The mobile industry stands on the precipice of one of the biggest changes it's ever encountered. The actions mobile network operators (MNOs) take now will not only directly impact their customers but will also dramatically impact their bottom line. There's no escaping this shift. Mobile data is a Pandora’s box and now that it's opened there's no going back. People want more mobile data and they want it faster. The key question is how will MNOs continue to meet customers’ expectations. And this is where the enormous change is about to happen. The reason for this change is LTE-Advanced (LTE-A).
Many people I speak to believe that upgrading to LTE-A requires a simple software-update of LTE base stations. That it's non-disruptive and evolutionary. Most MNOs probably wish that it were. However, this isn't the case. The key issue here is the delivery of accurate phase synchronization to the mobile base station as this is a pre-requisite for LTE-A to maximize spectral efficiency.
Not an easy task.
And accurate delivery is only one aspect – assurance is another. LTE-A cannot be rolled out on a principle of hope and trust. It requires real-time performance monitoring and reporting to be confident that everything’s “in sync” – and that the network’s performing at its peak.
None of this is simple in the mobile backhaul environment. Legacy network equipment was not designed for delivering the stringent time and phase synchronization requirements for LTE-A. And installed networks are simply not capable of assuring the required synchronization at the base station. It's a limitation of the current network technology and this includes some of the latest technology deployed for LTE infrastructures.
OK, so what's the big deal about phase synchronization and assurance information? Is it really that critical?
In a word - yes.
Phase synchronization and assurance information is vital for MNOs. The highly competitive mobile services market requires the best possible performance and ultimate efficiency of radio spectrum utilization. LTE-A was designed for meeting these objectives – however, highly accurate phase synchronization is the tax that comes with it.
Ultimately, what do mobile users want? They want access to more bandwidth and faster speeds. Neither of which they will receive without incredibly accurate phase synchronization and assurance information. What happens when users don't receive the service they are paying for? They leave. They find an MNO that can deliver on the promise of LTE-A. And this is the key for MNOs. Without accurate phase synchronization and assurance information, they won’t be able to:
1) Provide expected bandwidth at the desired speeds
2) Drive new efficiencies and eliminate data bottlenecks
3) Retain existing while attracting new customers
4) Meet shareholders' expectations
In fact, phase synchronization and assurance information is vital for all involved in the mobile ecosystem, not just MNOs. Let’s consider application service providers. Poor user experience for them means customer frustration and lower profits. And what about the Wholesale Operators that provide connectivity services to MNOs? They will be required to provide Synchronization as a Service (and this, in fact, could prove to be a new business opportunity).
If you're in any doubt as to the transformative powers of LTE-A, check out this article on SK Telecom in Light Reading. Within one month of launching its LTE-A service, SK Telecom attracted over 300,000 subscribers. It's just posted second quarter profits of KRW 468 billion. That’s an increase of almost 300%.
The key question is how do MNOs make the jump from current infrastructures to ones that will meet the exacting requirements of LTE-A.
Clearly, MNOs need to make this leap in the most pragmatic way possible. A network rebuild is simply not viable. As such, I see only one clear route forward and that's the development of a true synchronization network. Such a network would meet all requirements of LTE-A, including phase synchronization, assurance information and even on-path support. What's more, this could be done cost effectively. Looking at the SK Telecom example, the enormous benefits of LTE-A must not be compromised by capital extensive network rebuilding
It will be fascinating to see how this situation develops. MNOs’ profits are dependent upon their network. They need every competitive edge. As such, they need LTE-A. However, profits don’t mean a great deal if you can’t find a cost-effective approach to migration. Of course, the principles of evolution, or in this case, the principles of the mobile market, will select the ultimate winners.
The next two years will prove critical for the mobile industry.