Aussie Rules

Australian incumbent Telstra is one of the world’s most advanced LTE operators. It is testament to the firm’s aggressive approach to mobile broadband that an operator in a country of just over 23 million people should rank in the top ten operators worldwide in terms of LTE subscriber numbers. At number nine, and ahead of Softbank at the end of Q1 this year, Telstra was the only top ten player not in the three leading LTE markets of the US, South Korea and Japan.

The majority of early leaders in LTE have come from a CDMA background, having reached the end of the CDMA roadmap. Telstra was way ahead of them, switching off its 850MHz CDMA network in 2008 to focus on the ‘NextG’ branded WCDMA network that it had built in the immediately preceding years. The Australian operator claimed world firsts with HSPA at 21Mbit/s and DC-HSPA+ at 42Mbit/s.

Telstra was motivated partly by a desire to consolidate its network portfolio but also by its belief in what it had identified as “the insatiable demand for wireless broadband,” says Mike Wright, vice president for network access and platforms. Telstra’s GSM customers began to migrate to the WCDMA network, joining the former CDMA subscribers who had moved over in 2008, which began to free up 1800MHz spectrum which Telstra refarmed for an LTE launch in 2011.

Growth has been steep; in the six months to end March 2013, Telstra increased its LTE customer base by 230 per cent, reaching 2,047,000 subscriptions. GSM subscriptions are plummeting, down to an estimated 461,675 at the end of the first quarter, according to WCIS Plus—just over three per cent of Telstra’s total customer base.

In the wake of this decline 900MHz spectrum has become available for refarming—not a great deal, says Wright, but enough to address some of the coverage issues particular to providing LTE in a market of the size and population density of Australia. With 900 and 1800MHz spectrum in its LTE portfolio Telstra is trialling carrier aggregation with a view to launching a commercial offering inside the year.

At the opposite end of the evolutionary ladder, though, surely Telstra stands a good chance of being an early mover in another area—switching off its GSM network altogether? “We haven’t invested in the GSM network for more than six years,” says Wright. “Because we built a common 2,-, 3- and 4G core we don’t see a lot of unique cost associated with GSM, apart from maintenance, support, power and space. It’s still used for some roaming and M2M but as long as those revenues exceed the [maintenance] costs we’re happy to keep it.”

Telstra’s 3G network is bigger than its GSM installation, he points out. Once a subscriber has a 3G or LTE device, he says, there will never be a requirement, domestically, for them to fall back to GSM. “I guess one day we will get to a point where we make a decision on it but at the moment it’s not driving a lot of our thought,” he says.

In the Australian spectrum auction earlier this year Telstra secured 40MHz of spectrum in the 700MHz band and 80MHz in the 2.5GHz band. But this spectrum is not avialable for commercial use for some time—October 2014 for the majority of the 2.5GHz spectrum (in Perth metro and regional Western Australia the licence is delayed to February 2016) and January 2015 for the 700MHz allocation.

Wright says that the interim period will be useful for ecosystem development. “In that time frame we’d expect the chipsets to be at the point where we’re talking about peak network speeds and devices capable of throughput in the 300Mbit/s range,” he says.

He is impressed with the performance of the device community in getting LTE product to market; particularly in the 1800MHz band in which Telstra made its debut. “When we started our 850MHz WCDMA network back in 2006 we had to start a user group to get other oepartors on board so we could get scale on 850MHz devices,” he says. “When we came to 1800MHz LTE we used a similar arrangement, partnering with GSMA and GSA. We’re really pleased with the outcome of that because now 40 per cent of the world is on LTE1800.”

He continues: “For a country the size of Australia, with our population size, our ability to define an ecosystem is fairly limited. But when you can line up with the rest of the world you get rapid scale and the end result speaks for itself. We were able to deliver 4G to Australia arguably four years ahead of when it would have otherwise arrived.”

Telstra’s 700MHz spectrum will give it “an incredible ability to deliver 4G over really great breadth,” when it comes online, Wright says. Until then the firm is reliant on its limited 900MHz allocation for coverage boosts. “We have 900MHz cells on air and combining 900MHz with 1800MHz will help us pick up our high demand in some of the more widely spaced parts of Austrlia between now and the 700MHz coming online,” he says.

“We’re heading towards trialling the first stage of carrier aggregation, to give us a hybrid performance imporvement. We hope to have that capability inside 12 months.”

Carrier aggregation is being positioned by some vendors as the answer to fragmented or disparate spectrum portfolios. This isn’t a problem for Telstra, but does Wright believe that this LTE-Advanced feature can address the problems of operators that are less well off in terms of spectrum?

“I’m an engineer so I have the philosophy that there’s no such thing as a bad Hertz,” he says. “But you’ve also got to be pragmatic about the benefits of the bands that you’ve got access to.  Initially I’d be surprised to see more than a couple of bands aggregating but over time we will see more sophistication. But obviously you need your low frequency layer for coverage and high frequency for capacity.”

Telstra isn’t rushing to the forefront for every development in LTE, though. Wright says that Voice over LTE is “one of the technologies where we’ve been happy not to have a world’s first.” Telstra has VoLTE in test mode in its network, he says, but the technology needs to be matured. “What we don’t want to do is go backwards in terms of the user experience,” he says. “The UE has to be as good or better when we go to VoLTE. For now we want to make sure we understand the technology.”

Telstra already has what Wright describes as the “world’s largest footprint of HD voice,” and it does not want to rock the boat in terms of performance. HD voice is on its way to becoming a hygiene factor now, he says, with users very quickly becoming accustomed to the background noise supression that the technology delivers. VoLTE will face the same issue as HD Voice, he says, with benefits being restricted by low penetration rates.

For Wright the key driver for VoLTE deployment will be its inclusion in a suite of enhance communications services. “If we’re just reproducing voice it’s not that exciting,” he says. “But as we start to see this evolution of integrated capabilities, in combination with RCS and maybe some video then we certainly see that there is value to be extracted from that. But we really need to get ourselves [as an industry] to the right levels of maturity and interworking.”

The same applies to LTE roaming, he says. Telstra has an LTE data roaming agreement in place with its Hong Kong subsidiary CSL but roaming, too, needs greater industry momentum, he says. “What we need now is the ability for the wider industry to establish roaming agreements and interworking. Beyond that, the more complex challenge will be how to put more sophisticated services on top and make them transparent; the IMS-type functionality that we’re collectively working on.”

A number of companies are putting themselves forward as enablers of increased roaming functionality and avaialbility for LTE, IPX vendors as well as operators—SK Telecom is looking to position itself as a regional hub for Asia Pacific. So does Telstra have a preference?

“Not at this stage,” says Wright. “We wouldn’t bet on one over another. What the industry wants is something that is effective and quick to deploy. Different operators with different levels of sophistication will probably align with different models.”

As LTE gathers momentum Telstra will fall out of the top rankings in terms of LTE subscriber numbers, simply by dint of its size. But in terms of foresight and aggression in relation to wireless broadband it remains one of the operators to watch.

“By being so aggressive in our technology roadmap we’ve been able to deliver great experiences which has driven customers onto both our 3G and 4G networks,” says Wright. “Our focus has to be on how we harness the network efficiencies that we need to be able to meet the demand that customers place on the network, and that drive down the cost of a bit. These things go hand in hand.”

The LTE Asia conference is taking place on the 18th-19th September 2013 at the Suntec, Singapore. Click here to download a brochure for the event.

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