450MHz band has great potential, even for LTE

At one time, the CDG (CDMA Development Group) was pushing the rapid adoption of CDMA2000 in what many perceived as rivalry against the 3GPP’s WCDMA standard. But with so many CDMA standard bearers migrating to LTE, the group has changed its focus to stay relevant, and is now heavily pushing the 450MHz band as a significant opportunity for spectrum- and capacity-poor mobile carriers.

In many parts of Northern and Eastern Europe, the 450MHz band was used for analogue telecoms services under the NMT (Nordic Mobile Telephony) standard. In other parts of the world it is used for trunking systems such as emergency services radio, or even lays unused.

One of the biggest problems facing an operator today is spectrum availability, so when the world’s last NMT network was switched off, in Poland, in June of this year, Orange found itself with a swathe of spectrum and an opportunity to offer something its rivals couldn’t.

The operator swapped out NMT connectivity for CDMA450 and exploiting the frequency’s natural efficiencies, was able to get a 12x increase in coverage versus 1800MHz or 2100MHz. Less cells meant that the carrier was able to deliver ‘wireless broadband’ to 90 per cent of the Polish geography, with CDMA450 users now delivering an ARPU of around $18 per month.

Poland is a country with a population of around 40 million and around 40 per cent of those live in rural areas. As the only operator with a 450MHz licence, Orange has the monopoly, and while EDGE covers 99 per cent of the territory, WCDMA deployments are only focused on major urban areas.

As Piotr Stepniewicz, manager of strategic projects at Orange Poland puts it, there is simply no incentive for any of the local carriers to invest in LTE or even 3G outside of dense urban areas. Even if they were to collaborate. “10MHz of LTE spectrum can deliver the same experience to a user as 5MHz of CDMA spectrum, so it doesn’t make sense to invest,” he says. As a result, Orange is serving the market alone.

Fixed wireless offers a great opportunity. Many suburban new builds have no fixed line access, so Orange offers a variety of consumer end point devices from nomadic routers to multi-mode dongles supporting WCDMA, GSM and CDMA in one unit. The company only guarantees downlink speeds of 1Mbps, but while testing in a rural, woodland area, got average throughput of 3.6Mbps and streamed high definition video with little buffering. Given that the majority of ex-NMT customers were fishermen and farmers using the device for work purposes, Orange claims its user base is happy with the experience.

Orange’s CDMA450 network is currently upgraded to Revision B, phase one only, which was a software upgrade to the network. A second phase hardware upgrade, where the network cards are swapped out in the base stations, could pump the network downlink peaks up to 14.7Mbps.

The operator has big plans for its CDMA450 network, and the CDG has big plans for the standard on a global scale. In fact, Igor Virker, director of business development at the CDG, revealed that the group is working with LTE stakeholders to specify LTE for 450MHz using non-contiguous spectrum. Virker warned this will likely be an arduous process, as standards bodies like the ITU and 3GPP need to be involved, but nonetheless, there is strong interest from operators in Brazil, as well as the local regulator, Anatel, as well as Sky Link, the Russian CDMA450 player.

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