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State and future of the mobile networks

Mobile networks continue to evolve with higher speeds, new functionality and increased population coverage in the evolution towards 5G


Key highlights

  • Cat 16 devices enabling speeds of up to 1 Gbps are commercially available. Market launches are expected in the coming months
  • 537 commercial LTE networks in 170 countries
  • More than 40 commercial networks supporting native Wi-Fi calling
  • 5G will reach 10 percent population coverage by 2022
  • Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) is the first step to 5G core networks

Achieving a major technology milestone: LTE downlink peak data speeds of 1 Gbps

With expanding LTE coverage and subscriber count, the demand for enhanced app coverage continues to accelerate the development of LTE data rates. LTE networks and devices supporting downlink data speeds of up to 1 Gbps are now commercially available and launches are expected in the coming months. This represents more than a sixfold increase in speed since LTE’s introduction.

Peak data speeds of 1 Gbps will provide users with significantly faster time-to-content and will enhance the usefulness of personal hotspots, as well as making LTE a more attractive alternative to deliver fixed wireless services.

Percentage and number of WCDMA networks upgraded to HSPA and to HSPA

Greater spectral efficiency enables higher LTE data speeds, as LTE-Advanced (LTE-A) enhancements are becoming more widely deployed. These enhancements include:

  • Carrier aggregation – combining spectrum across different bands, increasing spectrum bandwidth and data speeds available to mobile users. In addition, aggregating FDD spectrum with TDD spectrum is an effective way to optimize app coverage and capacity.
  •  Higher order modulation – increasing the number of bits per data stream. 256 Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM), used in the downlink, can increase data speeds by 33 percent. 64 QAM, used in the uplink, can increase uplink speeds by 50 percent.
  • 4x4 Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) – doubling the number of unique data streams, enabling up to twice the capacity and throughput.
Percentage and number of LTE Advanced networks supporting Cat 6

The number of commercial LTE-A carrier aggregation networks continues to increase. Operators are evolving their networks with Category (Cat) 4, 6, 9, 11 and 16 implementations.

As the deployment of LTE-A carrier aggregation, 4x4 MIMO and advanced modulation techniques become more widespread, an increase in the availability of devices capable of supporting these LTE capabilities is expected. As a result, users will see increases in their available data speeds.

Enabling IP-based communication services on the latest devices

VoLTE technology enables operators to offer high-quality, simultaneous communication and LTE data services on smartphones and other devices. Services include telecom-grade HD voice, video communication, multi-device capabilities and more. The latest GSMA initiative to drive global adoption of a universal profile for Rich Communication Services, which enables globally interoperable IP messaging and content sharing during calls, is now backed by more than 50 global operators and mobile OS manufacturers.2

Core networks based on Evolved Packet Core and IMS are being further developed to enable communication services on any device type as the device ecosystem evolves. The services can be run over LTE, Wi-Fi, fixed broadband and, in the future, 5G.

World population coverage by technology

Taking HD voice to the next level in LTE and Wi-Fi networks

3GPP standardized Enhanced Voice Services (EVS) for VoLTE-enabled networks further improve quality compared to HD voice. Music quality within calls is enhanced; for example, call announcements or sharing music from a concert during a voice or video call. EVS provides a better quality service than HD voice in challenging LTE radio conditions, as well as better service robustness when using Wi-Fi calling. The first commercial rollouts of EVS have recently started in Asia Pacific, North America and Europe.

Wi-Fi calling is taking off with more commercial launches and new devices

With Wi-Fi calling, operators can extend their voice service indoors, allowing consumers to make calls in their homes over their own Wi-Fi access points, using any internet service provider. This benefits users with limited cellular coverage indoors, as well as roaming users.

Support for Wi-Fi calling is rapidly extending from high-end smartphone models to more affordable models. Some operators have also launched Wi-Fi calling on devices without a SIM card, such as tablets, smartwatches and personal computers. The service is supported on selected models. 

State of the networks

Evolving networks to 5G

5G is one of the most anticipated advances in the ICT industry. The introduction of 5G will accelerate transformation in many industry verticals, enabling new use cases in areas such as automation, IoT and big data.

With increases in radio performance and the flexibility enabled by network slicing and Network Functions Virtualization (NFV), networks can serve a much broader range of use cases. In 2015, deployments of NFV in core networks began. The first examples of services deployed with NFV were VoLTE, Wi-Fi calling and the expansion of mobile broadband to locations and industries needing high capacity or remote area connectivity. NFV enables faster and more flexible introduction of services, such as distributed mobile broadband, IoT, communication services and enterprise services. It is also a key building block on the path to future 5G deployments.

Capacity and throughput remain drivers, with user data consumption continuing to rise with increased use of video. Some specific use cases, like massive IoT and FWA, are likely to be implemented faster, as they can take advantage of the early evolution steps towards 5G.

Growth of 5G is linked to growth of the complete ecosystem. Network development and rollout needs to happen at pace with the development of devices, and this will be influenced by access to and licensing of suitable spectrum bands.

It is expected that most operators will introduce 5G from 2020, which is closely linked to the timeline for 5G standardization. Early deployments of pre-standard networks are anticipated in selected markets. As of today, there are around 30 operators that have publicly announced 5G introduction plans, with several trials already taking place. Rollout is expected to commence in metropolitan and urban areas, and is forecast to reach around 10 percent population coverage by 2022.

NFV is a-first step to 5G core networks

1 The figures refer to population coverage of each technology. The ability to utilize the technology is subject to factors such as access to devices and subscriptions

2 GSMA (June 2016)

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