Going the distance

Australian incumbent carrier Telstra launched its nationwide HSPA network in 2006, making the improved performance that gave it the centre of its marketing message. This year the carrier began a series of trials of LTE. Mike Wright, the firm’s executive director for wireless talks to about the firm’s plans for 4G deployment.

Since the launch of its ‘NextG’ HSPA-enabled network in October 2006, Telstra has sought to position itself as the provider of Australia’s premier wireless broadband network. So it seems logical that it would seek to use LTE, the next generation of mobile broadband technology, to reinforce this positioning.In March this year Telstra announced a series of LTE trials, which began in May, working with Nokia Siemens Networks, Huawei and the carrier’s long term supply partner, Ericsson. In June the firm announced that, together with NSN, it had successfully achieved LTE network speeds of 100Mbps over a distance of 75km in the 2.6GHz band. Shortly afterwards, in July, it said it had completed a trial of LTE in the 1800MHz band with Huawei. In early August the Ericsson trial was still in the deployment phase.

The exact nature of the Ericsson trial is not known but Telstra is clearly investigating a range of spectrum bands in anticipation of having to deploy the technology across one of the largest, most sparsely populated countries in the world. At more than 7.7 million square kilometres, Australia is the world’s sixth largest country. It has a population, according to the CIA Factbook, of just 21.5 million, spread across the huge expanses of the country.

These characteristics make Australia all but unique in deployment terms and Telstra’s decision to use the 850MHz band for its HSPA network reflected that. “The catchment area that you’re trying to cover in a country like Australia, with that kind of population density, means that you do need to stretch the technology to deliver the best speed over the greatest range,” says Mike Wright, executive director for wireless at Telstra.

“The same will apply in the LTE world, as we deploy that over the top [of the HSPA network],” he adds. “But there’s still a lot of gas left in the HSPA tank, so we’re not ready to move away from that holus bolus.”

Australia has yet to allocate spectrum for LTE deployments, so Telstra cannot be certain about which bands it will be operating in

In most markets the likelihood is that LTE will be rolled out first in urban centres, where demand is at its most intense. In Australia, Wright says, this will not necessarily be the case. He sees demand from a variety of different locations. As well as the big cities, there are also sites located at very high points topographically that pick up a great deal of traffic simply because they cover very large areas.

“That’s why we did the 100Mbps test over 75km in rural Victoria,” he says. “That was about understanding the range limits of the technology itself, and how that would be suited to those types of scenarios.” The 2.6GHz band in which that trial was carried out is not typically known for propagation over long distances. Wright says the trial was designed to prove that existing technology would not require a great deal of modification for deployment in Australia’s unique environments.

“It let us understand that, actually, this could be done without too much variation and without having to change the end user devices. The best outcome is where you don’t have to make a fundamental change to technology, and that was a good outcome from our point of view,” he says.

Australia has yet to allocate spectrum for LTE deployments, so Telstra cannot be certain about which bands it will be operating in. “We have visibility that there’s an intention to release spectrum in the 2.6GHz band, and the digital dividend band over time,” he says. “We can expect that they will become a foundation set of spectrums in Australia. And if 1800MHz were to become a mainstream technology standard for LTE around the world, it’s quite practical that we might look at that over time.”

So what do these timescales look like? Industry analyst Ovum believes that LTE in Australia remains a little way off, with the digital dividend Wright mentions serving as a catalyst. In June the Australian Government announced that it would be releasing 126MHz of digital dividend spectrum in the 694 – 820MHz range. The spectrum is due to be cleared by the end of 2013. By this stage, Ovum has suggested, LTE will be a mature technology and Telstra will be in a good position to exploit it, much as it did with the NextG 3G network in 2006.

Wright prefers to talk of LTE’s benefits in terms of efficiency, steering away from talk of throughput speeds

“Immediately, the demand for LTE in terms of capacity release is not quite there,” says Wright. “But the demand curve is shifting very rapidly so we certainly see in a few years’ time the relative value of LTE will increase. It starts off as a benefit that you could get fairly soon, but the proportion of the benefit will increase quite dramatically as demand goes up. We’re doubling our volumes around every ten to eleven months on our network today,” he says.

As with other operators, these volumes are largely driven by dongles and embedded laptops and Wright anticipates that this will continue to be the case as LTE gathers momentum.

Wright prefers to talk of LTE’s benefits in terms of efficiency, steering away from the throughput speeds that are used within the industry to promote new network technologies. With efficiency comes cost benefits of course, and Telstra expects to derive these benefits, although Wright says the firm has yet to reach any firm conclusions as to what they might be.

“We see speed as network efficiency and that’s determined by the spectral efficiency of the technology and, to some extent, the bandwidth/hardware cost trade-off that you get; how much capacity you put in at one time,” he says.

“We haven’t qualified it yet because there are two dimensions that we’ll be looking at here. One is what the cell’s throughput will be on existing infrastructure, but it will also be heavily influenced by the way we go to market and the size of the initial investment,” he continues. “What you usually find with new technologies when you do a first rollout is that you actually build a fair amount of latent capacity into your network that you then extract over time.”

There has been a good deal of debate of late as to whether or not the commercial arrival of LTE will herald the return of the network to the status of key competitive differentiator. During the past decade carrier psychology evolved and the network, in developed markets at least, began to take second place to other elements of the offering—brand, market positioning, content and service mix—in the efforts of the operators to distinguish themselves from their peers.

So how does Telstra feel about the network as a competitive differentiator? “We’ve probably used our NextG network as a competitive differentiator from the day we launched it,” Wright says. “We would want to continue to leverage the best technology and the way we go to market as part of that. We have to deploy the best customer experience we can deliver across the combined networks. It doesn’t just have to be LTE, it’s about how you put the whole lot together as a package.”

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