At a media event in San Jose, California, T-Mobile and Qualcomm delivered an update on GB LTE and T-Mobile revealed insights into its pre-5G and 5G rollout. One year ago, Qualcomm and Telstra lit up the first Gigabit LTE network (GB LTE). Qualcomm provides the hardware and carriers implementing the needed enhancements to the network. Since then, over 43 global operators have adopted. The latest to formally announce is T-Mobile. Actually, the carrier has already been rolling out GB LTE. It is now live in 430 metros, soon to be 900. Why is GB LTE important to carriers such as T-Mobile?
What is Gigabit LTE?
Counterpoint Research has been writing about GB LTE for over 12 months. (more here). GB LTE needs 3-way carrier aggregation, 4x4MIMO, and 256QAM. Since many carriers have a patchwork of spectrum, the ability to utilize multiple spectrum bands simultaneously is imperative. At its most basic, think of 4x4MIMO as more antennas to transmit. Or, a one lane highway turned into a four-lane highway which is also four levels high. 256QAM is the ability to increase the number of bits delivered per transmission. QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) is a modulation scheme which has vast improvements within LTE. At its most simplistic, it is the ability to ‘stuff’ more into every car or truck on the 4×4 highway.
What does it mean to subscribers & what does it mean to carriers?
So, what does this bring in the wild? First, GB LTE brings much better download speeds. Real-life speeds are in the 100’s of megabits/sec, but there are many variables which affect what the end result will be. So, there remains an asterisk for what the deltas will mean over the next few years. Within live demos, GB LTE devices vs. non-GB LTE devices (Note 8 vs. Note 5) saw speed improvements of 30%-50% while downloading a movie. Potentially more important than overall speed is the improved cell edge coverage. With more antennas, there is better signal strength even when the signal is challenged. Less worries about how users are holding the phone, too.
Cloud access is also improved. In demos accessing cloud resources, speeds of GB LTE devices were 200Mbps faster than non-GB LTE devices. This is a noticeable improvement for users. In addition, when GB LTE devices were no longer utilizing network resources, speeds jumped for non-GB LTE devices. This is a benefit to carriers as well as non-GB LTE subs, which includes the millions of Apple iPhone 8/X devices being lit up on US carriers.
VR applications will get a boost from GB LTE. In demos, multiple Daydream headsets were used streaming 4k, 3D, 60fps media. When all devices in use were non-GB LTE handsets, speeds averaged 50Mbps. With a mixture of GB LTE and non-LTE GB devices, speeds improved to 70Mbps. When all devices used were GB LTE, speeds improved to over 130Mbps.
Still quite fuzzy on details, 5G promises increased throughput and lower latency for carriers which will enable them to offer new services upon rollout late 2019/early 2020. For carriers, a strong performing LTE network will be vital as a robust fallback network. Consumer IoT remains in its infancy. (more here) However, as the easy smartphone net adds are waning in the mature markets, more dedication will be seen here.
What is TMO doing as they drive towards 5G?
T-Mobile will likely continue their aggressive ‘un-carrier’ initiatives in an attempt to continue to dominate the US’ phone net adds (more on US market here). The company potentially has less worry medium-term of enough capacity as unlimited plans are again being offered by all carriers. In fact, T-Mobile brags it averages half the number of users per cell site as Verizon.
On the LTE scorecard, TMO expects to have 321m LTE POPs by the end of the year. This is a tremendous improvement as the company was woefully behind on its 3G rollout. In addition, the company is rolling out 3-way carrier aggregation between different bands and a NB IoT network in pre-commercial trials. GB LTE smartphones have seen 610Mbps on the downlink and 45Mbps on the uplink. 900Mbps + speeds have been seen on smartphones in the lab. The company is careful not to over-promise on marketing speeds after the communications disaster the company met referring to HSPA+ as ‘4G’.
GB LTE will be the bedrock for 5G rollout. A sufficient installed base of GB LTE devices will be needed to offer a robust 5G fallback. (more on mmwave here) For 5G, T-Mobile will use a combination of LAA (License Assisted Access), high, mid and low band spectrum. The company will roll out 600MHz beginning in rural geos and high band with mmWave in urban areas. Timing remains late in 2019 for initial launch. More aggressive launch coming in 2020.
What is Qualcomm bringing?
Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 mobile platform is the first commercial integrated GB LTE modem and first commercial 10nm processor. To date, there are 21 devices launched or in design with the solution. Over the past year, 43 operators in 25 countries have rolled out GB LTE.
Qualcomm was also able to give the company brags about the X20 LTE modem, which is expected to be launching in devices early in 2018. Key performance improvements over the X16 include Cat18 support, peak DL speeds of 1.2Gbps, 4x4MIMO 3-way carrier aggregation, and dual SIM dual VoLTE support.
GB LTE take-away:
Look for operators to really push subscribers onto GB LTE devices. Getting 4x4MIMO into a smartphone form factor is not a simple feat. Samsung, LG, and Motorola are the first adopters in the US market with more expected in 2018. These first adopters will be vital for operators because the recently launched Apple 8, 8 Plus, and X do not support GB LTE. As millions of iPhones are lit up on networks, operators will want to increase the installed bases of GB LTE devices as fast as possible to gain all the network efficiencies mentioned above.