Qualcomm & EE delivering Gigabit LTE
The latest Qualcomm® Snapdragon™ Gigabit LTE powered smartphones might be capable of receiving data at Gigabit speeds, but if the networks aren’t ready for them it’s futile – like driving a Porsche around a 20mph zone.
Thankfully, the networks are more than keeping pace with the latest handset developments. In fact, EE has already begun rolling out Gigabit LTE in cities across the UK, delivering real-world download speeds of up to 400Mbits/sec – more than ten times faster than the average fixed-line broadband speed.
We caught up with EE’s Head of Network Communications, Howard Jones, to find out how quickly Gigabit LTE will be rolled out, how far it will spread and why it will transform mobile broadband.
When you hear that smartphones will be capable of downloading an HD movie in a matter of seconds, you might be forgiven for wondering what impact it’s going to have on the network as a whole. If everyone’s downloading these massive files, won’t the sheer weight of traffic drag the network down?
In fact, the exact opposite is true. If you’re downloading a film to watch on the train home, it’s more efficient to give you that movie in a minute and get you off the network, than it is to have you sat downloading the same file at a slower pace for 10 or 20 minutes.
“We’re really doing it to manage capacity,” Howard Jones told us. “If you’re downloading a large file, whatever that might be, we want to give that to you as quickly as possible so that we can reallocate all of that resource across the base, instead of you hogging more of what’s available for the rest of the users in that [mobile] cell.”
Hitting areas of high demand
That’s why, initially at least, EE is rolling out Gigabit LTE in the high density, urban areas where its network is in most demand. At the time of writing, Gigabit LTE was live in three sites in Cardiff and 12 in London, with plans to expand rapidly.
“The focus will be London for the next six to nine months, but then it’s really about cherry picking where we think we need it the most,” said Jones, naming areas such as Birmingham New Street and central Manchester among the next targets for deployment.
In the long term, EE has 150 towns and cities that are currently capable of receiving LTE Advanced speeds, and they are the areas that are highly likely to be the footprint for Gigabit LTE, too.
If you live or work in a rural area and are once again depressed at the thought of missing out on the fastest available speeds, Howard argues there’s no need to despair. “Increasing the capacity of the network creates a better experience for everybody,” he said.
Although the rural areas are unlikely to receive Gigabit LTE, they’ll still benefit from less demand on individual masts. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that when the cell’s completely empty in a rural area, I’ll get 400Mbits/sec plus, because the maximum throughput’s not there,” said Jones. “But my average performance per customer across the UK should be pretty consistent.” EE already hits an average download speed of 30Mbits/sec countrywide, and is aiming to push up towards 50Mbits/sec once Gigabit LTE is rolled out more widely.
Additionally, devices with Snapdragon Gigabit LTE, such as the Sony Xperia XZ Premium, provide an additional benefit outside of Gigabit LTE coverage. Because they have four 4G antennas, instead of the two antennas in typical LTE devices, Gigabit LTE devices can lock on to a stronger signal in areas with weaker coverage. They can provide up to 70% faster download speeds even in areas that have not been upgraded to full Gigabit LTE capability yet.
Preparing EE’s cell towers for Gigabit LTE isn’t only a case of installing a new transmitter – there’s a whole stack of equipment and software that must be upgraded to reliably deliver those breakneck speeds.
Gigabit LTE relies on a combination of technologies – carrier aggregation, 4×4 MIMO, and 256-QAM. With carrier aggregation, different strands of a network’s radio spectrum are bonded together to improve speeds. EE has around 3,000 of these sites bonding two strands (or carriers) together, and 750 sites bonding three strands. Three strands are needed to support 1Gbits/sec speeds.
To connect those sites back to the core network, they must be upgraded with backhaul connections of at least 1Gbits/sec, ideally faster. The sites in Cardiff are running on 10Gbits/sec connections, for example, giving them plenty of spare capacity to meet future demand.
There are software updates that must be completed, while antennas also need to be upgraded to support the 4×4 MIMO antennas that are found in Gigabit LTE handsets. “There’s work at the top of the tower, there’s work at the base station and there’s work at the pipe on the way back,” said Jones. “It’s pretty comprehensive as an upgrade programme. There’s no light-touch part of it.”