Tue, Jun

LTE devices - multi-band support on the way?


GCF and GSA figures show growth in LTE device launches, but in what bands?

Two things have put LTE spectrum band support in devices in the news recently. Most obvious was the new iPad which was released with LTE support, but only as an option in certain frequency bands — and not at all in the European LTE bands at 800MHz and 2.6GHz. It seemed to come as a shock to many in the non-tech (and even some in the tech) press that LTE support doesn't always mean LTE support.


Then came Everything Everywhere's likely regulatory approval to re-use some of its 1800MHz spectrum for LTE services in 2012. The other main operators, who have mainly 900MHz spectrum, protested that this gave EE an advantage. Not least amongst their objections was the fact that although Vodafone and O2 could theoretically re-farm their 900MHz spectrum for LTE (the EC Decision that asks regulators to allow spectrum re-use for 3G and 4G services includes 900MHz spectrum) that remains a very impractical solution, as there is precious little equipment and device support at 900MHz - never mind much less spectrum available. Even EE said it is being limited to dongles in LTE 1800MHz, because of a lack of compatible devices.

So what LTE bands are most commonly being supported in new devices that are set to hit the market? Well one source of knowledge is the GCF, a certification body that provides pre-release interoperability and specifications approval for devices.

As a GCF spokesperson said, "Both manufacturer and operator members place a high priority in ensuring the certification scheme is firmly rooted in the evolving needs of the market." In other words, the GCF process is a pretty good reflection of the commercial demands of the market, especially operators.

The GCF spokesperson told us that LTE1800 was incorporated into GCF Certification in February of this year, making it one of 7 FDD bands already incorporated within the scheme. There are also two TDD bands within the scheme. To date, 19 LTE devices have been certified by the GCF. Of these, 10 have been certified during 2012, the remainder across the whole of 2011, so the pace of LTE certification is increasing.

And it seems that multi-band LTE devices are also becoming more common: five so far in 2012. The last three devices certified have been tri-band LTE incorporating the 2100, 2600 and 800 MHz bands which allows the devices to be targeted at both Europe and Japan. There have been no LTE1800 devices submitted yet. All the LTE devices certified this year have also incorporated at least dual-band 3G in the 2100 and 900 Mhz bands. (Quad band GSM/EDGE is also virtually ubiquitous).

Note, this is the number of devices that have been put through the GCF paces, not the total number of devices on the market. But it is evidence that there is an increasing, if yet a trickle, flow of multi-band LTE devices being put to market.

With a much wider remit, the GSA (the mobile suppliers' organisation) claims that it has identified 269 LTE-enabled user devices, with 48 of them smartphones. Its breakdown by form factor was:

  • 31 Modules
  • 18 Tablets
  • 12 Notebooks
  • 2 PC Cards
  • 1 Femtocell
  • 48 Smartphones
  • 101 Routers
  • 56 Dongles

In terms of the major radio frequency bands, the GSA reported:

  • 700 MHz (US Digital Dividend, various bands) 142 devices
  • 800 MHz (EU Digital Dividend, Band 20) 52 devices
  • 800 MHz (Band 3) 50 devices
  • 2600 MHz (Band 7) 65 devices
  • 800/1800/2600 MHz 43 devices
  • AWS (Band 4) 51 devices

Note that in neither the GCF list nor the GSA list is there a peep about 900MHz, which is not surprising, as there is very little 900MHz LTE activity. Net4mobility, the Swedish JV, uses 900MHz spectrum as well as 2.6GHz for LTE, but that is about it in terms of commercial launches. Informa's analysts said last year that the 900MHz band is likely to see the lowest level of LTE deployments worldwide, representing just 3% of the global addressable market for LTE by 2016.

Alan Hadden of the GSA confirmed that although he does hear some murmurings around 900MHz, it is mainly limited to certain geographies. 1800 is still much more attractive in terms of refarming, given that most operators have for more of it.

Our GCF spokesperson points out: "As the technology beds in and matures, manufacturers are increasingly likely to put their devices through certification to demonstrate to operators that their devices achieve what is a respected benchmark of interoperability. This reassurance will become ever more important as operators move towards the introduction of LTE roaming."

Early days, then, but there are multi-band devices already in certification, with the likelihood that more will be added this year, not least in 1800MHz, which has only just been added to the GCF's list of supported test cases.