LTE and picocells key to mobile data growth - Ericsson

Friday 19 October 2012 | 11:17 CET | Background

Data traffic on mobile networks is expected to grow exponentially over the next five years, Ericsson said. That growth can be met by the combination of LTE and a densification of the network, Patrick Blankers of Ericsson Netherlands says. Eventually, new frequencies for mobile data will also have to be released.

Global data traffic on mobile networks grew to nearly 800 petabytes per month by the end of the second quarter, Ericsson revealed in its Mobile Traffic Update (August 2012) report. At the end of the first quarter, the level was still below 700 petabytes (upload and download combined).

Data traffic doubled between Q2 2011 and Q2 2012 - it is now at more than three times the level of voice traffic, which is still growing.

The number of mobile connections (excluding M2M) is forecast to grow worldwide to 9 billion by 2017, Ericsson said. The number of mobile broadband connections will move towards 5 billion. The number of smart devices (smartphones and tablets) is expected to reach 3.8 billion in 2017 from around 1 billion in 2012.

GSM/EDGE traffic has peaked and is now in decline since 2011/2012. The number of mobile phones with 2G only is set to fall to 3 billion in 2017 from 5 billion, while 3G handsets sales will rise to over 4 billion, as virtually all mobile networks get upgraded.

On a global scale, around 85 percent of the population can be reached by 2G and 45 percent by 3G. In 2017, Ericsson expects 3G coverage will reach the same levels as 2G now. Meanwhile, 4G coverage will increase to 50 percent from 5 percent, especially in North America, Western Europe and some regions in Asia-Pacific.

UMTS coverage has reached almost 100 percent of the population in the Netherlands, via three networks. It’s a compact, densely populated country with a very high share of smartphones.

Factor 1.000

"In recent years, we have seen an annual doubling in the amount of mobile data traffic," said Patrick Blankers, director of Strategy and Business Development at Ericsson Netherlands. "If this trend continues for ten years, data traffic will grow in the period by a factor of 1000.”

This growth will be met by a combination of three developments. New techniques (such as HSPA and LTE) will improve network capacity. These techniques will also allow for a more efficient use of the spectrum (more bits per Hz).

As a second factor, more spectrum will become available for mobile broadband, by the "refarming" of GSM bands, and the addition of new spectrum bands. Finally, there will be a densification of the network. This will most likely be done by means of small cells, which use the same spectrum in a clever way.

In Western Europe, the development of networks is in full swing. There are two main reasons to upgrade the network, Blankers said. Firstly, existing equipment is getting depreciated and can now be replaced by more efficient -usually more compact- equipment. Secondly, there is a desire to introduce LTE.

Modern radio equipment, such as the Ericsson RBS 6000 series, supports Multi Standard Radio: base stations are capable of offering GSM, HSPA and LTE. Chipset vendors such as Qualcomm are developing chipsets for mobile phones which can integrate multiple technologies and multiple frequency bands onto a single chip.

LTE is more efficient than existing technology. It will probably be necessary to expand the number of sites in many places, Blankers said. There are different options. One of them is to densify: putting the macro cells closer together.


Another option is to supplement macrocells with picocells, smaller antennas that can be integrated into the surroundings without drawing much attention. Picocells add additional 3G and/or 4G capacity to a macrocell. This requires a smart coordination between the macro and pico layers.

Picocells can also be equipped with Wi-Fi, creating additional capacity on a separate band. Ericsson started developing Wi-Fi as part of a picocell network after taking over Canadian company BelAir Networks at the beginning of 2012.

The goal is to enable smartphones to switch between 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi, without the user even noticing a switch. The difference with Wi-Fi hotspots is that the Wi-Fi picocells are part of the mobile network and are managed in the same way as macrocells.

Standards are still in development and the technology will probably not become commercially available before 2014. The use of picocells could up network capacity -if necessary- by a factor of ten or more.


The default combination on the European market will be LTE-800 and LTE-2600. Deployment is taking place in those countries where spectrum has been distributed. It is expected that 800- networks will be largely based on the existing grid of 900- networks. A 2600- network can be built almost wholly on an existing UMTS grid.

In almost all European countries, the 800-band has been allocated as lots of 2x10 MHz. The Dutch ministry of economic affairs and innovation concluded that a smaller plot of 2x5 MHz could be used to provide existing services, but no more than that. Fragmentation into small plots, therefore, raises the risk of operators not having enough spectrum to offer services in the right way, which could inhibit innovation.

Given the reservation for newcomers in the upcoming Dutch auction, there is a chance that one of the three MNOs will not make it to the 800 band.

LTE-1800 will then be an alternative. Another option is dual carrier HSPA, bringing two lots of 5 MHz together. This could initially be two carriers in the 2100 band, but could later also apply to one in the 2100 band and one channel in the 900 band. Deployment will depend on how quickly these bands can be freed up from existing services.

Blankers notes that during the World Radio Conference in Geneva, a move was taken to refarm the 700 MHz band for LTE, alongside the current allocation for broadcast services. Another band under consideration is the T-DAB and S-DAB digital radio band in the 1.4 GHz range. In many countries, DAB never got off the ground.

DAB spectrum is unpaired, and could be used for an additional download channel: Supplementary Downlink. The growth of mobile video traffic means that traffic will become more asymmetric (speech is essentially symmetrical). The 3.5 GHz band is also of interest, even though there are limitations in the Netherlands for its use.

Regarding new spectrum, nothing has yet been decided. The big decisions on existing Dutch spectrum will be taken in November, during the auction. Only then will we be able to see how the Dutch market will develop in the coming years.

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