LTE – (L)ife in (T)he old dog y(E)t

LTE rollout is by no means over – and yet the push to bring 5G to countries as diverse as South Korea and South Africa is very much under way. The reality of 5G deployment is different between these countries, but is the focus on 5G missing the point?

With global market demand for 5G services still in its nascent phase, LTE could well be enough for many countries – at least in the short-to-medium term. In fact some countries may not need 5G for a very long time. In the developing world for instance, 5G is promoted as potentially boosting mobile health, distance teaching and cashless payment (more so than ever in the light of the recent pandemic), but LTE can also enable many of these services.

In addition, for most countries, developed or developing, rolling out mid and high spectrum band 5G to rural areas will be uneconomic. Many rural end users will cope just fine with LTE – as billions of city dwellers already do.

As for apps, LTE is still a good fit for trackers, smart meters, wearables, and other low-cost, low-bandwidth and often battery-powered applications. IoT applications can be developed – and are being developed – using LTE. More importantly, LTE enhancements are still happening. LTE, LTE-Advanced, LTE-M, LTE-A Pro, NB-IoT and beyond won’t be obsolete anytime soon; in fact, as 5G connectivity evolves so will LTE.

5G rollout is way behind LTE, but they will eventually co-exist in many cases. Thanks to innovations like dynamic spectrum sharing, 4G and 5G services will be available concurrently in the same band and non-standalone (NSA) mode, giving Mobile Operators more flexibility in the technology transition timing and allowing LTE users to leverage 5G for additional bandwidth when needed.

In any case, why rush? LTE has coverage, users and an ecosystem, it has secured its place as a platform technology. It also has VoLTE – and room for further improvements and efficiencies, like LTE-A Pro, which takes advantage of unlicensed spectrum and common Wi-Fi networks to increase speed even further. LTE should take a significant role in indicating the feasibility of certain 5G markets.

Advances in 4G LTE are allowing operators to continue upgrading their networks while they test the 5G waters. Even the private network concepts that are emerging for various industry sectors can operate using LTE platforms.

And don’t forget the consumer. Yes, 5G will bring once undreamt-of broadband capacity but end users aren’t going to be rushing to upgrade their smartphones, especially during a massive economic downturn.

LTE and 5G have more in common than, say, 3G and 4G. They will coexist for some years to come. Therefore, operators need a viable combined LTE and 5G business strategy, focused on the best possible use of each technology. Co-existence makes sense – and will save money. It’s all a question of timing, which is where Real Wireless comes in.

In a world where service providers want to continue squeezing value from their existing 4G assets, preserving investment while transitioning to 5G, we can advise operators, towercos and investors on how best to do that. We can also advise them when and where to evolve from non-standalone (NSA) to fully independent 5G standalone architectures and the new use cases that will drive their deployment and the KPIs that operators need to take care of as they transition services from 4G to 5G for their subscribers.

It’s a question of timing – and sometimes being the first doesn’t make you the winner.