4G: The Next Generation

Jonathan Morris
January 26, 2009

What Mobile took a trip over to T-Mobile’s HQ in Bonn, Germany recently for a live demonstration of 3GPP Long Term Evolution, or LTE; the fourth generation of mobile technology.

The good news is, it’s looking impressive. The bad news? We may have to wait another five years to see it in the UK.

T-Mobile International has teamed up with telecoms equipment manufacturer Nortel to work on what will essentially be 4G; and the partnership claimed a world exclusive here in making T-Mobile the first network to successfully show LTE in action under what it describes as ‘real life conditions’.

Work on the technology has ramped up since LTE was approved by the Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance in 2006. The likes of Motorola and Ericsson gave demos at this year’s Mobile Congress in Barcelona, showing off its video streaming capabilities in particular, but T-Mobile and Nortel were ready to unleash a mobile live action prototype to show us just what it really has to offer.

Taking 3G to the next level

LTE is effectively a serious tweaking of 3G, so needs to be seen as an upgrade rather than a new technology. However, it will make a serious difference to data speeds in particular, with Nortel claiming it can already reach speeds up to 10 times faster than HSDPA.

T-Mobile International chief technology officer Joachim Horn says: “Over the last two years, with mobile broadband and mobile activities, we can clearly say mobile broadband has become a reality as a business. Traffic has increased by a factor of 13, while revenues have increased by a factor of 1.5, and this is going to continue.

“For networks, in the past it was efficient to have a 2G network because the requirements for data transmission were low. These days we have HSPA, but again this will need to change with usage and demand.

“Some people will say today’s speed is efficient, and we don’t need more, but if you look forward to where TV is going, with higher resolutions, as well as where cameras and music are going, transmission speed requirements will increase as well.”

LTE is being labelled as the next evolution in data speeds; while technology is ever advancing, data rates can be seen in cycles of around 10 years. In the 1980s it was C-Netz, the 1990s GSM, and from 2000 it was UMTS. The smart money is on LTE starting to roll out sometime around 2010.

The need for this evolution, according to Horn, can be seen clearly in Apple’s iPhone; he highlights its usability, high data processing speeds and ability to view the internet in much the same quality as you can on a PC.

The next level for mobile broadband

But the significance of this technology is not just about how fast a web page will load when you’re on the bus (six times faster, by the way, or so it’s claimed).

High-speed data will reshape the way we use the internet on our mobile phone, provide even more opportunity for open internet access application developers, and take mobile broadband usage to the next level.

Nortel president of carrier networks Dr Richard Lowe says: “We really are in a bandwidth hungry world; just try and make a child use a five-year-old computer and see how futile that is. We need to realise a 15 year-old can consume anything from 100 to 1,500 messages a month on their handset without thinking too much of it. The whole environment is changing.

“We realised in 2005 there was the opportunity to take 3G into the next generation, so began working on WiMax and LTE as 4G technologies, determining how to commercialise them. Now we are able to demonstrate that. I believe there will be many adopters of LTE from 2010; it’s quite a phenomenon.”

Faster speeds, lower costs

And it’s no surprise every man and his dog will be scrambling to sign up; it is claimed performance (compared to HSPA) is improved by up to 12 times, from 14.4Mbps to 170Mbps, while latency (the waiting time for response) is improved by six times from 60 down to 10 milliseconds.

There’s plenty of good price news for the consumer too; the cost aspect per MB is estimated to be 90 per cent less than HSPA, with upload speeds reaching 50Mbps and downloads up to 170Mbps.

But do we really need such incredible speeds?

According to Horn, the vast majority of consumers using data are content with their current data rates, but as soon as we experience something better we won’t want to go back.

He says: “Speed is a differentiator; you always want more. It works across all technologies – you may feel you have enough memory, for example, but then you discover more and get used to having more, and can never go back.

“Users will never say, ‘I need 10 times more speed’. But we know today, from experience, that as soon as high speed is available the customers will adopt it and use more complex applications. More complex devices will come out, which will in turn fuel further growth of the data business.

