Mobile Sands

November 20, 2010

Applications for white space spectrum?

Filed under: LTE, Metro Wi-Fi, New business models, white space, Wi-Fi — AJ @ 5:14 pm

The search for what to do with white space spectrum is on.

Cambridge Consultants, a radio consulting company in UK, identified three promising applications: in-home video distribution, municipal wireless, and rural broadband. Scores of companies have tried to address these three markets but with limited commercial success. There are solutions for in-home video distribution using Wireless HD, WHDI, 802.11n and UWB –  and many of them commercially available. Several companies build outdoor WiFi gear for municipal deployments. Broadband can be provided in rural areas with a wide range of mature wireless technologies (EVDO, UMTS, LTE, WiMAX etc.) running in both licensed and unlicensed bands. Licensed spectrum is dirt cheap in rural areas. All this raises the question – is there enough demand for these applications and is  new technology needed to address them?

According to Ruckus, a company that builds WiFi gear with beam forming antennas, “white space will be ideal for creating “urban overlays” to higher-speed microcell Wi-Fi and macrocell LTE networks… perfect for offloading low bit rate “chatter” traffic, such as application notifications (email, presence lists, etc. generated by handheld wireless devices) from high speed cellular or Wi-Fi networks”. Though an interesting application, it is doubtful that carriers will add a new radio into their handsets to offload low bit rate chatter. The incremental cost of adding WiFi to a handset had to fall below $10 before carriers starting making it a standard feature in their smartphone lineups.

Brough Turner, founder of a a 802.11n based ISP called netBlazr and former CTO/founder of NMS communications, points out that white space spectrum being “beachfront” spectrum is based on 20th century technology, not physics. Brough, in other blog posts and presentations at industry forums, has argued that large amounts of spectrum at higher frequencies is significantly more valuable for offering broadband and connectivity than few 6 MHz channels in lower frequency bands.

Of course, those who have commercially viable ideas on what to do in this spectrum are not advertising them on the Internet.  I was recently reading the history of ISM bands on the website of Michael Marcus and at George Mason’s Internet Economy Project. It is notable that both WiFi and Bluetooth, poster child applications for ISM bands took off more than 15 years after this spectrum was opened up for unlicensed use. Spread spectrum, the technology that folks at FCC believed would be deployed in ISM bands was replaced by OFDM. None of the companies that were pioneers in the ISM band are in business today.  Plus, not all unlicensed spectrum creates billion dollar markets. Unlicensed PCS (UPCS), a 20 MHz band what was offered for unlicensed use in 1995, has no application to date. Still, in these relatively early days, it is better for all us to stay optimistic about the possibilities and keep our thinking hats on!

February 2, 2010

Billing for Mobile Connected Devices

Filed under: 3G, LTE — Tags: , , , , — AJ @ 4:40 am

Imagine if every home appliance you own required its own electricity subscription, and the price of a light bulb included lifetime electricity usage!

Well, that is how mobile broadband connectivity is being priced today for “connected devices” ranging from tablet computers to electronic book readers. Apple iPad owners need to pay an additional $14.99/month to access AT&T’s 3G network even if they have unlimited data plan with AT&T. And Sprint 3G subscribers need to pay for the data charge bundled with their eBook purchases from Amazon, just like everybody else.

When Edison first started selling electricity to consumers in 1882, he priced it by the light bulb. At that time, the primary application of electricity was illumination. Edison promoted electric lamps as “the sun’s only rival” and often subsidized them. Tied to each light bulb was an unlimited usage plan.  Sounds familiar? It took another ten years before Chicago Edison Company (led by Samuel Insull) started charging for electricity consumed. Insull grew Chicago Edison into one of the largest utilities in America, and the pricing model he pioneered opened the doors led to a proliferation of electricity-consuming appliances, driving decades of rapid growth for the electricity business.

To get similar growth in the mobile broadband business, carriers need to offer plans that cover all devices owned by a single person (or family), and then, charge for bandwidth consumed. An AT&T subscriber who buys an iPad should be able to add it to her existing 3G plan and do the same when she buys a new PlasticLogic e-Reader or Isabella’s VIZIT photo frame. Not only will this make connected devices more affordable and palatable to consumers, it will increase make consumers more loyal to the wireless operators they chose.

Metered pricing is essential for such “converged” pricing to work. Today’s “unlimited” usage plans are often tied to particular devices and are  based on the premise that the device and how it is typically used will limit actual usage to a manageable amount. A typical user of an email device like Blackberry uses just 30-40 MB of data per month. iPhone users use thrice as much data but still, it is not a lot. All this changes when you have dozens of devices connected to the wireless network, soaking up bandwidth all the time.

