Much of the current hype in the telecommunications space focuses on the roll-out of 5G technology, the new mobile networks that will power the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). But it is, in fact, 4G technology – LTE – that is providing lifesaving connectivity during the COVID-19 pandemic right now when communities need it most.
Called Long Term Evolution to give it its full name, LTE is the network technology used by 52 per cent of the world’s mobile devices. As such, it is this 4G tech that has underpinned the innovative digital initiatives supporting communities during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The pandemic and the lockdown have presented humanity with mortal challenges. People, countries and organisations are rising to these challenges, often using our evolving telecommunications capabilities. However, the new era has come with opportunities, which innovators have also been able to grasp, thanks to 4G connectivity.
This will remain the case over the medium term.
“Until 2025, LTE will continue to do the heavy lifting,” said Henry Calvert, head of the Network 2020 future network programme at the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA), “Our 4G networks will remain key… They will continue to be important for the next five-to-seven years,” he said.
Speaking at the recent 2020 GSMA LTE Summit, Calvert said that during the pandemic, LTE was coming to the fore in the provision of telehealth and telemedicine, as well as expanding network services to hot spots to support the ill through hospitals and other healthcare services.
Besides the significant role 4G plays in supporting health services, it also provides for the data and connectivity needs of the new lifestyles taking shape since lockdown.
Calvert said operators report that data usage has increased by more than 70 per cent per customer during the pandemic, driven by online services and consumption of on-demand video services like Netflix, which recently reported adding 15,8 million subscribers in a year – more than double expectations.
“There has even been a call to on-demand video providers to reduce the quality of video they’re deploying and encourage people to use standard-definition rather than high-definition TV to preserve the capacity in the networks for online education, online health and online businesses,” he said.
“As transformation continues it’s been focused on expanding 4G capacity,” he said. “But the 5G transformation is clearly going to be needed in the future to meet online demands.”
During COVID-19, 4G networks have also been instrumental in supporting contact-tracing apps, which can locate and notify the contacts of infected individuals remotely, while still protecting the privacy of users. LTE networks have also provided free data to support contact tracking to do as much as possible to ensure the infection isn’t spread any further.
LTE also underpins the recent shifts in lifestyles, with large proportions of the population working, educating their children, shopping and socialising from home using online platforms.
So critical is LTE to this new paradigm, that it must remain the priority infrastructure over the short term, while societies grapple with the pandemic.
“Our GSMA intelligence groups show that there will be a short-term dip in 5G deployment,” said Calvert. “But that will quickly recover to normal levels. We still see launches of 5G networks, as we now know that delivering on the data demand that has been met by our LTE networks can only get better with 5G.”