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Mobile network evolution

Mobile networks with Gigabit speed capabilities are currently being launched and trialed in several regions worldwide. Beyond enhanced mobile broadband use cases, a range of new industrial and enterprise use cases are enabled by evolving networks. In the manufacturing industry, augmented reality-assisted maintenance and repair could improve productivity and efficiency throughout the manufacturing process.

Key findings

  • Networks are evolving to meet the demands of new use cases
  • Many use cases can be addressed by evolved 4G (LTE) networks
  • 14 Gigabit LTE networks have been commercially launched
  • 5G will be highly beneficial for augmented reality (AR)-based industrial applications
  • AR-assisted repair in the manufacturing industry could improve productivity and efficiency

Mobile networks are evolving to deliver enhanced mobile broadband and communication services with high data throughput, quality of service and low latency requirements, as well as new IoT services with strong requirements on scalability, reliability, availability and latency. Significant radio performance enhancements, together with a more flexible and agile core network, will enable operators to serve a much broader range of use cases in the future.

Gigabit LTE network deployments gaining momentum

Operators have deployed multi-standard access networks with GSM, HSPA and LTE, and are evolving their existing LTE networks to LTE-Advanced (LTE-A), enabling Gigabit network speeds. Device ecosystems are well aligned, as most new smartphones support the latest 3GPP Category1 (Cat 16).

By using higher order carrier aggregation, operators can combine more spectrum assets. As carrier aggregation is coupled with 4x4 MIMO and 256 QAM, operators can achieve network speeds with peak rates of Gigabit per second. This will lead to increased network capacity, a wider coverage area, and faster average end-user data speeds.

There are currently 14 Gigabit LTE networks that have been commercially launched, and the deployment rate is expected to increase during 2018. Even so, in ongoing trials (based on commercially available network infrastructure and chipsets) speeds above Gigabit per second have been achieved. Commercial launches of such networks are also expected during 2018.

There are currently 644 commercial LTE networks deployed in 200 countries. Of these, 212 have been upgraded to LTE-A networks.

Further technology advances on the road to 5G

In the quest to offer increased capacity and faster data speeds, one of the limiting factors is the availability of a sufficient amount of licensed spectrum. Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) is a new technology that allows operators to use unlicensed spectrum in combination with their licensed spectrum to improve network capacity and speed. Commercial deployments are expected in 2018.

Another technology that improves end-user experience, as well as increasing network capacity and coverage while reducing interference, is Massive MIMO. Massive MIMO will play an important role in current generations of mobile communication and will become even more important with 5G technology. Several trials are ongoing and commercial deployments are expected during 2018.

Percentage and number of LTE-Advanced networks supporting Cat 4, Cat 6, Cat 9, Cat 11, Cat 15 and Cat 16 devices
Examples of use case evolution and supporting network technologies

Evolution of use cases

Beyond enhanced mobile broadband, networks are evolving to handle use cases with different demands on mobility, data rates, latency, scalability, security, integrity, reliability, availability and device density. As indicated in the table above, networks will serve an increasing number of use cases over time. These will come from a range of industries, such as automotive, manufacturing, energy and utilities, and healthcare.

As an example, digitalization in the manufacturing industry will enable a range of new use cases with the potential to improve productivity and efficiency throughout the whole manufacturing process.

Use case: Augmented reality-assisted maintenance and repair

The manufacturing industry has short business cycles and caters to increasingly varied customer demands. Now, digitalization and globalization are making the industry more competitive, requiring supply chains to be managed more efficiently as they become interconnected worldwide.

Unplanned interruptions in the manufacturing process drive increased costs, leading to lower utilization of machinery and product throughput, and extended lead times. Current operational processes create several related challenges. For example, maintenance planning is typically based on inadequate data and much time is spent on information collection and documentation, or on training repair crews to use complex and diverse machinery.

Augmented reality (AR)2 will help to address these challenges. One example is the use of AR alongside applications supporting data analysis and diagnostics, which will enable preventive and remote maintenance. These measures optimize the cost of operations, while also increasing uptime in the manufacturing process. Depending on the specifics of the use case, AR support will be provided through a range of devices, such as smartphones, tablets, smart helmets, smart gloves and smart glasses.

Repair crews could also be supported by augmented information. For example, operational guidance and automated processes could enable them to more easily carry out preventive and corrective maintenance, with less time spent on fault identification and a reduction in human error.

The role of 5G

Many use cases can be addressed by evolved 4G (LTE) networks. As networks evolve further there will be even more opportunities to enhance existing use cases, as well as to meet the demands of new ones when 5G is implemented.

5G will be highly beneficial for industrial use cases where AR-based applications will require high data rates and low latency. Bandwidth requirements are expected to be significant to ensure consistent and secure streaming of high-resolution images, as well as large volumes of data, in a sensor-rich environment with high-connection density.

1 Category (Cat) labels the theoretical maximum downlink speed a mobile device supports. The higher the Cat number, the faster the speeds

2 Live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment with elements augmented by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video and graphics