“This means that, for our networks, we need better capabilities, higher capacities and better devices. The number one success factor in mobile devices is usability, and the industry has not always done everything perfectly.

“The first 3G devices were big, clumsy and not really fit for the purpose, but times have changed. A new door has opened for new devices and new levels of usage.”

If they produce it, you’ll use it

Horn uses the example of the iPhone to prove his point. He claims the usability and speed of browsing have seen a big rise in the average data spend of its users, which demonstrates that customers, when presented with the opportunity, will use the technology more.

According to Google figures (released before the introduction of its G1 handset), its search engine receives 50 times more requests from iPhones compared to other mobile devices. Horn claims this is largely based on the user experience, and it is encouraging the industry to do more with data.

This is just the beginning

He says: “Today we see much better mobile internet browsers, sufficient speeds and higher screen resolutions; we can use almost all the applications that the internet has to offer, and offer the same user experience as you would get on a PC.

“It’s time to discuss the next evolution, which reuses what we already have, so we don’t have to rip everything down and start again; that’s why it’s an evolution.

“As far as we have tested it, it’s a very promising technology. It can already reach speeds of 170Mbps and has the potential to go much higher. “This is just the beginning.”

Horn continues: “Going forward, networks need to accommodate the additional usage requirements of the customer – higher speeds and capacity – while at the same time nobody wants to pay more for it.

“This is a challenge the operators face. Traffic has increased 30 times, but revenues have only increase by one-and-a-half times. This is a gap which is increasing, so the question is, how can we provide better capabilities, higher capacity capabilities and lower the cost at the same time to accommodate the tariffs?

“This is not a vision, the answer is already here. We have this technology now.”


The demonstration was presented in two parts: one at T-Mobile HQ, the other in a moving van packed to the gunnels with the latest tech gear.

Once loaded into the van, we were presented with a wireless laptop and web cam and the at present rather chunky LTE technology.

We shot off down a duel carriageway at 80kmph while being shown a live transmission between ourselves and the static demonstration area back at HQ, and via a microphone we were able to seamlessly communicate in real time with those people using VoIP.

This seemed virtually instant, even operating at around 34Mbps; and there’s the potential to make it five times faster than this. Truly impressive.

Despite a few jolts as we passed between mast coverage, the image was as smooth as watching digital television. The potential opportunities to use this technology are staggering.

We also had the ability to move the camera at all angles via remote control, although we were later told this particular camera cost more than £15,000. Even so, it enabled us to view different areas of the LTE demonstration area, and zoom in, complete with sound. 

Perhaps more impressive was its ability to access and stream television channels live on the laptop in real time using IPTV, without even the slightest hint of a download in sight. This included HD channels, again complete with sound, giving the same experience you’d expect to get if you were sitting in your living room. Except that we were hurtling through the streets of Bonn in the back of a van with a laptop.

For the final demonstration we got to play an online racing game in the same way you would on a console or PC, with the ability to seamlessly view, as well as chat with, your fellow racers.

Browsing the internet at these speeds really does bring new meaning to mobile broadband. You get the same experience as you would at home, if not faster, along with all the functionality. On this evidence, we’ve got an awful lot to look forward to from the mobile internet. The only problem? We want it now!

What Mobile spoke to T-Mobile’s chief technology director Emin Gurdenli

How different is LTE compared to 3G?

“In terms of what it can do, it’s seriously different. The best 3G networks are currently managing HSDPA speeds, in theory, of up to 7.2Mbps, but in customer terms the reality is more like four to five.

“With LTE you have the potential to go up to 170Mbps; to put than in user terms, it is several times faster than the best current home broadband speeds.

“In the demonstration van they are using high definition video, which today would put a serious strain on the 3G network because 3G requires 6-8Mbps.

