Michelle Burbick
Michelle Burbick is the Associate Editor and a blogger for No Jitter, UBM Tech's online community for news and analysis...
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Michelle Burbick | September 07, 2016 |


What's the Big Deal about Carrier Aggregation?

What's the Big Deal about Carrier Aggregation? Sprint and Verizon make moves to speed their cellular networks as they continue down the path to 5G.

Sprint and Verizon make moves to speed their cellular networks as they continue down the path to 5G.

In a live demonstration last week in Chicago, Sprint and Samsung gave select media a look at what's coming next for cellular networks -- three-channel carrier aggregation -- and what the technology upgrade means for the average mobile user.

As Sprint explained in its press materials, "carrier aggregation is an LTE-Advanced feature that bonds together bands of spectrum to create wide channels, produce greater capacity and deliver faster speeds on capable devices." Think about it like a funnel. You have all this traffic coming from the wide end of the tunnel, squeezing through the mouth at the end. With carrier aggregation, the mouth of the funnel is widened, so more data traffic can get through, faster (see below graphic from Sprint's demo for help visualizing this).

Source: Sprint

Sprint used a network speed test app to demonstrate the differences in speed across a network without carrier aggregation (79 Mbps), one with two-carrier aggregation (151 Mbps), and another with three-carrier aggregation (211 to 240 Mbps). Under optimal radio frequency conditions, three-channel carrier aggregation improves throughput 50% over two-channel aggregation, Mark Louison, SVP and GM of Samsung Networks, explained during the demo. This means that download times can be cut by roughly a third, leading to a better user experience for all, he added.

Sprint and Samsung executives demonstrate real-time network speeds using one-, two-, and three-channel carrier aggregation.

"Carrier aggregation is one of the great ideas to come out of the 4G standards," said Michael Finneran, president of dBrn Associates and a mobility blogger for No Jitter.

"Increasing wireless data rates requires either a wider bandwidth radio channel (i.e. more radio spectrum) or a more efficient signal encoding technique. Essentially the idea of carrier aggregation is to take slices of radio spectrum from the different radio bands the carrier owns in a particular market and bunch them together to make a bigger channel. ... All of this is mind-boggling to us who were around when 4,800 bps was the best we could do on the cellular networks."

Sprint owns spectrum in the 800-MHz, 1,900-MHz PCS, and significant holding in the 2,500-MHz bands, Finneran noted.

Chicago is a city of firsts for Sprint on carrier aggregation, Gunther Ottendorfer, Sprint COO, Technology, told me. About a year ago Chicago became the first market to receive two-channel carrier aggregation and it is now the first market to receive three-channel carrier aggregation, delivered via Samsung technology deployed to more than 500 cell sites in the city. While specific details are sparse, Sprint said it plans to take its three-channel carrier aggregation across country in the coming months, from Buffalo, N.Y., to San Francisco and beyond.

These speeds will be a big deal for enterprises, especially as data-intensive applications like virtual reality and 4K video pick up steam, Ottendorfer said. "Enterprises are consuming more data," and they're not going to stop anytime soon, he added.

On the Path to 5G

With next-generation 5G technology not expected for deployment until 2020, one could argue that advancements in LTE, specifically with carrier aggregation, help pave the way. Verizon Wireless also announced that it was rolling out its LTE Advanced deployments in 461 markets across the country. Verizon is also using carrier aggregation -- two-channel and three-channel. Verizon stated that these deployments would improve peak data speeds by 50% in these markets. With two-channel carrier aggregation, users can expect download speeds up to 225 Mbps, and with three-channel carrier aggregation, speeds can reach 300 Mbps.

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