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LTE predictions for 2014: Operators will reap the benefits of carrier aggregation but VoLTE will have limited impact

VoLTE is unlikely to make a significant impact in 2014 because few countries will have the breadth of network needed for useful service.

LTE continues to make an impact on the mobile networking landscape, and 2014 will mark the arrival of new features and capabilities that show just how capable the technology is in meeting mobile broadband requirements for a wide range of mobile operators.



LTE will make the spectrum-rich richer, and the spectrum-poor just a little better off

In 2014, more operators will deploy LTE-A carrier aggregation (CA), including operators doing initial LTE deployments. CA benefits operators with multiple spectrum positions, those with small pieces, and particularly operators that are combining acquired networks. The initial focus is on higher-speed services, but we expect more deployments of 5+5MHz carrier aggregation as emerging markets deploy LTE in 2014.

Early testing of carrier aggregation is enabling operators to bind separate spectrum channels together to create larger channels and faster wireless services, and reduce opex and capex costs from running multiple networks. SK Telecom and LG Uplus in South Korea are offering commercial LTE-A carrier aggregation services supporting speeds of up to 150Mbps, and EE in the UK has demonstrated near-300Mbps LTE-A service in London. Larger network operators such as AT&T, Sprint, Telefónica, Verizon and Vodafone, as well as operators holding multiple spectrum positions such as EE, T-Mobile, Telstra, will be early implementers of carrier aggregation.

Figure 1: LTE-A test results by operator, September 2013 [Source: Analysys Mason, 2013]

Country Operator Maximum downlink speeds (Mbps)
Australia Telstra 300 (expected)
Austria A1 Telekom Austria 580 (trial)
China China Mobile 233 (TD-LTE)
Japan NTT DOCOMO 300 (expected)
Philippines Smart Communications 210
Portugal Optimus 300
Russia Yota 300
South Africa Telkom Mobile (8ta) 210 (TD-LTE)
South Korea SK Telecom 150
  LG Uplus 150
Turkey Turkcell 900 (laboratory), 150

Band fractionalisation will be less of an issue thanks to broad device support

LTE band fractionalisation will come to an end in 2014. Despite early and well-publicised concerns regarding the number of different bands supporting LTE (25 for FD-LTE and 11 for TD-LTE), the market has – as we had expected – focussed on five bands for FD-LTE (700MHz, 800MHz, AWS (1.7GHz and 2.1GHz), 1.8GHz and 2.6GHz) and four for TD-LTE (2.3GHz, 2.5GHz, 2.6GHz and 3.5/3.6GHz).

Devices are able to support approximately six bands (the new iPhone 5S/5C support 17 via different models), thus providing room to support both ‘local’ bands as well as the more commonly used ‘global’ bands. 2.6GHz and 1.8GHz are early candidates for LTE roaming, but neither band is in use in North America. The rapidly expanding international base of support for the APT700 plan is making North America an ‘LTE island’, but device support for one of the ‘international bands’ alleviates this problem. One area that remains potentially problematic for operators is support for LTE-A, which we expect will largely be a local phenomenon and not available for roaming services.

VoLTE will emerge as a (limited) market service

VoLTE is unlikely to make a significant impact in 2014 because few countries will have the breadth of network needed for useful service (Japan and the USA are the notable exceptions). However, we expect that both countries will launch VoLTE services, with circuit-switched fallback (CSFB), as a precursor to more-advanced services including RCS and other voice-over-data-enabled services. Other countries with concentrated users such as EE in the UK, Telstra in Australia may also launch VoLTE with HD Voice as a competitive differentiator. Voice support for most operators has to include a ‘fallback’ solution for non-native VoLTE calls, or calls in areas where LTE coverage is lacking or limited. We also expect carriers will move more slowly towards Single Radio Voice Call Continuity (SRVCC) because the complexity of that solution demands a simplification by the equipment vendors for widespread implementation.

South Korea is the world leader in VoLTE penetration, largely because of the ability to offer 100% LTE network coverage – all three national carriers have embarked on aggressive (and highly competitive) network build-outs. SK Telecom announced that it had more than 4.5 million VoLTE users as of June 2013 and it leads the South Korean market in terms of VoLTE subscribers. For operators to rely on LTE for their voice coverage, complete network build-outs are required. Verizon Wireless’s network, the USA’s largest LTE network, had about 303 million people covered in September 2013, out of a total population of 317 million.

Figure 2: Activities relating to VoLTE, selected operators, 2011–2014 [Source: Analysys Mason, 2013]

Date Event
February 2011 Verizon Wireless (USA) completed first VoLTE call
August 2012 SK Telecom (South Korea) deployed first HD VoLTE service and LG Uplus launched VoLTE service
August 2012 MetroPCS (USA) launched limited VoLTE service
October 2012 KT (South Korea) launched VoLTE
April 2013 EE (UK) announced network upgrades to provide support for new services including VoLTE
May 2013 Mobily (Saudi Arabia) completed VoLTE trials
July 2013 Bharti Airtel (India) requested permission to trial VoLTE
1Q 2014 Telefónica Germany (O2) will demonstrate VoLTE
4Q 2014 China Mobile will launch VoLTE

South Korea is proving to be the LTE technology ‘test-bed’, with both LTE-A with carrier aggregation and VoLTE in commercial use. Devices supported include the Samsung Galaxy S3 and S4. However, VoLTE still appears to be a future application in all markets except South Korea, as early LTE MNOs use both dual radio (supporting voice on a separate call) and CSFB for early voice support.

Mobily announced in May 2013 that it had worked with partner Huawei and completed tests of VoLTE and enhanced Single Radio Call Continuity (eSRVCC). These are probably the first such tests in the Middle East and North Africa.