Mobile Operators Need to Protect Network Spectral Efficiency with LTE Modem Upgrades

04 Oct 2016

As mobile operators rapidly transition subscribers to LTE-Advanced and LTE-Advanced Pro, slow uptake of next-generation modems in mobile devices run the risk of detracting from network performance. In 2016, 85% of smartphones are likely to ship with relatively low speed modems not aligned with LTE-Advanced Performance. Operators need to push their handset OEMs to increase adoption rate of more sophisticated modems. ABI Research suggests that failure to do this will have a negative impact on network performance and function as a drain on the billions of dollars operators continue to invest in improving their networks.

Devices supporting LTE-Advanced networks are more widespread, with almost one in every four LTE smartphones shipped in 2016 expected to be powered by a modem supporting a down link speed higher than 200 Mbps. Now that LTE-Advanced services are maturing, the prospects of LTE-Advanced Pro are becoming more pronounced to industry members—notably the use of higher carrier aggregation combinations exceeding three channels, the use of advanced MIMO features and elevation beamforming, as well as the deployment of higher modulation methods like 256-QAM.

90 out of 148 operators already deploying LTE-Advanced services committed to deploying LTE-Advanced Pro either in 2016 or 2017. These networks will be supported by devices powered by modems enabling down link speed up to 1Gbps. They come in the form of several user terminal categories from Category 11, supporting up to 600Mbps for down link data rates, to Category 16, supporting up to 1Gbps. Although Category 11/12 modems will start to be available in high-end devices from the likes of LG, Samsung, and ZTE, the first Category 16 modem just launched in 2016, by Qualcomm, and early devices are not expected before 2017. 

“Devices powered by Category 11 or higher gear modems will be instrumental in improving the overall mobile service experience by enabling users to stream and download richer content at faster speeds,” says Malik Saadi, Managing Director and Vice President at ABI Research. “This type of modem will greatly help improve the overall network efficiency compared to Category 6 and Category 9 modems, which may drastically limit spectrum utilization of LTE-Advanced Pro networks in crowded hotspots that utilize high-bandwidth services.”

Operators are spending billions of dollars to improve the capacity and latency of their network highways by deploying LTE-Advanced Pro. Yet, the overwhelming majority of terminals using these networks are still powered by modems with poorly geared engines, namely Category 4, Category 6, and to certain extent Category 9 devices.

“Operators have a vested interest in linking and aligning their investment on network capital expenditure with their device procurement strategy,” continues Saadi. “Otherwise, they could seriously damage the overall service experience over their newly built networks.”

ABI Research expects mobile device shipments powered by category 11 or higher generations to jump from as little as 2% of total LTE devices sold in 2016 to exceed 36% in 2021.

“Device procurement managers should put the use of faster modems, such as Category 11 and above, very high in their priority specifications to OEMS and chipset suppliers,” concludes Saadi. “Otherwise, this could have some dramatic consequences on the network spectral efficiency and alienate the overall mobile broadband experience, even for premium subscribers using superfast modems.”

These findings are from ABI Research’s LTE and 5G Semiconductors. This report is part of the company’s Future Networks and Transformative Technology sectors, which include research, data, and analyst insights.

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