Carriers are definitely thinking about metered billing, especially as they look at introducing connected devices.   Verizon’s CTO Dick Lynch talked about this topic in an interview with Washington Post last month, and said that metered billing is essential for both, reducing network congestion and to enable “open devices”. The move towards the pricing model that made utilities successful is on.

April 21, 2009

AT&T’s Investment in GSM/UMTS Delivers Subs & Easier 4G Uprade

Filed under: 3G, LTE, Uncategorized — Tags: , , — AJ @ 4:11 am

AT&T’s investment in GSM & UMTS is paying off.  Not only does it have an exclusive on the most desirable handset in the US market, it may also be able to upgrade to 4G at lower cost than its major rivals.

Almost 10 years ago, the different components of today’s AT&T (AT&T Wireless, BellSouth, SBC, others…) started migrating their 2G TDMA networks to 2G GSM.  They launched their first GSM/GPRS networks in 2001 and completed the migration by 2004. See this AT&T and Cingular milestones chart for more information.  Also, see this 2002 press release on the first TDMA-GSM handset

This was a period in which CDMA carriers had the lead. While Cingular and AT&T were migrating their TDMA network to GSM, Verizon Wireless was improving the coverage of its CDMA network and getting ready to launch 3G.  By the time Cingular completed nationwide 2G GSM coverage (07/2004), Verizon Wireless was ready to launch 3G EV-DO networks in over 30 major cities.  

Further, Verizon and Sprint – the two nationwide CDMA carriers – were able to rollout 3G relatively inexpensively. Both carriers just had to add channel cards to their existing CDMA base stations.  As per Verizon’s January 2004 announcement, it planned spend $1 billion to build out nationwide EV-DO coverage (compare this to the $7.2B for broadband in the stimulus package!).

Verizon may still have the best voice and data coverage in America,  but advantage has now shifted to AT&T.  With HSPA, AT&T can now boast of having the fastest 3G network and AT&T’s GSM network allowed it to get Apple’s iPhone device in 2007. As Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg admitted in a recent interview with the WSJ,  Apple never seriously considered building a CDMA device.  And it is the  iPhone that helped AT&T outpace Verizon in 2008.

Things get more challenging for Verizon (and other CDMA carriers) with 4G.  While Verizon and Sprint (Clearwire) invest billions on building their respective 4G networks, AT&T claims that it will be able to increase the peak sector throughput of its UMTS base stations from 3.6 Mbps to 7.2 Mbps via a software upgrade,  and then to 21 Mbps by upgrading to HSPA+ (the HSPA+ upgrade will involve upgrading antennas to MIMO).  These incremental base station upgrades, combined with backhaul upgrades, give AT&T the time to wait till LTE equipment is stable and cheaper.  Of course, Verizon and Sprint (Clearwire) understands the risks, and are taking aggressive steps to drive their network equipment and handset vendors to make their 4G migration as successful as possible. Still, the next two years will be very interesting.

April 18, 2009

Verizon’s Open Device Initiative – now with LTE

Filed under: eBooks, LTE — Tags: , , , — AJ @ 5:00 am

Verizon today released its initial set of technical specifications for “open devices” that will run on its LTE network. The specs are avilable at www.verizonwireless-opendevelopment.com. Intrigued, I decided to register, download the specs and read some more about Verizon’s ODI. Verizon also has scheduled a web conference on May 13th that I plan to participate (if you would like me to ask any questions, please post them as comments on the blog)

Devices for LTE

As the first operator in the world to deploy LTE, Verizon must be thinking hard about what to do with the network, especially in the first 12-24 months when there will be few compelling consumer devices and apps.  As with EV-DO, the first devices sold to consumers will be data modems. Verizon has also been positioning LTE as a way to address the rural broadband problem and has recommended that its LTE network be included in the national broadband coverage map that NTIA is putting together.  

To go beyond broadband coverage, Verizon needs new hardware and software applications that leverage its network. Its competitor, Clearwire, is making the same push and recently announced a WiMAX “sandbox” network in Silicon Valley. The device specifications that Verizon has released at this stage are limited to communication features of the device i.e. how one can get a LTE modem certified.  It is a good start. However, before application developers start investing, Verizon will have to provide information on:

 

  • allowed application development platforms and OSs
  • pricing – per MB and for “unlimited” usage
  • policy towards bandwidth hungry applications like video 
  • policy towards applications that may be compete with Verizon services
  • services offered by Verizon’s to-be-built LTE core
  • (and perhaps, more)

 

Perhaps, some of these questions will be answered on the May 13th call, and more details will appear soon after. 

