DNA starts small with Gigabit LTE plans as obstacles on road to 5G abound

Features

Karuby is a somewhat nondescript village around a half hour's drive west of Helsinki but it is these humble surroundings that Finnish operator DNA chose as the launchpad for Gigabit LTE.

Before the technology can take flight, however, the operator has said device and cost issues need to be truly solved.

Trials began on the technology last month, with Karuby attracting because of its low, but not too low, population, strong fibre transmission and proximity to Finland's capital.

The operator refarmed 2.1GHz spectrum from 3G to LTE and ran carrier aggregation across it, the 1800MHz and 2.6GHz bands as well as 4x4 MIMO and 256QAM.

DNA is an LTE friendly operator with around 84 percent of network traffic being transmitted over its 4G network. Jarkko Laari, Director, Radio Networks, DNA, tells Mobile Europe Gigabit LTE has the dual advantages of top speed and capacity. "They go hand in hand," he says. This dovetails with what UK operator EE said last week. Even if there is only Gigabit LTE compatible handsets at the top end, their efficient use of the spectrum will benefit the wider network as resources are freed up quicker.

Laari says his rollout strategy will be based on need, because of the currently onerous costs of the technology. He says: "It does not make sense to start rolling out 1GBps just to offer high speed “everywhere”, that’s way too expensive especially with LTE technology. We build capacity where it’s needed.

"Continuous multicarrier LTE coverage, [combining 800 and 1800MHz], in urban areas makes sense because capacity need fluctuates and deep indoor coverage for services like VoLTE and IoT is a must in the future."

Regardless of the tests underway now, Laari says it will be at least two years before he envisages the technology becoming a mass market one given the "unclear" current levels of manufacturer support.

Another issue is spectrum availability, which reduces the demand on device manufacturers to make Gigabit LTE available or drive down their costs through economies of scale.

He says: "I’m not sure how many operators could today really roll out a 1GBps network as you would require at least 3x20 MHz of FDD band to do this."

The final obstacle is the fundamental issues facing operators' network rollout strategies. Laari says: "In general the challenge will be the size of the radio equipment, its price and availability of suitable transmission."

He says operators face greater capex and opex in rolling out Gigabit LTE, which may further limit deployments. He says: "LTE speed of 1GBps requires multiple radio units per sector, often also new antenna and baseband unit upgrade. Thus lot of new expensive basestation technology is required per site."

Finland was the launchpad for LTE, with TeliaSonera claiming the first commercial network of the technology back in 2009. Laari is surprisingly candid when he says that 5G's appeal is yet to be written.

He says: "Time will tell what those 'new applications' will be. There is a lot of speculation on possibilities but I haven’t found out any concrete and ready solution that is just waiting for the 5G new radio and network architecture."

The latter, particularly its cost, is an issue that concerns Laari, as well as the price of 5G spectrum licences. He says: "In the beginning the biggest challenges are on the RAN infrastructure side. We should first get new 5G radio equipment, especially the antennas, to the existing sites which means [getting] lot of permits from the landlords. Big updates in transmission and change in RAN architecture to get most out of 5G is also required. And it seems evident that we end up building lot new sites for 5G. Hopefully there will be enough “new opportunities” to cover all the costs."

Enhanced Fixed Wireless Access is the first "new application" that Laari identifies, adding that "hopefully" there will be more. He adds: "Technology wise 5G is promising very significant improvements, but to my understanding there is no new business just waiting for 5G. This new business is definitely needed to cover all the investments 5G requires.

"Enhanced mobile broadband is something that obviously is awaited by the current mobile customers but it’s unsure how much extra they are willing to pay for 5Gs improved service. To make 5G nationwide new applications and customer segments are required. Thus I would say the other barrier is finding the concrete new business."

A perennial problem for operators and one that will bite more and more in the next few years. Karuby could be the easiest point on DNA’s journey to 5G.