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One Step Away from 5G

2018-08-23  |  7 min read 

One of the challenges with introducing a revolutionary new technology is that people want to be able to use it right away. They don’t want to have to wait to enjoy its promised benefits. 5G is a good example: it’s been publicly showcased at scale, and initial rollouts are under way. But it will be 18 months or more before services start on the path to ubiquity. And in the meantime, customers are demanding ever-faster mobile data connections.

Ericsson’s Mobility Report from June 2018 stated that monthly data traffic per mobile device in the U.S. will increase by nearly 7x, from 7.2 GB today to 49 GB in 2023. This upward trend has been steady since 2011, representing a 43% compound annual growth rate in traffic per smartphone subscriber. Further, cellular networks are becoming the central platform for connecting IoT devices and enabling M2M communications. The result is that service providers have to satisfy these growing, seemingly insatiable demands now, while they continue to build, test, and deploy their 5G networks.

The good news is that implementing new capabilities of 4G LTE can help to meet those demands. 4G LTE-Advanced Pro (also known as 4.9G) can satisfy subscribers’ appetite for data and connectivity, as it offers incremental improvements to existing 4G networks. Put simply, 4.9G supercharges conventional 4G LTE with use of carrier aggregation and large antenna arrays, meaning that 4.9G-enabled sites can deliver greater capacity and much faster performance on compatible devices. This offers a stepping-stone to full 5G services and gives providers a testing ground for full 5G applications and business models, without the huge upfront investments.

However, evolving an existing LTE network to 4.9G does present challenges that service providers need to overcome to maximize their capabilities. These challenges fall into in five areas: 

Making networks gigabit-ready

4.9G should offer gigabit speeds, to help bridge the performance gap to 5G. To take full advantage of 4.9G technology, service providers should focus on optimizing spectrum usage and network capacity, with carrier aggregation and rolling out pre-5G FD-MIMO. They should also ensure that networks are optimized for 4.9G by working with network equipment manufacturers (NEMs) on an upgrade path that supports these areas and invest in platforms that offer software-defined capabilities to future-proof network upgrades. 

Network virtualization

Migrating to a cloud-based, virtual evolved packet core (vEPC) platform is an initial step that allows more efficient deployment of network resources. Many service providers are doing this by implementing network functions virtualization (NFV), to enable a more flexible and adaptable 5G-ready platform. It’s also important to evolve the RAN to maximize 4.9G performance. By implementing LTE-A and LTE-A Pro, 4G LTE networks can evolve in terms of FD-MIMO and NB-IoT to offer more capacity, lower latency, more connections, and a more flexible architecture. 

Both the RAN and the core will need to be extensively tested to determine how the infrastructure handles the massive amounts of data driven by 4.9G technologies, with minimal latency. This is especially important in networks supporting real-time traffic and mission-critical applications.

Gaining experience in new business models

5G will support a broad range of use cases, with the focus on enhanced mobile broadband, ultra-reliable low-latency communications, and massive M2M connectivity. Implementing 4.9G will take service providers a step closer to 5G, using current 4G technologies such as CAT-M1 and NB-IoT. These offer experience in operating the type of network that can support wide-area, low-bandwidth, low power consumption services. 

This is an opportunity to build a customer base, explore potential use cases in vertical industries, and engage in large scale IoT initiatives such as smart grid/smart city prior to the release of 5G standards and technologies. 4.9G means providers can pilot business models and develop a 5G-like ecosystem ahead of the curve.

Efficient, flexible spectrum use

Given the huge costs of spectrum, a 4.9G strategy must be planned out, including 5G coexistence. Service providers’ spectrum holdings should be used now to gain experience with technologies such as MIMO, carrier aggregation, unlicensed shared spectrum using license-assisted access (LAA), and small cells. This gives more options for repurposing existing spectrum resources and helps to develop a long-term plan that supports coexistence of 4.9G and 5G.

Investing in future-proof infrastructure

4.9G shares many performance attributes with 5G and requires similar infrastructure hardware upgrades when considering sub-6 GHz frequency bands. Upgrade considerations include antenna modernization and cell densification, as well as deploying new cell sites. Underneath all of this is the requirement for a reliable, secure backhaul network, which means building out fiber networks. Given the costs of doing this, from securing leases and regulatory approval, through to construction and commissioning, an end-to-end test strategy to validate the performance of the network as a whole is essential.

Evolving to 4.9G by implementing LTE-Advanced Pro will help to meet customers’ data demands, as technology and standards advance towards 5G. The service providers who invest the time and resources in understanding the implementation challenges now, and in comprehensive testing of how their systems perform as they evolve, will be well positioned to lead the market. 

Find out more by reading our new white paper on maximizing 4G LTE networks.