The Next Mobile Frontier – Heading for Another Standards War?

Next week the 3GPP will host the LTE world summit in the Netherlands. The conference focuses on the 3GPP’s (3rd Generation Partnership Project) LTE (Long Term Evolution) standard for next generation mobile telecommunications networks. LTE is the main competitor to the WiMAX standard, both of which are branded as 4G mobile network standards, and is capable of speeds up to 100Mbit/s downloads and 50Mbits/s uploads wirelessly.

Although LTE is more accurately defined as a 3.9G of Pre-4G technology – it does not fully comply with the IMT Advanced’s (International Mobile Telecommunications Advanced) 4G requirements – the standard is backed by the EU commission who are set to invest €18 million into the research and development of LTE Advanced which is an enhanced and truly 4G compliant version of the standard.

The 3GPP is collaboration between a number of telecommunication associations that develop standards for GSM based mobile networks. The LTE standard was initially included in the document “Release 8” which was made publically available in December 2008. However, work on the standard had begun in 2004 with the objective “to develop a framework for the evolution of the 3GPP radio-access technology towards a high-data-rate, low-latency and packet-optimized radio-access technology”. For a detailed technical discussion of the initial proposal see here (published by 3GPP). The standard offers a significant improvement of the air interface of 3G’s UTRAN standard with the new E-UTRA (Evolved UTRAN) standard, providing considerably faster connection speeds and lower latency compared to the older standard.

The conference (18th-20th of May) should be an interesting gathering of parties involved in what many commentators expect to become the market leading standard for next generation mobile networks. Numerous network providers from Europe (TeliaSonera, Telenor, O2, T-mobile, France Telecom, Telecom Italia, etc.), Asia (Japanese NTT DoCoMo, Chinese Huawei, Malaysian CSL, etc.) and the US (AT&T, Verizon, Spirit, etc.) will be in attendance and presenting topics such as spectrum regulation, interoperability and technical discussions of the standard. As well handset suppliers such as Nokia, Siemens, Ericsson and Motorola will be demonstrating LTE compatible hardware.

Telecom standards development has historically been a battle between competing technologies. In line with the 3G standards war between WCDMA and CDMA2000 (as of February 2009 WCDMA boasted an estimated 350 million subscribers while there were 142 million CDMA2000 3G subscribers as of November 2009), LTE is just one of a number of 4G standards competing for wide-spread market acceptance. For instance, the WiMAX standard has seen significantly more deployment – the WiMAX Forum claims there are over 558 WiMAX networks in over 147 countries – compared to LTE. However WiMAX lacks the broad support from the mobile industry and superior speeds offered by LTE. Furthermore, LTE is on the cusp of launching in many nations globally and is poised to quickly erode WiMAX’s initial head start.

The converse to this looming standards war is that due to increased interoperability the telecommunications industry may see greater harmony between standards. For instance it is increasingly common for handsets to be compatible with competing standards, and similarly the LTE E-UTRA interface is specified for use over any other IP network, including WiMAX. Similarly the increased role of governments in the mobile broadband industry – such as the need for radio spectrum ultimately controlled and allocated by governments – may see the ultimate decision made outside the market.