speeds experienced in a real-life scenario and in a commercial network are closer to that of 10Mbps to 30Mbps download speeds and 5Mbps to 10Mbps upload speeds;
- Extremely low data latency throughputs of 5 milliseconds (ms), which translate to faster response time from network servers, thereby allowing real-time applications such as online stock transaction or gaming to happen without lag;
- More efficient use of a given frequency spectrum compared to 3G, which means more network capacity (more users and faster transmissions) given the same cell capacity; and
- An all-IP (Internet Protocol) network architecture starting from the base station to the backend infrastructure, with fewer network elements in between the two, thereby allowing more efficient connection.
The aforementioned technical benefits will benefit businesses too, largely enabling organizations to increase their dependency on mobility by enhancing their ability to access everything from their applications, data and information while on the move.
This is supposed to improve productivity and responsiveness, and give greater flexibility to staff to manage their work outside of the office.
How we got to LTE
The official development of LTE began in 2005 after Japanese operator NTT DoCoMo proposed a next-generation wireless standard that would seek to unify the somewhat fragmented wireless standards that had been in existence to date.
The development of GSM in the late 1980s in Europe meant that much of the 1990s was focused on the technology in pan-European countries. The spread of GSM was also prevalent in Asia Pacific as traditionally speaking, operators in this region took their mobile technology playbook from European countries rather than from the United States.
However, GSM did not turn out to be a truly global standard as it did not get a foothold with large operators in the United States (Verizon and Sprint), Canada (Bell and Telus), Japan (KDDI), South Korea (SK Telecom) or China (China Telecom) – all of which favoured a competing standard known as CDMA (code division multiple access).
As a result of this, the use of these two technical standards effectively fragmented the market and forced operators to either choose one or the other, resulting in the disruption of a truly global operating standard. This also gave birth to an immensely fragmented device ecosystem, as devices from the GSM camp could not be used where CDMA networks were operating.
This dilemma was best seen when Apple introduced its hugely popular iPhone in 2007 using the GSM standard rather than CDMA, which benefited GSM operator AT&T as opposed to its rival Verizon Wireless, for about five years.
After that exclusive period in which anyone who wanted an iPhone in the United States would have needed to have signed up with AT&T, Apple introduced the Verizon version of the iPhone in 2011 based on CDMA.
The goal of LTE is thus to unify these two competing standards and to ensure that future wireless communications would have economies of scale in both handsets and network infrastructure gear.
Besides this, the coming of LTE also helped network operators by giving them a natural migration path for their existing legacy technologies (GSM/CDMA) to make the leap into newer, more efficient and less complicated networks, thereby resulting in lower capital expenditure (capex) and operational expenditure (opex) costs for the operators to absorb.