The arrival of 4G in the UK will bring a mobile revolution to rival the introduction of the first smartphones, but the benefits will not be fully realised unless legacy Internet Protocol (IP) networks are prepared for the forthcoming deluge of data.
This was the warning issued by Brocade's UK country manager Marcus Jewell, following Ofcom's recent changes to the 4G spectrum auction. The new proposal states that at least 98% of the UK will have access to 4G technology, including so-called 'not spot' areas of the country.
According to Jewell, 4G will finally enable mobile users to get download speeds and capabilities similar to their fixed-line Internet. However, this means that use of bandwidth-hungry applications, such as media streaming and video calls, will inevitably rise.
"What many people fail to realise is that the colossal volumes of data that will result from 4G will cause serious problems for unprepared IP networks," said Jewell. "Without action to future-proof the underlying IT infrastructure the limitations of 3G, such as lack of bandwidth, will merely be shifted from the airwaves into the data centre."
Any bottlenecks and breakdowns will affect the mobile service itself, warned Jewell. With users now demanding a seamless, high availability service that conveys a quality user experience, this is not a risk that mobile operators can afford to take.
Jewell said that mobile network providers need to address vulnerabilities, chokepoints and outdated equipment in their IP network infrastructure now, before the 4G rollout begins - most likely in 2015.
Ofcom indicated last year that small cells, such as femtocells and microcells, will have to be incorporated into the 4G network infrastructure if mobile operators are to cope with the massive surge in demand for data. Small cells are low-powered radio access nodes that improve indoor and outdoor coverage to increase capacity and offload traffic.
One company that has been working with network operators in the US, to help them cope with with increasing data demand by adding more cell sites, is TE Connectivity. According to Tony LeFebvre, director of product management at TE Connectivity, small cells such as the company's Distributed Antenna System (DAS) are really helping those operators maintain to deliver 4G services.
TE Connectivity's DAS product can interface with a base station and convert the radio frequency into a digital signal, which can then be transported over fibre. This allows it to travel far greater distances, and helps to maximise the data rate, according to LeFebvre.
"There's a very limited supply of spectrum, so what the operators have to do is shrink the cell itself to a size that they can maximise the data rate," LeFebvre told Techworld. "The data rate that you expect from a 4G service really requires a higher level of backhaul, so that you can have the same high speed connection all the way out through the cloud. That's why we use fibre."
Network operators like Verizon and AT&T have been using TE Connectivity's small cells to boost their networks ever since Apple's iPhone started grabbing US market share, putting increased pressure on 3G mobile networks.
"We're independent of protocol, so we can serve one antenna site solution for 4G, 3G and 2G services," added LeFebvre. "We're also independent of the operator, so it also works well in a shared network environment."
TE Connectivity's DAS solution is currently only available in the US, but the company has plans to expand into Western Europe in the future.