LTE for New Zealand in go-slow mode

Juha Saarinen looks at how it could deliver wireless broadband

Say what you like about high-speed fibre-optic, wireless broadband has its own very special, untethered cachet. As a nation, we are increasingly in love with portable devices of all kinds, and it is with those that we want to exchange data.

Presently, there are two choices — use wi-fi public hotspots or 3G cellular broadband. In practice, the use of the former technology is limited and awkward, whereas the rather more expensive 3G offers nationwide coverage and reasonably reliable service.

Next up on the cellular broadband horizon is Long Term Evolution or LTE, with big telco suppliers such as Ericsson, Nokia-Siemens, Alcatel-Lucent and Huawei promising up to 100Mbit/s downloads and 50Mbit/s uploads in the first release of the technology, with sub-10ms latency.

LTE should be cheaper to run too, with simplified, all-Internet Protocol architecture for mobile providers and greater network capacity to boost usage by customers.

It is not vapourware either: while we are waiting for HSPA+ here in New Zealand, LTE is being trialled around the world.

A recent visit to Huawei in Shanghai was an opportunity to see LTE in action; the Chinese telco supplier had built a test network along the MagLev monorail that goes from the airport to the city, to show off the technology.

Huawei’s TDD LTE implementation, for China Mobile, runs in the 2.6GHz band and uses 20MHz spectrum in total. In comparison, Telecom and Vodafone’s FDD 3G services run in the 850, 900 and 2100MHz bands.

Using a laptop and an LTE USB modem, we saw 30 to 40Mbit/s streaming downloads at speeds of 300 to 400kph aboard the MagLev train. That proves Huawei’s LTE technology can keep a lock on the transmission signal at high speeds and deliver data at the same time.

It is hard to imagine a real-world need for such high physical speeds, but certainly, 30 to 40Mbit/s on your mobile connection would be great for watching HD video for instance and even obviate the need for a fixed broadband connection for light to medium users.

As a technology demo, this was an impressive one by Huawei although it did fall short of the 100Mbit/s download speed that LTE is promising on paper. Fast mobile broadband will enable a range of new services and businesses, and overseas providers know this.

When will we see LTE here then? That is hard to say as LTE everywhere is in something of a holding pattern currently. The next-generation cellular broadband technology needs a good chunk of radio frequency spectrum to provide the big bandwidth and most of the desirable bands are already allocated to other uses.

What is more, radio frequency spectrum doesn’t come cheap anymore, so providers in saturated markets with limited growth potential are cautious to commit more capital to purchase it. As a result, despite ongoing technology demos since 2006, LTE remains mainly at trial stage.

Currently, local providers say they are waiting for the analogue TV signal to be switched off in 2012 to 2013, freeing up spectrum in relatively low frequency ranges so as to enable greater reach and building penetration for cost-effective deployment of LTE.

Despite obvious competition concerns, a single 700MHz LTE network shared by various providers has been mooted for New Zealand to work around the lack of available spectrum.

It is hard to see how a single network with regulated open access would speed up LTE deployment, compared to competitive rollouts enabled by better access to frequency spectrum however.

Indications from insiders are that the two large telcos would rather stick with upgraded older 3G networks than go with a shared 4G one, in fact.

Unfortunately, the government does not seem to be in a hurry on allocating frequencies for LTE, so 4G is likely to take a long time to hit our shores unless there is a change of mind here.

• Saarinen travelled to Shanghai as a guest of Huawei