While 5G has increasingly been making the headlines, LTE still dominates the global mobile telecom market. As per the recent edition of the LTE Ecosystem report by the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), 19,422 LTE user devices (including 386 commercial 5G devices also supporting LTE) have been launched as of March 2021, by 846 manufacturers across the world.

A look at the key highlights of the report…

LTE user devices

As per GSA’s database, there are 807 operators with commercially launched public mobile or broadband fixed-wireless access networks as of March 2021. There were 5.95 billion LTE subscriptions globally at the end of the fourth quarter of 2020, accounting for 62.2 per cent of the total mobile subscriptions.

Given the huge size of the market, it is not surprising that there is a vibrant base of technology suppliers supporting operators with LTE networks. Within these networks, a large number of vendors sell an array of devices. There are 19,422 LTE-capable user devices including frequency and operator variants from 846 suppliers, an 18 per cent increase in the number of devices in March 2020.

Form factor

The phone form factor accounts for the largest number of identified devices with 11,173 phone models catalogued, including operator and frequency variants, accounting for a 57.5 per cent share in total LTE devices. The number of LTE-capable indoor and outdoor FWA CPE devices stands at 661, while the number of other LTE-capable CPE (including industrial/ enterprise CPE, mobile hotspots and other router devices) devices is 3,389.

The LTE module and LTE-connected tablet PC segments account for 1,564 and 1,273 devices respectively. Other categories include USB modems (363 devices), asset trackers (243), cameras (172), notebooks (129) and smart watches (86), as well as car hotspots, vehicle on-board units, femtocells, fixed wireless terminals/ phones, data loggers/IoT sensors, drones, kiosk terminals, PC cards, POS machines, projectors, smart home devices, vehicle accessories, intercoms, encoders and voice translators.

FDD devices

Most devices operate in FDD mode. There are 17,278 identified devices that support the LTE-FDD mode, up from 16,837 in December 2020. They account for 89 per cent of the 19,422 LTE-capable user devices reported by the GSA.

LTE networks are operating commercially in many bands. The most popular spectrum for LTE deployments is the 1800 MHz Band 3. It also has the largest range of LTE-capable device models at 13,142. Band 3 user devices have already been announced in the market. This means that 67.7 per cent of LTE devices can operate using spectrum in the 1800 MHz band. The range of devices supporting 2600 MHz Band 7 and 2100 MHz Band 1 are also very strong, representing 58.3 per cent and 57.8 per cent of the LTE devices respectively.

LTE-FDD user devices reflect the diverse range of form factors found across LTE-capable devices. Phones make up the largest share in the LTE-FDD device market. There are 10,224 mobile phones that support FDD bands, representing 59.2 per cent of all LTE-FDD devices.

TDD devices

3GPP decided from the beginning that LTE must support both FDD and TDD modes with the minimum possible difference between the two modes. The emphasis has been on leveraging synergies between the modes to the largest extent possible. The result is that almost all parts of the LTE specifications are the same for both FDD and TDD. Device support for LTE-TDD is well established with 8,744 devices, and 45 per cent of LTE devices supporting the LTE-TDD (TD-LTE) mode. This in turn supports the growing number of LTE operators using unpaired spectrum.

Bands 40 (2.3 GHz), 41 (2.6 GHz) and 38 (2.6 GHz) have the largest choice of TDD terminals, while Band 39 is also well supported. There is a good choice of multi-band and dual-mode FDD-TDD devices.

UE categories and feature support

Category 4, 6 and 7 UE devices

Many operators have launched, or are deploying, networks supporting  User Equipment (UE) Category 4 devices. UE device Category 4 offers a theoretical peak downlink rate of up to 150 Mbit per second with a peak uplink of up to 50 Mbit per second on compatible networks. LTE-Advanced deployment is now well established with the wide-scale commercialisation of carrier aggregation to combine different spectrum bands for greater bandwidth. At present, there are 9,909 devices (51 per cent of LTE devices) that support Category 4 (excluding higher UE categories), an additional 2,003 devices that can support Category 6 (300/50 Mbit per second) and 713 that can support Category 7 (300/100 Mbit per second).

The number of devices capable of supporting higher UE categories is growing too. A significant proportion – 53.5 per cent – of the high-end devices (Category 20-22) are also 5G devices, against 47.6 per cent in the previous quarter.

VoLTE, ViLTE and EVS user devices

Operators worldwide are investing in VoLTE, enabling an HD-voice experience for LTE users. As of March 2021, 280 operators invested in VoLTE and 228 launched networks. In GAMBoD, GSA has recorded 3,213 VoLTE-capable devices (up from 3,092 in December 2020), including carrier and frequency variants. Of these devices, 2,618 are mobile phones, which means 23.4 per cent of the LTE phones support VoLTE. The number of ViLTE-capable devices listed in the GSA database is 443 (up from 434 at the end of December 2020). While video calling over LTE does not have to make use of standards-based ViLTE, operators offering VoLTE-based HD-voice services sometimes also support ViLTE-based video calling. The GSA has identified 178 devices supporting enhanced voice services (EVS).

eMBMS (LTE Broadcast) and PTT

There are 47 devices capable of supporting LTE Broadcast services. Most of these are CPE devices and routers. There are 191 devices (166 phones, many are from specialist vendors of ruggedised equipment) supporting the push-to-talk (PTT) or mission-critical PTT features.

Cellular IoT LPWA devices

The majority of IoT LPWA devices are modules, although CPE/routers are a strong category of form factor for LTE-1 devices. There is an increasing number of asset trackers and CPE/routers across these three categories.

In sum

The headlines around 4G/LTE and 5G often focus on the ever-rising performance milestones, and the success of networks and device capabilities. It is important to have a good choice of LTE user terminals to meet the needs of developing markets, where cost factors and flexibility are particularly important. It can also help in opening up new segments in developed markets.