Will LTE lead the 4G revolution?

Will LTE lead the 4G revolution?

Just as 3G networks fired up a thriving market in smartphone applications and data services, high-bandwidth 4G networks could provide the constant connection and broad pipe necessary to provide rich multimedia applications and information to drivers.

Long Term Evolution (LTE) isn’t the only contender for providing a broadband connection to the car. WiMAX also is being touted as a solution.
But one point that favors LTE is that it offers an easier upgrade path for mobile network operators using the GSM standard.

Plus, because the smartphone is an important source of connectivity at this stage in the market’s development, the carriers may drive this decision.

“Mobile operators will always prefer to decommission older technologies, so we expect that evolution will largely be driven by the consumer electronics and mobile wireless world,” says Brian Droessler, vice president of strategy and portfolio for Continental’s Infotainment & Connectivity Business Unit.

“We may have to adapt to LTE or WiMAX because it’s the dominant or only access that’s preferred by operators.” (For more from Brian Droessler, see ‘TU talks to Brian Droessler’.)

What do mobile operators want?

Verizon, AT&T, MetroPCS Communications and Leap Wireless are either planning to roll out LTE or beginning to do so, while T-Mobile has it on its roadmap.

While Sprint decided to use the WiMAX standard for its 4G services, Sprint executives have been quoted saying that migration to LTE is not out of the question. (For more on these competing formats, see 4G: A Turning Point for Telematics?)

T-Mobile has committed to moving to LTE eventually, but for now will use the interim standard HSPA+.

“With HSPA+, there are tons of devices available today that can be used in the network,” says John Horn, T-Mobile’s national M2M director.

He points out that LTE is backwards-compatible with HSPA+, HSPA, and GSM-based 3G standards. “That’s why the rush to LTE isn’t as critical to us,” he says.
At the same time, more than 40 global organizations are backing the GSMA’s Voice over LTE (VoLTE) initiative.

The coalition of mobile network operators, handset manufacturers, and equipment vendors want to make sure there is a single voice solution for 4G networks.

While this isn’t directly applicable to the auto infotainment industry, this initiative may consolidate LTE’s position.

Moreover, the GSMA is working on specs for interconnection and international roaming among LTE networks, which could allow LTE-enabled cars to stay connected when they travel outside their home network’s range.

“From the standards position, we are extremely excited. For first time, we have a single evolving standard that all the world is moving toward,” says Steve West, vice president, emerging technology and media for Alcatel-Lucent.

“There will no longer be the big problem with different standards and regions, and the devices that need to support them.”

Alcatel-Lucent is a provider of LTE equipment and a member of the ng Connect Program, which led the development of the LTE Connected Car and the associated infotainment services demonstrated at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show. (For more from Alcatel-Lucent, see ‘The killer app for a connected car is safe, eco-friendly driving’.)

Complete solutions

LTE will allow mobile network operators and OEMs to play in the global marketplace, says Ralf Hug, president of consultancy The Trajectory Group.

“LTE potentially brings Verizon and Sprint back into a global game and brings more choice and competition to telematics players worldwide,” he says.

But network operators still will need to offer automakers a complete solution that includes not just connectivity but also things like billing and roaming handoffs, Hug says: “They don’t want to shop around for partners; it makes it too complicated.”

Erik Goldman, president of Hughes Telematics, concurs. “The need for there to be a single architect and manager is still there, even though what you’re managing evolves and changes, depending on the OEM strategy,” he says.

For example, content itself will need to be localized, as will emergency services partners, while the way services are bundled and priced may vary by market.

“If you need to re-establish each of those relationships in each market you go into, that’s a big management issue,” Goldman says.

Hughes hopes to be that global link, as do other telematics service providers (TSPs) that could profit by bringing together mobile network operators, hardware manufacturers, applications providers, and a new breed of third-party application hosts. (For more on Hughes Telematics, see ‘“Consumers will become more dependent on ‘always connected’”’.)

“The key attribute to remember about LTE, or other broadband technologies designed to achieve the same benefits, is that it accelerates the current trend to move computing and data processing and software upgrading out of the vehicle, ensuring that applications used in the vehicle never become obsolete during the lifetime of the vehicle,” explains Gary Wallace, vice president of communications for ATX Group.

Thanks to the LTE broadband connection, applications running on remote servers or in the cloud would provide another benefit, according to Andrew Poliak, director of automotive business development at QNX: “There’s a whole swath of programmers that can program Internet applications.”

Those Web development companies could create a wealth of attractive and useful applications without having to learn to program for embedded or mobile devices. (For more on working with Web developers, see ‘What telematics firms can learn from Web 2.0' and ‘Telematics and the next-generation Web’.)

Looking ten years ahead

While US mobile carriers are selling 4G phones, that doesn’t mean LTE will come to the auto industry soon, Hug cautions.

“Once everything is IP, it’s just a packet. That’s the big promise of LTE,” he says.
“But to get there, the wireless module has to be LTE-capable, the networks have to be deployed, and car manufacturers have to plan that into their vehicle rollouts.”

Telematics service provider ATX Group doesn’t expect LTE to arrive in cars until the 2020 model year.

Ultimately, there’s tremendous potential for LTE to connect automobiles with all kinds of digital devices.

As the ng Connect demo showed, LTE could power new forms of digital signage, media delivery, advertising, enterprise collaboration, and cloud computing.

Each auto could become a node in a constantly shifting, constantly communicating ‘Internet of things,’ a real-time information exchange that keeps traffic and industry humming—but maybe not for another decade or so.

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

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