Carrier Aggregation: An Opportunity For Operators And Handset OEMs, But Is The U.S. Behind?

The world of mobile never stops moving, and one of the most important drivers of mobile’s continued evolution has been the constant improvement in wireless connectivity. This has been dramatically improved with the advent of 3G and LTE, but LTE is starting to see its limitations, and we are starting to see a need for LTE-A or LTE-Advanced, which utilizes an important feature called “carrier aggregation” to increase speeds. Think of carrier aggregation as combining multiple, smaller bands of spectrum into one bigger band. Carrier aggregation is quickly becoming the next step forward for 4G connectivity and operators around the world have deployed or are testing their networks to deploy LTE-A networks with carrier aggregation. This presents an opportunity for smaller operators to compete with their larger competitors in speeds and smaller OEMs to beat their larger competitors to addressing the need for devices with carrier aggregation. Unfortunately, carrier aggregation hasn’t quite taken up everywhere around the world equally. In fact, U.S. carriers AT&T, Sprint Corporation, T-Mobile U.S. and Verizon Communications are lagging a bit in carrier aggregation deployments which is odd given the U.S.’s early lead in LTE.

Carrier aggregation is a global phenomenon required before 5G

Carrier aggregation is a global phenomenon, one that is absolutely critical to the evolution of the cellular technology of the future. Without carrier aggregation, there are simply no faster speeds and likely no ability to reach fast enough speeds to even start thinking about true 5G technologies. This is due to the limitation of a single carrier of LTE in a 20 MHz block only delivering bandwidth of 150 Mbps so if you want any faster speeds you are going to need carrier aggregation.

Carrier aggregation helps operators simultaneously add capacity while also boosting speeds which are the two primary concerns for any carrier today. So, it comes as little surprise, then, that as of July 21st, according to the GSA (Global Mobile Supplier Association), are currently 88 different cellular networks in 45 different countries that have launched commercial networks with carrier aggregation. Since carrier aggregation does not guarantee a certain speed, there are different speeds that different operators are doing carrier aggregation at and how many operators they are supporting. As such, some networks are Cat.4 speed LTE with carrier aggregation (150 Mbps) while others are up to Cat. (category) 9 speed (450 Mbps) with carrier aggregation.

In some smaller countries, carrier aggregation is so widespread that it is being advertised as a feature to differentiate between different operators. However, the reality is that most carrier aggregation and LTE-A deployments are either in fairly small countries with smaller populations or in geographically larger countries with very small concentrated points of deployment. There is still a lot of room for carrier aggregation to improve coverage, even in the countries and on the operators where it is already considered deployed.

Who’s leading, who’s not

Some countries are really leading the pack with carrier aggregation, namely Australia, Japan and South Korea. These countries are already deploying or have deployed LTE Cat.9 systems with speeds up to 450 Mbps, making people who are familiar with the U.S. market ask themselves “why aren’t our speeds anywhere near that?” The U.S. has greatly lagged behind the rest of the world in the deployment of carrier aggregation and LTE-A networks. In the U.S. the only carriers that have deployed carrier aggregation in any official capacity have been Sprint Corporation and AT&T. AT&T launched their Cat. 4 LTE CA while Sprint recently has been rumored to have launched 2×20 MHz CA in over 40 areas across the country. Sprint’s deployment would be considered more of a network-wide deployment and can technically be credited with the first full CA rollout. However, the company is refusing to publicly acknowledge this roll-out apparently until their earnings call on August 8th.

In fact, T-Mobile has announced they will be launching their LTE-A network with Nokia to all spectrum bands, with an initial launch in 2015, but details are thin, and they will likely be forced to launch soon by Sprint’s launch. Verizon Communications is also planning to do the same with their 700 MHz and AWS (Advanced Wireless Services) spectrum to obtain faster speeds and more network capacity, but no exact dates are known about when that will happen as they already provide an XLTE service which gives users the ability to use low band spectrum or AWS but not together.

