TD-LTE has had a lot of attention in China (over 300m users) and USA (proposed for the 3.5GHz CBRS band). Trevor Moore, CEO of Belgian small cell vendor Accelleran, notes that many countries already have commercially live independent TD-LTE 3.5GHz services. He explains how these are well positioned to disrupt traditional players through the use of small cells and new business models such as neutral host deployment.
What is the current state of Licensed TD-LTE in Europe?
It’s often overlooked that one or more fully licensed commercial TD-LTE operators is active in most European countries today. These include serious and well-funded players many of whom are gaining prominence and are often independent of the incumbent mobile and fixed network operators.
Most of these players have historically served the broadband fixed access market, and are busy replacing WiMAX technology with TD-LTE. They provide wireline broadband equivalent service with rapid installation and flexible contracts. Examples include UK Broadband, Linkem and In-Aria in Italy, Eurona and Neosky in Spain, Imagine in Ireland.
How will this change?
3.5GHz spectrum is going to become mainstream as a globally licensed band for small cells and capacity. The major industry shift is being driven from Asia, where the 3.5GHz band is being adopted by mobile networks. Japan is already at an advanced stage and, together with China, will drive this technology into mass-volume products, with commercial deployment from 2H 2016.
We expect that 3.5GHz TD-LTE in Band 42 will soon be integrated into mainstream smartphone handsets. Huawei already have a chipset for compatible smartphones, Intel were touting a reference design late last year, Qualcomm announced at MWC16 that their X16 chipset will support the 3.5GHz band. With three of the five major smartphone chipset vendors already signed up, and major geographies deploying networks, it’s just a question of time.
It’s worth emphasising that we are talking about up to 400 MHz of available spectrum which has been widely licensed globally for commercial terrestrial wireless communications. It represents a huge swathe of valuable spectrum which has been historically under-valued and is very well suited to indoor coverage and provision of a capacity layer. This is standard TD-LTE technology and does not require any of the complexities and overheads being proposed for the 5GHz unlicensed band.
This is not to be confused with the US CBRS band at 3.5GHz, which has less spectrum, is shared with other users including radar, and requires central co-ordination. Nonetheless, it will further expand the market for 3.5GHz capable handsets and small cells, which would require only software features to overcome those constraints.
In the US, the FCC are taking an innovative and potentially significant approach to regulation in the 3.5GHz bands. The spectrum which is being made available currently is a subset of Bands 42 and 43, and is shared with other users including radar, requiring central co-ordination to manage access to spectrum and protect privileged use. This approach has the potential to be highly disruptive, since it opens the door to lightweight, dynamic licensing models - the “Uberisation” of spectrum. It will certainly further expand the market for 3.5GHz capable handsets and small cells which, with the necessary software upgrades, can support this model without difficulty.
What about TD-LTE Small Cells?
Up to now, most 3.5GHz deployments use outdoor macrocells to deliver service across wide areas – often in rural coverage scenarios where copper or fibre simply aren’t available. There has been little interest for indoor or low power small cells because this didn’t match the wide area fixed broadband service model.
Recognising these bands as mainstream mobile with full support from the device vendors opens up tremendous opportunities to deliver mobile service capacity in areas, buildings and locations where conventional coverage is struggling.
Small Cell product technology has now reached a level of maturity where the eco-system has end-to-end solutions ready to deploy. Our speciality in TD-LTE addresses specific aspects of that technology variant, and we’ve proven successful interworking with almost every other major supplier.
Do you think LAA will reduce interest in licensed TD-LTE?
Absolutely not. Mainstream LAA uses a licensed anchor anyway. We think that making full use of available and under-utilised licensed spectrum with TD-LTE is a better first step because it ensures clear control and management of the resource. Boosting capacity using LAA is then a benefit to be added subsequently. It’s certainly possible to augment a 3.5GHz TD-LTE band with LAA in 5GHz to achieve high throughput rates.
But there’s a question mark over the real benefits of using LAA and Listen-Before-Talk with LTE technology versus aggregating WiFi technology. Let’s see real-world performance and let the market speak. There are several choices open today, and we think many operators might prefer to aggregate LTE with Wi-Fi using Dual Connectivity or LWA.
In the medium term, we pride ourselves on being agile and in a position to respond to market demands in whichever way it evolves.
What signs should we look out for as the market develops?
Broadband wireless operators are in a great position to act as “neutral hosts”, allowing third parties to install and maintain in-building Enterprise small cells, while aggregating and consolidating traffic. We support the view that adopting an operator neutral deployment model for in-building small cells is essential to move the market, and this seems to be a great way for that to happen.
It’s all about trust, perhaps more so than technology alone. An established broadband wireless operator with proven capabilities is in a great position to build that trusted relationship with the mobile incumbents, while at the same time those incumbents are more than ever looking for ways to avoid capital investments of their own. This is perhaps what has been most missing from public Wi-Fi, and hampered its success.
Mobile network operators need to trust the quality of service that can be delivered if they allow roaming to a third party’s infrastructure. This concern is perhaps something that has held back Wi-Fi take-up, where quality of service can vary widely. The use of wholesale reserved licensed spectrum would be a game-changer here.
The price point of Enterprise small cells needs to approach WiFi levels because indoor use at higher frequencies will require larger deployment numbers. That drives not just the cost of the physical box, but the logistics and skill levels for simple installation and on-going system management. The supply side needs to be thinking in terms of mass market volumes and appropriate business models to match. Our expertise from the residential broadband and femtocell markets puts us in a strong position to bring a disruptive approach to the market. Cost structures and profit margins need to be lower than traditionally expected in the macrocell business, but the potential for equipment volumes and total market size are much greater.