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LTE network evolution: The unified 4G mobile technology?

Martin Creaner, president, TM Forum

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Editor's note: The 4G mobile network evolution may be dominated by Long Term Evolution (LTE) as the potential global unified mobile technology, but economics and business realities may dictate otherwise, as WiMAX is also being deployed and has some powerful backers. TM Forum president Martin Creaner looks at the three key factors needed for unified 4G networking, with emphasis on systems and network management tools.

The LTE network launch is only one part of a three-part critical-success-factor puzzle that is pretty useless on its own.

Martin Creaner
President
TM Forum

 When I worked at BT in the early '90s, I remember seeing a chart that showed the evolution of mobile technologies. Its view was that analog mobile would evolve into multiple 2G digital standards, but these would then converge into a single ubiquitous mobile standard called UMTS.

In those days, UMTS promised a world where you could go anywhere with a single device and have it work as it would when you were on your home turf. Of course, we all know that economics, business reality and bloody-mindedness got in the way, and we ended up with an alphabet soup of mismatched 3G standards (UMTS, CDMA2000, IMT-2000). Furthermore, it took years longer to roll out than expected. When we were on the threshold of a 3G rollout in 1999, the telecom market went bust, and 3G never really made an impact until 2005 or later.

Fast forward to 2009. The 4G network evolution story is being dominated by just one three-letter acronym: LTE (Long Term Evolution). It looks as if LTE is the long-sought-after convergence point that we envisioned back in the early '90s. Judging by the flurry of press reports, LTE will move to market a lot faster than its predecessors.

Wireless operators, equipment vendors join the LTE bandwagon

It looks as if most of the world's carriers and related equipment suppliers have hopped on the LTE bandwagon. Get ready for a slew of LTE rollouts in the next 18 to 24 months. Verizon is looking at a commercial 4G LTE network launch at the end of 2010, and by then, or sooner, we'll see other deployments go live in Asia and beyond.

We've seen equipment vendors and professional services powerhouses like Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) doing quite well on their initial LTE network contracts. We have also seen former powerhouses like Motorola that have hitched their wagons to LTE's star in the hope that the technology will reverse their fortunes. Motorola, in particular, is reported to be doubling its investment in LTE at the expense of reducing its investment in WiMAX.

WiMAX to upset the unified 4G convergence applecart?

Which brings us to the question of whether WiMAX will upset the perfectly converged picture I'm envisioning. WiMAX is definitely out there and will probably deliver sooner than LTE. It has major forces backing it, not the least of which is Intel, while Sprint is continuing its expansion of the technology in a number of major U.S. cities. But I suspect that, again, the forces of economics and business reality will force a hard choice, and all indications are that most suppliers and service providers will tip toward LTE as the best long-term bet, but only if three critical success factors come together.

  • First, network launches. Designing, selecting and launching the LTE network is of course the easy bit of getting a 4G service going. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that it's not a significant achievement, but the LTE network launch is only one part of the three-part critical-success-factor puzzle and is pretty useless on its own.
  • Then, the handsets. Inevitably, LTE handsets, as with their 2G and 3G predecessors, will be late and limited in terms of volumes and variety. It will probably be as late as two years after the launch of LTE networks that advanced, attractive handsets will appear in volumes that can drive market success for LTE.
  • Finally, the software and systems. Operations support systems (OSS) that deliver the next generation of services and manage the complexity of fourth-generation mobile are an essential success factor. This is the bit that I'm really interested in. Without this, LTE will bump along the ground as an expensive 3G replacement. Without the design and development of new services that take advantage of the capabilities of LTE and their integration into the delivery and billing capabilities of the service provider, there will be no bonanza from LTE. Without investing in working out how to manage challenges like the huge backhaul requirements of LTE, growth will be stifled.

TM Forum focuses on LTE systems and management

At TM Forum, we've been seeing the 4G wireless network writing on the wall for some time, and our core standards and frameworks are ready for it. We've been hard at work to remove the complexity surrounding the management of 4G networks and commoditize the network, service, information and process management standards across the industry.

We are now getting industry-wide acceptance of our core Business Process Framework (eTOM), while a major effort is under way to enhance our Information Framework (SID) so it fully embraces the requirements of LTE. Assuming that operators don't just go down the path of the all-you-can-eat data plan model, defining the monetization models for LTE will take a lot of work. The billing, rating and charging challenges and analysis of usage data could be unlike anything we've ever seen. With our extensive experience in revenue management and revenue assurance, TM Forum is well positioned to provide the necessary help and guidance.

As with any new technology, opportunities will abound. With LTE, operators will have huge amounts of bandwidth to give to customers, who are always clamoring for more. But unless they learn from the past and immediately focus effort and investment on addressing the software and systems demands LTE will create, we'll be doomed to a phantom launch and a repeat of history.

About the author: Martin Creaner is the president and chief technical officer of the TM Forum and has worked in the communications industry for the last 18 years. Creaner held various executive positions with BT and with Motorola, where he led the 2.5G and 3G OSS solutions development activities. He sits on the board of a number of telecom companies and is the chairman of Selatra Ltd.

This was first published in July 2009

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