The current telco market is dominated by discussions surrounding 5G and geopolitical competition as countries strive to dominate in future technologies and cellular generations. However, these discussions fail to focus on the fact that most of the data being delivered through mobile networks utilize 4G networks, which will continue to dominate mobile traffic for many years. According to ABI Research estimates and forecasts, 4G will consist of nearly 3.8 billion subscriptions at the end of 2020, a figure that 5G will not reach until long after 2026. In terms of mobile traffic, ABI Research estimates that 4G will drive approximately 466 exabytes of traffic worldwide in 2020, the equivalent of transferring 23 billion 4G full-featured movies. In fact, ABI Research’s latest forecasts indicate that 4G traffic will increase by 39% in 2020, with similar growth in the next 2 to 3 years.

4G networks are here to stay, and their technology evolution is also advancing.

New technologies for 4G

While mobile network operators across the world are deploying their initial 5G solutions in full swing, there are still many 5G-like technologies being introduced for 4G, aiming to both increase network capability and user experience. These include massive antenna technology (massive MIMO and 4×4 MIMO), large bandwidth technology (massive CA), and short latency technology (short TTI). As a result, LTE can offer, specifically:

  • Gigabit LTE, which combines three key component technologies, i.e., massive antenna, massive CA, and 256QAM modulation. This increases the top achievable speeds to more than 1 Gbps in many cases, but most importantly, it increases attainable speeds throughout the cell. All these features can be deployed in existing cells and do not require new spectrum acquisitions or costly cell splitting exercises.
  • Shorter Transmission Time Interval (TTI): 4G networks can now be upgraded to offer lower TTI, thus reducing user plane latency and paving the way for ultra-reliable and low-latency communication services in the 5G era. Now, there are applications for Low Latency LTE in cloud gaming, but the most important aspect is that mobile operators can experiment with these types of services before the 5G standard is complete.

These technologies are well deployed in many 4G networks globally. For example, according to ABI Research estimates, Gigabit LTE which deploys all three technologies has been achieved in more than 32 mobile operators globally, and those networks can now offer more than 979 Mbps peak speeds. The list of these networks will increase as more devices support these high-end connectivity options. 

Why is 4G vital?

In many cases, it is now becoming clear that 5G will be deployed as islands of high-speed connectivity in a large pool of consistent 4G nationwide connectivity in early stages. All mobile operators that have deployed 4G are quietly upgrading it with new features, including massive antenna and massive CA technologies that are also the foundations for 5G. By doing so, they have already field-tested new concepts in a well-established network domain, gaining vital experience for when large-scale 5G deployments come.

Another vital aspect of 4G networks is that they are now a consistent nationwide connectivity layer for much more than mobile broadband. Much needed voice communications, Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWANs), IoT connectivity, FWA for home broadband and even public safety and first responder capabilities, Voice over LTE (VoLTE), NB-IoT, LTE-M, and many more features are now widely deployed across most countries and are vital to both consumer and enterprise domains. An equally important aspect is that in the long term, 5G connections will fall back to 4G when the new generation is not available, making the continuous improvement of 4G vital. 

Moreover, many operators are sunsetting their 2G or 3G networks and reframing the corresponding frequency bands for 4G. Since 4G allows much higher spectral efficiency compared to previous generations, this enhances the overall network capacity and meets the high demand for data traffic. Moreover, 4G handsets are now commoditized and very cost-efficient, allowing operators to continuously upgrade their 4G networks to stimulate the transition from previous generations. 

Finally, the continuous investment in 4G networks will also create the foundation for high-quality 5G services in the future. Several mobile operators, including Ooredoo, Sunrise, Swisscom, and Telstra have expressed that a high-quality 4G network is necessary to ensure that even 5G subscribers enjoy a consistent and high-quality user experience. In terms of technologies, E-UTRA New Radio Dual Connectivity (EN-DC) and Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) are two examples of tight coordination between the 4G and 5G networks to ensure a high-quality experience is offered to end users. The dominance of 4G today in terms of subscriptions and traffic, coupled with the fact that it will be the fallback network for 5G in the future, indicate that continuous investment in 4G is necessary.

5G is the star, 4G is getting things done

Even though 5G is the current media star, it is 4G that is carrying the most traffic globally.

For a ubiquitous high-speed service, Gigabit LTE with the capability of simple upgrade is very suitable to provide a consistent blanket of high-speed and nationwide connectivity, augmented by ultra-fast 5G connectivity in areas that need it. From a data usage perspective, Gigabit LTE will help operators cope with the challenges of mobile broadband (MBB) traffic growth and maximize revenue based on mature LTE networks, ecosystems, and user bases. From a 5G-oriented perspective, Gigabit LTE will help operators reuse legacy resources and maximize 5G user experience through tight coordination between 5G and existing 4G networks. 

About Dimitris Mavrakis:
Dimitris Mavrakis, Research Director, manages ABI Research’s telco network coverage, including telco cloud platforms, digital transformation, and mobile network infrastructure. Research topics include AI and machine learning technologies, telco software and applications, network operating systems, SDN, NFV, LTE diversity, and 5G.

About ABI Research
ABI Research provides strategic guidance to visionaries, delivering actionable intelligence on the transformative technologies that are dramatically reshaping industries, economies, and workforces across the world. ABI Research’s global team of analysts publish groundbreaking studies often years ahead of other technology advisory firms, empowering our clients to stay ahead of their markets and their competitors. 

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