The mobile data boom that is set to continue into 2013 and beyond, and service providers will need to find technologies and strategies to survive and thrive.
1. The capacity crunch
The volume of data running across mobile networks is increasing exponentially year-on-year, stretching its capacity as never before. This pressure is only going to increase for operators in 2013, as the additional demands of 4G-enabled services, like video, go mainstream. Vodafone Germany, which has been quick to deploy LTE services, has already found that 75% of its traffic is from video.[i]
Subscribers now consider mobile connectivity an indispensable utility. As far as mobile users are concerned, data is data. Whether they stream or download content over one technology or another isn’t important to them, their main concern is having a connection capable of delivering the service they want, wherever and whenever they want it. If such services are not available, operators not only miss out on revenue opportunities, but their customers may become frustrated by the lack of connectivity and go elsewhere. No operator can afford this in an environment of greater than 100% penetration and falling voice and SMS revenue streams.
The three big issues operators face in expanding network capacity are site acquisition, power and backhaul. As has been the case for many years, in 2013 site acquisition will remain the biggest problem. While every subscriber wants seamless coverage and capacity, operators are increasingly encountering NIMBY (not in my backyard) when it comes to cell sites. To solve this, existing cell sites will be increasingly sectorized – moving from the ubiquitous three sector configuration to six sectors and beyond. To provide even more capacity and speed in urban areas, operators will look to install a microcell layer (sometimes referred to as metrocells) on street furniture and buildings.
2. Beating spectrum scarcity
For operators, spectrum is beach front property. It is a limited resource and purchasing spectrum from governments for wireless networks is expensive. Inefficient use of existing spectrum is like putting a shack on a piece of prime real estate, it reduces it’s value to the operator.
Throughout 2013 operators will continue to deploy technologies to make more efficient use of existing spectrum. Operators are fully engaged in a network refresh cycle as they continue to upgrade their networks to HSDPA+ in existing frequency bands and implement LTE in new spectrum. The push to LTE and the consequential implementation of MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) is a recognition that even Shannon‘s law limitations are being broken in an effort to satisfy the seemingly insatiable demand for mobile data.
Sitting on the horizon, but as yet unfulfilled, is SON (Self Optimizing Network) - a concept that allows a network to better manage noise and other interference. This will be critical to support any substantial increase in the number of cell sites and is very important for raising capacity and data rates.
3. Defining 5G
With 2012 seemingly the year that the promise of 4G started to be fulfilled, it might seem insolent to whisper the word 5G. Nevertheless, 2013 will see operators discussing what the requirements are for next generation connectivity. While the speed of handset replacements is measured in months, the general cycle of wireless standards evolution has proven to take significantly longer. A new protocol is typically standardized close to the end of one decade and reaches general acceptance worldwide by the middle of the next.
Operators are forever looking at new spectrum and know that those airwaves used to rollout 4G will not meet long term network capacity demands. Thus we should expect to hear more discussion of 5G as this decade progresses. Indeed, Ofcom has already set the date for the UK’s 5G spectrum auction to avert a capacity crunch. Ofcom will clear the 5G airwaves by 2018 and launch the auction “within the next couple of years,” according to Ed Richards, its Chief Executive.[ii]
[i] Source: Radioelecrtronics.com: http://www.radio-electronics.com/articles/cellular-telecoms/2013-cellular-mobile-technology-trends-68