Verizon’s Open Device Initiative (ODI) So far

It is worthwhile to look at the track record of ODI so far. When Verizon announced it last year, it was touted as “Any App, Any Device”.  And folks like Gizmodo believed that, “a small company with mobile knowhow can develop and get their iPhone-killer certified and on Verizon’s network with minimal interference”.  

Perhaps, that may happen some day, but not yet. The devices Verizon has certified so far are:

  • modems for machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, from BlueTree, Cal Amp and Telular
  • smart grid communication devices from Ambient and OpenWay
  • routers for sharing your EV-DO connection from folks like Cisco
  • specialized PCs like Motion Computing’s mobile clinical assistant 

From the website, it does not seem that the ODI program is very well staffed. For instance, both the devices announed at CTIA on 04/02/09 – Motion Computing’s Mobile Clinical Assistant and Sierra Wireless’s USB 598 – were not listed on the page for certified devices on 04/18/09 . I was able to read all the posts on the developers’ forum (yes, all) in less than 15 minutes and all the Verizon replies were from one person, with many questions unanswered.

Further the ODI program focuses on devices only, not on applications. So, if you want to an application certified, you need to go to http://www.vzwdevelopers.com.  The ODI program seems to be limited to device certification. There is no information on how data plans are priced on these devices. That is still a case-by-case discussion.  

Even if we believe that no one has submitted an iPhone-killer for approval, it is surprising how few devices have been certified so far.  Perhaps there are dozens of devices in the pipeline! At CTIA, Verizon’s Tony Lewis did say that the carrier has been approached by five Kindle rivals (Kindle runs on Sprint’s EVDO network) and Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg forecasted the proliferation of M2M devices will lead to 500% wireless penetration.  Or perhaps, Verizon has a long way to go in making the process really easy and streamlined.


April 5, 2009

LTE in spotlight at subdued CTIA

Filed under: 3G, LTE, Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — AJ @ 3:52 am

CTIA 2009 was subdued but well attended.  Still, people and companies that had to be at the show to network were there.  LTE continued its march towards becoming the undisputed 4G technology, with most major infrastructure vendors either demonstrating their LTE products or presenting their story, with many claiming (optimistically, I think) that they will have a “commercial solution” by the end of 2009.

Several large vendors demonstrate LTE

  • Motorola was not only demonstrating LTE speed but also mobility. It had set up two LTE base stations (700 MHz, FDD) close to the convention center. A van equipped with an LTE modem and capturing HD video and piping it to the booth, while passengers in the van could see the van. Motorola also had an LTE TDD base station in the booth and were using it for additional video demos.
  • ZTE was demonstrating LTE data speeds and were showing a prototype LTE base station (digital functions running on microTCA chassis, connected to a remote radio head).
  • LG was demonstrating its handset baseband implementation using infrastructure from Nortel and Alcatel-Lucent.  LG was showing 40 Mbps download rates with Nortel’s LTE gear, and using the ALU gear for a VoIP calls.
  • Qualcomm was demonstrating LTE handset baseband with third-party infrastructure (I believe, Nokia Siemens Networks) and talking about three multi-mode LTE chips (MDM9200, MSM 8960, MDM 9800 ) that will sample in mid-2009. 
  • I did not see LTE demos in Huawei, ALU, Ericsson and NSN booths, but that does not mean they did not have demos for select customers and analysts.  All of them did have presentations in which they talked about their “end-to-end LTE solutions” covering eNBs, EPC, and OA&M.  And I am sure, many of you have already read about how Nokia compared WiMAX to Betamax.

Smaller vendors thinking about building LTE base stations as well

I had written off LTE RAN equipment as a play for big infrastructure vendors.  However, during conversations at the show, I was surprised to hear that several smaller companies are thinking about building LTE base stations as well. Airwalk is one. And I heard about few WiMAX companies who want to build LTE base stations as well.  Practically all of them are thinking about pico/micro base stations that implement standards-based interfaces to the core. 

From CDMA2000 to LTE

CDG had organized a workshop to convince CDMA2000 operators that they can deploy LTE directly, without having to switching to UMTS now.  I made it to the workshop for the last 30 minutes and heard part of ALU’s presentation in which the ALU speaker argued that it would be best to leave voice on CDMA 1xRTT for several years and use LTE just for data…

Blackberry App Store, Next-gen Backhaul and more

Of course, there was lot happening at CTIA besides LTE.  RIM’s CEO Mike Lazaridis formally launched Blackberry’s App Store at CTIA.  Initial reviews were mixed.  See CNET and Sensobi.  Backhaul was on the minds of the few operators I spoke to, and there were several Ethernet and wireless/microwave  backhaul solutions on display, as a well as a half-day workshop on next-generation backhaul open to all attendees.  Verizon reiterated its aggressive LTE plans, talked about the need to reduce the number of handset platforms, and announced that it had teamed up with Vodafone, Softbank and China Mobile to create a “single platform” for developing applications.  If you are interested, CTIA has posted all the keynotes on its website.

