4G LTE wireless evolution creates three class of service issues

In the 4G LTE wireless evolution, three class of service issues are changing the way wireless operators plan for 3G-to-4G migration -- mobile LTE voice services architecture, customer demand-side influences resulting from smartphones and app stores, and the impact of always-on wireless broadband on user behavior.

From the editor: In the third of four articles in our Telecom Insights guide, Building the 4G wireless network: Exploring LTE architecture and services drivers, telecom expert Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp., explores how wireless evolution requires operators to analyze their service options as Long-Term Evolution (LTE) generates three distinct class-of-service issues: 1) Migrating to LTE from 3G or 2G services; 2) Deploying new LTE-based services; and 3) Offering an LTE/wireline set of hybrid services using fixed mobile convergence (FMC).

Don't miss any of the articles in this series on LTE:

4G LTE wireless evolution creates three class of service issues
by Tom Nolle, President, CIMI Corp.

Mobile services are changing fast enough to make planners dizzy, even if they are confined to the core mobile space where voice continues to dominate.

Operators dare not miss this wireless evolution opportunity driven by class of service changes.

Tom Nolle
President, CIMI Corp.

 Competition and the need to harmonize voice planning and infrastructure with emerging non-voice services (wireless broadband data and video) have totally revamped wireless service provider business models. For example, who would have believed a few years ago that operators would allow Skype voice applications on handsets?

The evolution to 4G Long-Term Evolution (LTE) has created three distinct class of service issues that promise to change wireless operators' planning models in the coming decade. While each one is significant in itself, they are almost certain to act together in all major market geographies. The result will be a planning shift in voice services that drives massive changes in voice infrastructure.

The three wireless evolution class of service issues are:

  • The migration of earlier mobile voice services to 4G LTE voice services.
  • The migration from a "supply-side" mobile service market controlled by wireless operators to one driven more directly by demand and outside forces.
  • The "behavioral migration" model created by the impact of always-available mobile broadband on consumer and worker behavior.

Mobile voice migration becomes major class of service issue

Mobile voice migration has two dimensions, one linked to evolving the current radio/handset combination to LTE, and the second to evolving existing TDM-dominated voice services to VoIP. In both cases, the problems are the inertia of current services, the capital required and the customer impact of changes.

The effect of wireless voice migration can be reduced if the operator's target is largely made up of data devices.

 In that case, LTE can be deployed almost as an overlay and its footprint expanded based on growing market opportunity. Where the goal is a more complete migration to 4G in a shorter timeframe, it will be necessary to accommodate 3G and 4G simultaneously in the radio network. It may also be necessary to support dual-mode 3G/LTE handsets to provide service to LTE customers who are outside the current LTE footprint or roaming on other providers' networks.

For the TDM-to-VoIP element of LTE voice migration, operators have a choice of sustaining voice independently on 3G for as long as the dual radio access network (RAN) is in place. Eventually, though, they will have to accommodate LTE voice (i.e., VoIP). The pace of this accommodation may depend on the age of the TDM wireline infrastructure and the pace at which wireline voice can be migrated. Alternatively, operators can explore a TDM-over-LTE option such as VoLGA (Voice over LTE Generic Access). VoLGA allows operators to perpetuate TDM switching even in a pure LTE mobile network, but it's probably most valuable in managing the 3G-to-4G migration where there is substantial capex and opex dedicated to the TDM voice plant.

Smartphones drive customer "demand-side" trend in wireless evolution

The "supply-side/demand-side" transition in mobile services is due to the growing influence of over-the-top (OTT) players such as Google and to the application stores and smartphones of players like Apple. The fact that smartphones act as Internet appliances whose specific behavior is created by developers exploiting Web assets has made the smartphone very responsive to market fads and has in fact let smartphones create those fads. Operators must now address the question of how to offer their own service enhancements on a shorter market cycle without compromising their long-lived capital assets and operations practices.

Most prospective LTE operators still see IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) as their primary voice and connection services framework, but it's clear that some collateral way of creating Web-like applications for smartphones will be essential if the whole consumer market is not to be ceded to Apple and Google. The path to success lies in a combination of creating service-layer assets that can be exposed through Web interfaces, as well as via IMS, and in creating developer programs to encourage third parties to build services using these tools. Some operators have taken a lead in these programs, and others are looking to standards bodies and industry groups to create cooperative communities of operators to broaden support and enhance developer credibility.

4G LTE services development shows market shift to 'mobile first'

The final evolution in services is also linked to the transformation in services being created in the mobile space. Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, encouraged developers to focus on "mobile first," which is a reflection of the fact that because mobile devices are constant companions, they are likely to create the user behaviors that will translate into service opportunities not only in wireless, but also in wireline.

Social networks have made the transition from wireline to wireless, showing that consumer behavior patterns transcend technology. Many service planners believe that innovative mobile services built to reinforce emerging network-enabled social behavior will translate in the other direction. Operator plans to use femtocells for home, hospitality and business networks will create an option to use a mobile device as a universal portal, always available and always on but integrated not only with the wireless carrier network but also with a home or local network.

What links all these service trends, in fact, is the symbiosis between mobile services and social behavior. Mobile calling and SMS services evolved to fill what was primarily a social need. With their availability, users modified their behavior to exploit the services and created a whole new online culture. The handset market and associated developer programs are creating a flood of new services and potentially new online cultures as well. Because these new opportunities are driven by social behavior, they will develop and mature quickly and can't be addressed with traditional long-cycle planning.

Operators dare not miss this wireless evolution opportunity driven by class of service changes. Somehow, the reality of long-lived capital investment and regulatory oversight must be balanced with the reality of a consumer-driven, social-fad-conscious marketplace. The willingness of operators to not only tolerate but embrace what would in the past have been seen as over-the-top competitors is a reflection that they recognize the need to move beyond a reflexive defense of traditional markets and into a reasoned exploitation of new opportunity.

Next: LTE network infrastructure: Greenfield and brownfield network design

About the author: Tom Nolle is president of CIMI Corporation, a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and data communications since 1982. He is the publisher of Netwatcher, a journal addressing advanced telecommunications strategy issues. Check out his SearchTelecom.com networking blog Uncommon Wisdom.

This was last published in October 2010

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