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LTE carrier aggregation gains ground in Asia

Posted: 13 Aug 2015 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:LTE-Advanced? carrier aggregation? 3GPP? 4G? 5G?

AT&T is expected to make CA capability generally available in late 2015 and is already live in a few select cities. But, Cat 6 operation is already generally available in 20 countries from Australia and China to Russia, Japan, Switzerland and even Canada.

China takes lead

China's three mobile carriers have also begun rollout of LTE-A capability, with China Telecom first out of the gate with Cat 6 FDD capability, termed "Tianyi 4G+," in 17 cities. China Telecom has completed construction of the world's largest FDD-LTE network through 460,000 base stations that will cover more than 95% of China's 4G network by the end of the year. Dozens of cell phone suppliers are scheduled to unveil Tianyi 4G+ support, including Coolpad, OPPO, Samsung and ZTE.

China Unicom constructed 100,000 new LTE base stations during 2014 as it ramped up its hybrid TDD/FDD LTE network, but is said to be in trials with Ericsson for more advanced LTE operation.

The world's largest carrier, China Mobile, has demonstrated (in Guangzhou) tri-band TDD CA at 320Mbit/s down link speeds using Cat 9 devices based on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 810 modem chip in conjunction with network equipment variously from Huawei, Nokia and ZTE. The network has been verified for LTE-TDD inter-band three-carrier aggregation in the 1.9GHz and 2.6GHz bands for LTE-A TDD outdoor coverage, with the lower band for broader coverage and the higher-band for help with capacity in densely populated areas.

A general rollout of LTE-A is expected next year by all three networks in China.

Hong Kong plans roll out in 2016

3HK in Hong Kong has announced plans for FDD/TDD LTE-A in early 2016. The carrier has successfully demonstrated CA with an FDD carrier in either 1.8GHz or 2.6GHz band with a TDD carrier in the 2.3GHz band. The company plans to launch 3-carrier LTE-A in the second half or 2016, 4-carrier CA in 2017 and ultimately 5 carriers in 2018.

Some service providers have already announced sun-setting their existing 2G networks soon because of the need to better utilise their available spectrum assets. For example, AT&T has set 2017 as their cut-off date for GSM. By re-farming those 2G assets the operator can use more advanced 4G technology in those limited spectrum resources. But, this leads to more fragmentation of their available frequency bands and CA provides the ideal method of utilising the newly acquired spectrum slices.

So, CA is real. But having a carrier that provides CAT 6 (or better) operation also requires LTE-A smartphones capable of CAT 6. Although Qualcomm leads the pack in LTE-A modem chips, other companies are beginning to roll out the capability later this year or early next, specifically HiSilicon, Intel, Marvell, MediaTek, Samsung and Spreadtrum.

HTC One (M9)???
iPhone 6???
iPhone 6 Plus???
LG G Flex 2???
LG G3???
LG G4???
Samsung Galaxy Note Edge???
Samsung Galaxy S6???
Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge???
ZTE Hot Spot???

Table 2: Smartphones supporting LTE-Advanced carrier aggregation (by carrier).

CA-capable modem chips are buried within the several smartphone brands, so careful reading of the device specifications is necessary to tell if your specific smartphone has LTE-A capability. So, few smartphones are currently capable of CA (see table 2), so for many months there will be a performance divide among cellular subscribers until smartphones with newer (LTE-A) modems become more widely available.

Under the latest 3GPP standards (Rel-12), aggregation of up to three 20MHz down link (DL) carriers is defined (for a 60MHz channel), although future standards will enable support for bandwidths up to 100MHz (5x20MHz). However, 3-carrier down link (e.g., 20+10+10MHz) and 1- or 2-carrier up link implementations will likely be more common for the next year or so.

Carrier aggregation is the mechanism that will expand operator capabilities and enhance subscriber mobile experiences as it paves the way to eventual 5G implementation.

- Will Strauss
??Principal Analyst
??Forward Concepts

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