Excitement about 5G is starting to dominate the agenda in the mobile industry, as we near the first phase of 5G standardisation. But it’s important not to lose sight of how much potential remains in 4G mobile networks, for meeting the current and future demands of both consumers and businesses.
There are three main areas in which 5G promises benefits:
- Faster data rates and higher capacity
- Expansion of the internet of things (IoT)
- Lower latency
Operators do not need to wait for 5G to take these things forward. In all three areas, operators can deliver major improvements immediately, by investing in the development of their 4G networks.
Faster data rates and high capacity in 4G networks
Today in London’s Wembley Stadium, EE, Sony and Qualcomm jointly hosted an event demonstrating that we do not need to wait for 5G, to get gigabit speeds on mobile. In fact, we do not need to wait at all. By combining three 4G technology upgrades (carrier aggregation, 4 x 4 MIMO and 256 QAM), EE showed peak download data rates around 750Mbit/s on its live commercial network. In lab conditions, using the same technologies, download rates of almost 1Gbit/s have been achieved. Earlier this year, the Australian operator Telstra demonstrated download speeds in the 1Gbit/s range, but in that case the access device was a router. EE’s Wembley demo used a smartphone as the access device (Sony’s Xperia XZ Premium).
Given sufficient spectrum, there is still more scope to increase the data rates that 4G networks can achieve using these upgrade technologies, and it’s likely that in the next few years we will see peak download rates well in excess of 1Gbit/s well before the advent of 5G.
IoT expansion in 4G networks
Operators can expand the scale and scope of IoT on their 4G networks by applying specialized upgrades: NB-IoT (narrowband IoT) and LTE-M (LTE-machine). By reducing the power consumption and signaling activity of connected devices, these upgrades can enable 4G networks to support connection densities in the range of 50,000-60,000 devices per cell, to improve coverage in enclosed and underground locations such as water mains, and to connect devices such as sensors that can operate for years on a single battery charge.
Vodafone brought the first commercial NB-IoT application to market, a smart metering solution for the Spanish water utility Aguas de Valencia. Other large European operators are embracing NB-IoT too, notably Deutsche Telekom, which announced nationwide NB-IoT coverage in The Netherlands at the end of May 2017, and its first commercial NB-IoT services packages in Germany in June 2017. LTE-M, has mainly been adopted outside Europe, but a major exception emerged in February 2017 when Orange announced its plan to roll out LTE-M on its 4G networks in Belgium and Spain, and eventually in other operating markets too.
Low latency in 4G networks
5G networks promise latency below 10ms, making them much more responsive than today’s mobile networks, and enabling applications such as multi-player gaming, connected virtual reality (VR) and remote command & control. But there is scope to improve latency in 4G networks, by using newly standardized technology known as multi-access edge computing (MEC). In a MEC-enabled network, compute and storage resources are sited at the cellular base stations, enabling faster delivery of content to end users, and shorter paths between the network’s data processing resources and the end points that use them.
Demonstrations are already showing the kind of improvements that MEC on 4G networks can deliver. For example, at its Innovation Week in June 2017, BT teamed with Saguna to show the application of MEC to industrial automation, in a demonstration involving drones collecting and loading packages in a dispatch warehouse. Because global position service (GPS) is not available indoors, the drones must communicate their locations constantly with the central controller to carry out their tasks, and with each other to avoid colliding as they do so. In the demo, the drones were connected to a 4G base station, and a MEC server steered their communications directly to the control application rather than to BT’s backhaul and core network. This enabled them to co-ordinate their movements and avoid colliding even when working in close proximity with each other.
Specialisation of 4G networks
In addition to the improvements in general performance that can be achieved by upgrading 4G networks, 4G performance can also be improved for specific use cases via specialized upgrades. Important ones include:
- LTE-B (Broadcast), enabling a single stream of data to be consumed simultaneously by multiple devices
- LTE-V2X (Vehicle-to-“everything”), using the 4G network for specialized communication between vehicles and other vehicles, road infrastructure, pedestrians and the network.
- LTE-R (Railway), an adaptation of 4G for use as a communications network by railway operators, meeting needs that are specific to that industry such as support for high-speed mobility and safety-critical reliability.
If you want to learn more about this topic, or have any question on European Mobility, please contact John Delaney.