SmarTone goes gigabit, adds live LAA to LTE network

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Hong Kong cellco SmarTone has launched the city’s first live commercial license assisted access (LAA) network, which the operator says supports 1-Gbps download speeds.

SmarTone says it has completed installation of LAA small cells in several traffic hotspots in the busy areas of Central, Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui, Mong Kok and Shatin, and will be extending to more locations. The operator added that it selected those locations so that the network can absorb traffic surges during festive and special events.

SmarTone received its LAA service license from the Office of the Communications Authority (OFCA) earlier this year after the regulator officially opened the 5-GHz band for LAA deployments.

LAA is a 3GPP-standardized technology that build on the principles of carrier aggregation – the ability to combine LTE carriers in different spectrum bands together to enable greater capacity and thus faster data speeds – by essentially adding unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum bands to the available spectrum pool. LAA avoids interfering with existing Wi-Fi hotspots via a technology called ‘Listen Before Talk’ (LBT) that ensures the band is clear before using it.

The Ericsson LAA technology deployed by SmarTone combines licensed and unlicensed LTE carriers with 5CC carrier aggregation, 4×4 MIMO and 256 QAM to enable gigabit level speeds (at least theoretically – real-world speeds are likely to be around half of that, although that’s still way faster than current LTE speeds).

SmarTone revealed it was testing LAA with Ericsson last year, saying that a live over-the-air demo yielded data speeds up to 800 Mbps. That demo utilized 4CC carrier aggregation.

To date SmarTone is the only mobile operator in Hong Kong to take advantage of LAA, or indeed show any interest in it, at least publicly.

One catch with LAA is that it requires customers to use an LAA-compatible smartphone to take advantage of the faster throughput speeds – and there aren’t very many of those at the moment. According to the latest report from the GSA (July 2018), commercially available handsets supporting LAA include the Samsung Galaxy S8, Note 8 and S9, Sony’s Xperia XZ Premium and Xperia XZ1, HTC’s U11, LG’s V30 and V30+, and ZTE’s Nubia Z17.

One reason there aren’t many handsets is that the LAA ecosystem is still in its infancy, and few operators have commercially launched LAA – in fact, SmarTone is only the fifth cellco in the world to do so. Meanwhile, the GSA counts just 22 LAA trials and deployments in progress.

Another issue may be that LAA isn’t the only technology being developed for LTE operators to leverage unlicensed spectrum. There’s also LTE-U, LWA (LTE Wireless-LAN Aggregation) and CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service), although far fewer operators are trialing these.

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