4G LTE Service Is Scarce Despite Carrier Marketing: 10 Reasons Why

1 - 4G LTE Service Is Scarce Despite Carrier Marketing: 10 Reasons Why
2 - Making a Reality Check on 'Faux G'
3 - Mobile Data Consumption Growing Rapidly
4 - We're Talking Billions of Gigabytes
5 - Let's Get Real: 4G Is Not as Widely Rolled Out as They Say It Is
6 - Map Commercials Are Misleading
7 - 4G Data Traffic Will Only Increase
8 - Capacity Will Be Equally Important as Coverage
9 - Small Cells Are the Answer
10 - Cost-Effective and Supportive, Even in Challenging Scenarios
11 - Conclusion: 4G LTE Isn't Fully Here--Yet
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4G LTE Service Is Scarce Despite Carrier Marketing: 10 Reasons Why

by Chris Preimesberger

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Making a Reality Check on 'Faux G'

It's a given that smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices are upgrading how we all work, play and shop. Given the relentless marketing campaigns by wireless carriers, one would think that 4G is already widespread, but is it truly as much a day-to-day reality as we think? The answer: Not really, and this is why we all need a reality check here.

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Mobile Data Consumption Growing Rapidly

The immense growth of mobile data consumption is undeniable. According to Cisco's 2013 VNI Mobile Forecast, global mobile data traffic grew 70 percent in 2012, with mobile video traffic exceeding 50 percent for the first time.

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We're Talking Billions of Gigabytes

On average, 4G connections in 2012 generated 19 times more traffic globally than non-4G connections. Even though in 2012 those hookups represented a microscopic 0.9 percent of all mobile connections, 4G already comprised 14 percent of mobile data traffic overall. Add to that Cisco's forecast that mobile data use will increase 13 times over the next five years, exceeding 130 exabytes (that's a billion gigabytes) annually worldwide by 2017, and you can easily see the trajectory.

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Let's Get Real: 4G Is Not as Widely Rolled Out as They Say It Is

Just because your carrier advertises that your region is covered by 4G LTE doesn't mean you automatically have access to 4G service. According to GSMA, an international association of mobile operators, at the beginning of 2013, there were 145 LTE-enabled mobile broadband networks that were commercially available in 66 countries. Compare that to an estimated 3,500 wireless networks worldwide in 236 countries and what do you get? A mere 4 percent of networks worldwide actually deliver 4G LTE connectivity today.

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Map Commercials Are Misleading

What about the subscriber numbers and maps the carriers keep talking about in their commercials? The reality is that in the U.S., only 27 million of all 345 million wireless connections are 4G LTE. Today's 4G LTE rollouts are mainly focused on coverage. Just look at any of the map commercials airing on TV or plastered throughout print media. But what happens to these networks when more people have LTE-enabled mobile devices and are using bandwidth-hungry apps at the same time?

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4G Data Traffic Will Only Increase

According to GSMA, 4G accounted for 14 percent of traffic in 2012, while representing just 1 percent of connections. By 2017, the traffic share is forecast to increase to 45 percent, versus a 10 percent connections share.

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Capacity Will Be Equally Important as Coverage

Imagine all 345 million wireless connections in the U.S. alone on 4G LTE. What would be the result? It can be summed up in two words—insufficient capacity. Networks simply won't be able to handle the volume of traffic generated by these devices, which as you recall, generated an average 19 times more traffic globally than non-4G connections in 2012.

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Small Cells Are the Answer

What is the answer to these challenges? Small mobile cells installed as low-power radio access nodes that operate in licensed and unlicensed spectrum with a range of 10 meters to 1 or 2 kilometers, compared with a mobile macrocell, which might have a range of a few tens of kilometers. Small cells are nothing new to carriers, which have used them successfully to broaden coverage and capacity in existing 3G networks. That experience alone makes it clear that small cells will be a key component of most carriers' rollout strategies for 4G LTE.

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Cost-Effective and Supportive, Even in Challenging Scenarios

Small-cell networks are the most cost-effective means to provide the massive bandwidth needed to support complex mobile data services, especially in heavily congested urban areas. Because small cells are, by definition, smaller in footprint and have lower power requirements, they also make delivering wireless services in impractical environments possible and improve cellular coverage in challenging scenarios.

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Conclusion: 4G LTE Isn't Fully Here--Yet

There is no doubt that 4G LTE service eventually will become mainstream. By the end of this year, GSMA forecasts there will be 234 commercial LTE networks in 83 countries. But that still accounts for only 6 percent of wireless networks worldwide. A small fraction of the world's mobile broadband networks are LTE-enabled, which is not to say the ratio won't change in the coming years. But that's not the reality today.

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