Even in China, China Mobile and China Telecom are already building their networks out to support carrier aggregation in partnership with Huawei, Nokia, Qualcomm and ZTE. China Unicom has also announced successful trials with Ericsson and also seems ripe for the upgrade to carrier aggregation. However, no concrete timeframes are known at this time. China Mobile has already shown test speeds of 320 Mbps in a combined TDD-LTE test network deployed in Guangzhou with Huawei and Qualcomm, and is on the forefront of carrier aggregation deployment in China. Recently, China Telecom announced that they would be offering a Tianyi 4G+ Cat6 LTE-A service with CA starting August 1st, which would be supported by 20 different devices in 17 cities at launch with peak download speeds of up to 300 Mbps.

The truth is that 2015 and 2016 are going to be big years for American and Chinese carriers building out their networks for carrier aggregation and there is going to be expanded demand for devices that support it, which right now pretty much only come with chips from Huawei’s HiSilicon, Intel, Qualcomm and Samsung Electronics. These two countries and their respective carriers represent hundreds of millions of potential customers, very likely more than all of the customers of the carriers in the countries currently deployed, combined.

Carrier aggregation creates new opportunities for handset makers and operators

Operators have added spectrum across the world, but now the time has come to make more use of that spectrum. This is going to spark a race that we’re already seeing in some smaller countries where operators market themselves based upon their speeds and try to tie value to that. That means that operators will be looking to device makers to supply them with devices that can best utilize their newly carrier aggregated networks. This presents an opportunity for virtually any smartphone manufacturer, big or small, to put themselves in front of the operators and offer carrier aggregation enabled solutions that offer the best performance on the operators’ networks.

Because carrier aggregation is a global phenomenon, China and the U.S. are not going to be the only markets where such opportunities present themselves. Right now, the leading providers of LTE-A devices with carrier aggregation are unsurprisingly Korean device makers LG and Samsung Electronics.

A rumored upcoming Sprint launch are listing only 6 phones, from three manufacturers, the HTC One M9, LG G4, LG G Flex 2 and the Samsung Electronics Galaxy Note Edge and Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge. As a result, customers are going to yearn for choices because people are always going to want to go for the fastest option when possible. Australia’s Telstra, which has had LTE carrier aggregation for almost a year only has 13 out of their 22 latest smartphones available for use on their 4GX network, which is their brand name for carrier aggregation. Similarly, on SKTelecom’s network which is one of the first LTE-A carrier aggregation networks in the world, they only have 27 phones out of their 43 available phones that support LTE-A. This is coming from the operator in the country where most of the current devices that support carrier aggregation come from. There is clearly a need for more carrier aggregation supported devices, even in the most mature operators’ networks.

This lack of choice for operators presents a massive opportunity for handset OEMs as this has created an artificial shortage of devices with carrier aggregation. Operators that currently offer some form of carrier aggregation are looking for more and newer devices while those looking to launch want to offer more than two brands at essentially one price point. Operators are already using carrier aggregation as a tool to differentiate between themselves and their competition, usually talking about the peak speeds  they enable, this has mostly happened in Asia in countries like Taiwan and Korea.

These faster services give operators the opportunity to differentiate and claim better and faster networks, which we are already starting to see among US carriers, likely leading up to their anticipated roll outs of carrier aggregation. The amount of marketing spend and resources spent on ensuring that their networks are the fastest could give OEMs an opportunity to shine in ways that their competitors cannot without carrier aggregation.

Wrapping up…

Carrier aggregation is finally a global phenomenon and has become a serious topic of discussion with all of the major operators around the world. Some of them are more broadly deployed than others, some due to geography, others due to limited spectrum holdings, but ultimately everyone is either already aboard or wants to come aboard the carrier aggregation train. Carrier aggregation and LTE-A are going to move forward and take the mobile industry with it, and those that don’t help lead or follow are going to be left behind. Carrier aggregation is going to give operators a huge marketing opportunity and that opportunity is going to drive demand for devices that can deliver the network performance operators are looking for, creating new opportunities for OEMs that are on top of this trend and are willing to invest in the new technology.