“Also, when talking in terms of gaming, the reaction time must be shorter than yours for it to be ‘real life’. Something like a Nintendo Wii has to respond in real time; LTE brings that latency down by six times compared to 3G.”

On the subject of the demonstration van, the handover between base stations was a little quirky and at one point it froze temporarily. Is this something to be expected?

“We are at the early stages of the technology and the first stage was to simply show it working. The second stage is to get the handover working as intended, and over a time it will be optimised to become transparent from a user perspective.”

If T-Mobile goes ahead with LTE, how will it go about deploying it?

“The LTE outlay will be typically similar to today’s network; if you have 10,000 sites out there today, tomorrow you will probably need 10,000 sites.

“The important difference is, LTE was specifically developed to ensure it would not derive more sites; we don’t want to build more sites, we want to use our existing portfolio. This is one of the key things with LTE – no specialised antennas.”

Has the technology been tried or tested on an actual mobile phone, rather than the a laptop used in these demonstrations?

“This is the next stage. The current prototypes are quite large, but next year we will be able to show you the first form factor versions. Today the software is working, but this has to be turned into a small form factor chipset. This is happening concurrently, so in 2009 we will see these devices.

“This is the normal development cycle for new technologies; we are 18 months from commercial services and the prototypes are naturally going to look different.

“In fact I am more confident there will be handsets brought out on time with LTE than there was with 3G.”

Will the other networks be involved, and how long can we expect to wait?

“The technology will be a world standard and be used by all networks. However, T-Mobile is the leader; we are quite proactive and have been driving the NGMN program.

“I don’t know what the other networks are planning, but in three to four years from now I’m sure we will see several LTE networks in the UK.

“I think it will be a general build up, and somewhere like Germany will be first. We obviously can’t speak on behalf of the other operators, but I’m sure they will not be too far behind.”

Is 2010 a realistic time scale?

“There is very high confidence 2010 is a realistic timescale, although nobody has come out and made a formal decision.

“While this is still the most likely technology for us, it is still in a testing period, which is different from someone saying ‘yes, that’s our decision. Here is the money, start building a network.’ We haven’t quite done that.”

Has any forecasted cost been made on deploying this technology?

“It is still too early to start talking about costs, but it is worth remembering that it is evolution, not revolution.

“It is in an upgrade. Today we are putting electronics on the sites, we are putting something in to make it compatible for an upgrade in the future, so its not a case of starting over again. Incremental costs will be small, which again was one of the conditions; absolute maximum reuse of existing assets.

“Cost is something we are not looking at too much at the moment – that comes nearer the deployment time. However, we can say you are not going to see the same stories as you did around UMTS when 3G licences were awarded. That was a big change; this isn’t going to be like that.”

When 3G first launched, handsets were in short supply and bulky. Can we expect the same again?

“It will be better with LTE. Initially there will be a limited number, but not the significant delay experienced before.”

The demonstration highlighted VoIP as a key selling tool. Is there a danger this technology will affect the business financially?

“VoIP is already here and we don’t necessarily see it as a threat. I don’t think it will undermine our business in the future any more than it does today.”

What can we expect next?

“It’s not too early to ask, because we are developing it already. The technology tends to go in 10 year spans, but the next advancement is always on the horizon.

“There is something called INT-Advanced currently being discussed in early white papers, looking into the next level of speed through-put capability of the network. But that’s a 2020 time frame; for now, it’s all about LTE.”

VoIP, IPTVT, gaming; is LTE likely to reshape the way we do things predominantly from home?

“What will happen is the mobile of today will be different in the future. Increasingly it will become the dominant screen and the thing you carry around.

“Will it replace TVs and PCs in the home? No, and it doesn’t need to, but what it will provide is what we call the ‘seamless mobility’; the continuation of a service.

“You’re watching your TV and you go to your mobile device and continue watching the same thing, then an instant message comes through and you can respond. Today you switch screens to do these things and that’s what will change, rather than LTE devices replacing things.”


This feature was published in the January 2009 issue of What Mobile


About the Author

Share this article