Plenty of life yet in 4G, telcos say

Despite the growing hype around 5G, 4G is far from dead; it’s not even pining for the fjords

Although Australia’s mobile network operators are gearing up for the launch of services based on the next-generation 5G standard, they are continuing to push the boundaries of what is possible with 4G.

Telstra and Optus have both indicated they plan to launch their first 5G-based services in 2019, and Vodafone has conducted trials of 5G technology. TPG, which is set to launch its own network in the second half of this year, has indicated that its mobile infrastructure will potentially underpin 5G services.

4G still “has lots of legs in it” Telstra’s executive director, network and infrastructure engineering, Channa Seneviratne, yesterday told the CommsDay Unwired Revolution conference in Sydney.

Specifications for 5G are still being finalised (standards body 3GPP has taken a phased approach to 5G standards), and 4G continues to be developed, he said.

“There will be lots of new features coming out in 4G and 4G’s got a good future,” he told the conference.

In 2017 Telstra revealed it planned to support 1 gigabit per second downloads over its 4G network. Seneviratne said Telstra now offers gigabit speeds on its LTE network within five kilometres of the CBDs of major cities.

“We are moving and developing our network infrastructure now to support 2 gigabits in that same footprint,” Seneviratne said.

Last month Telstra revealed it would offer 2Gbps speeds in high-traffic locations following tests conducted in partnership with Ericsson, Netgear and Qualcomm. 

Exploring the boundaries of what is possible with 4G is part of Telstra’s efforts to sweat its assets, including its extensive wireless spectrum holdings, Seneviratne said.

Earlier this month Telstra announced it had begun offering support for LTE broadcast (LTE-B) on its network. LTE-B can help deliver a high-quality streaming video experience for customers with compatible handsets but will also help reduce the per-bit cost of traffic across Telstra’s network, Seneviratne said.

Vodafone’s Easwaren Siva — the telco’s general manager, technology strategy — agreed with Seneviratne that the potential of 4G was far from being exhausted.

“We are actively re-farming our 3G bands for 4G,” he told the conference. The telco has already re-farmed its spectrum in the 1800MHz band and some of its 2100MHz holdings.

“The intention really is to get every band we have up onto the 4G layer — except the 900[MHz] band to at least provide a very thin 3G coverage layer,” he said. That 3G layer is for mobile devices that don’t support Voice over LTE (VoLTE).

Siva said that as the demand for mobile data grows — the average monthly usage per customer is in the region of 5GB he said — telcos are working to optimise their LTE networks. Even once 5G services hit the market, device penetration will lag, he said.

“We see 4G really powering right into the early-mid 2020s because it will still be the backbone of most networks in terms of data carriage,” he said.

Vodafone has conducted a number of live trials of technology that can provide a boost to 4G services, including live trials of ‘4.9G’ Massive MIMO technology on FDD bands.

Siva added: “Multi-beam antennas for the 1800, 2100 bands are also high on the agenda — all this basically to enable more capacity on the network as the consumption of data continuously grows.”

One area that Vodafone has been focusing on is the Internet of Things (IoT), rolling out support for Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) services, he said.

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