Etisalat is one of the biggest operators in the Middle East and has a 55 per cent market share in the UAE according to Informa WCIS stats of which 4G is a small but growing part. Ahead of the LTE MENA 2014 show we speak to Dr. Mohamed Nadder Hamdy, Director Mobile Network, Etisalat in the UAE to get some insight into its network deployment and his predictions for the future.
You’ve had an LTE network for a couple of years now. What would you say are the key learnings you have made about next-gen network deployment?
We’ve learned that devices eco-system and network infrastructures are a chicken-and-egg problem. Operators realise that new technology traffic pickup is mainly dependent on the spread of devices, especially smartphones. On the other hand, device manufacturers are dependent on the operator’s technology adoption plans for their mass production, economy of scale, plans.
A typical clash was the iPhone 5 LTE launch, which lacked support for 2.6GHz despite the fact that at that time this band was the most deployed amongst European and the Middle East operators. Nowadays, operators are facing the same challenges concerning their forward planning for LTE-A carrier aggregation bands. Regional operator alliances that can guide device manufacturers are a clear necessity to solve this issue.
The absence of voice in LTE was a major issue for operators and in particular CSFB call setup delays and failures was a big concern. Fortunately however, the CSFB technology did the trick, in anticipation of the full IMS VoLTE availability.
How has data usage changed over the last couple of years in your network?
LTE and UMTS users are dissimilar. Despite the relatively gradual increase in LTE user numbers, their traffic contribution is increasing much faster than their UMTS counterparts. Most LTE device adopters are real data hungry users; the user experience difference drives them into consuming more and more of their megabytes packages. Nevertheless, the UMTS slow adoption in the beginning of this century doesn’t seem to be the case with LTE nowadays, thanks to the smartphones wide spread and fast evolution.
The fourth annual LTE MENA conference is taking place on the 11th-13th May 2014 at the Conrad, Dubai, UAE. Click here to find out more about the event.
What do you think will be the biggest technology development for LTE in 2014?
2014 is the year of LTE-A. We are expecting to see more and more of LTE-A features implementation in both of devices and infrastructure networks. Carrier aggregation is already a reality in some markets but still limited to 20MHz bandwidths. During 2014, carrier aggregation of 30MHz and beyond, utilising Category 6 devices is expected. The 3GPP has done a good job in its latest release (Release 12) carrier aggregation bands specifications. Now for the first time we see our Middle East bands properly listed.
Is there enough spectrum available for future growth in the UAE?
Future growth is not fully spectrum dependant. Certainly spectrum availability is a key concern for most operators, yet there are two other domains that can address future traffic requirements. One of these is densification by small cells and macro sectors, while the other is increasing spectral efficiency through advanced MIMO schemes and beam forming.
The dilemma is in strategic bands, and not just any band. There are a number of spectrum options, yet very few bands are economical to deploy, harmonised for international roaming and possess device support. We also see government Public Protection and Disaster Relief (PPDR) entities interest in private LTE bands, which should be moved out of the commercial customer devices and harmonised roaming bands.
What are your biggest challenges ahead for 2014?
As with any new technology introduction, optimising investments while maintaining market leadership is always the biggest challenge. Operators need to place their bets on future proof radios’ bands combinations, when and how to trigger LTE-A features and whether to complement existing 2G/3G base stations or to go for complete network renovation. Each approach has its pros and cons and no single solution can fit all markets.
Why is the LTE MENA conference such an important date in the diary for you?
Since its launch, I have been keen to attend the LTE MENA events. As LTE technology is new to all, sharing the latest trends and experiences of major suppliers and operators assists us in re-adjusting deployment strategies and equipment selections. In other words, adapting success stories and learning from mishaps.