Please feel free to comment, or add any other information about the show!

March 28, 2009

Open Access Makes Networks Valuable Platforms – Not Dumb Pipes

Filed under: Android, App Store, iPhone, LTE, Mobile Apps, New business models — Tags: — AJ @ 2:13 am

“Open” is in the air 

Recently AT&T chief Ralph de la Vega talked about open development platforms with FierceWireless. In his view, handset platforms are not open if they use proprietary APIs to access handset capabilities and he stressed the need for open APIs within handsets. A friend at Verizon reminded me earlier this week about Verizon’s Open Development Initiative (ODI) which allows third-parties to get hardware certified to work on Verizon’s network and Verizon’s upcoming 4G innovation lab

Among handset vendors, Nokia wants to open-source Symbian and Google is already doing so.  Google’s Android, in particular, is widely regarded as open. In contrast, many industry commentators, including FierceWireless editor Sue Marek, call iPhone and Blackberry closed because Apple and RIM will not license their OS to other handset vendors.

 Defining “open”

 If we are willing to accept the Internet as the gold standard of openness, the more a system resembles the internet, the more open it is. Therefore an open system is one that

  1. Anyone can access on equal terms
  2. Anyone can build content and applications on equal terms
  3. Anyone can distribute their content and applications on equal terms

Based on this definition, Apple’s iPhone provides a remarkably open platform for application developers and consumers, even while Apple keeps its OS closed to other hardware manufacturers. In a sense, iPhones are a similar to Sun Servers that power large parts of the Internet – a proprietary hardware/software combination that is available on equal terms to users and developers.

 “Open” does not mean “free”

Since the terms “open source” and “free software” have been used interchangeably, it has created the impression that free means open. This is not true in general. For example, free broadcast TV is actually a closed system.

On the other hand, two of the most valuable “open systems” we all use – the electricity grid and the phone system – are not free. However, they are open because everyone can access them on equal terms. Anyone can create applications and end-points for them (cordless phones, answering machines, refrigerators) and can distribute these applications. Technical standards that require patent holders to contribute IPR under a FRAND regime are open in the same way.

 The “dumb pipe” misnomer

Whoever came up with the term “dumb pipe” did a tremendous disservice to the mobile industry. Imagine how people at facebook would have feel if they were dubbed  “that dumb online directory” for offering open access to application developers. Instead facebook have been celebrated as a “platform”. In the same vein, the right way to describe a network that provides open access on equal terms is not “dumb pipe” but “platform.”

Once network providers start thinking of themselves as platforms, they will see the benefit of allowing huge number of third-parties to create applications on their platform.  Most of these applications will fail, but the applications that succeed will not only make the developers who creat them rich, but will also make the network  incredibly valuable for consumers, and for the investors who own the network.

 

February 26, 2009

Verizon’s LTE Rollout – Lessons from CDMA

Filed under: 3G, LTE — Tags: , , , , , , , — AJ @ 5:58 am

There is lot of speculation in the press, among analysts and in the blogosphere about the timing of Verizon’s LTE deployment. This is unfortunate considering that Dick Lynch has actually provided very clear guidance.  In his interview with Sue Marek of FierceWireless he said, “…when we launch we will do what we did with 1xEV-DO and 1XRTT…” 

Verizon, under Dick Lynch, has been remarkably consistent in its process for deploying new air interface technologies. If one digs through years of Verizon press archives, one will find that Verizon’s EV-DO rollout followed the same process as its 1xRTT rollout.  At both those occasions and now, Dick Lynch was at the helm and we should not expect anything different for LTE.

As in EV-DO, Verizon has initially selected two vendors for LTE.  For EVDO, these two vendors were Lucent and Nortel. For LTE, it is Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson. This does not mean that Verizon will not have a third vendor.  In EV-DO, the third vendor was Motorola, and as Dick said in his FierceWireless interview, “The rest of the vendors will have another opportunity in the future. We will go out again in mid-2010 and look for vendors for the next wave of the coverage”.

As in EV-DO, each LTE vendor has been assigned one city that each is expected to get on the air in 2009. For EV-DO, Nortel had San Diego while Lucent had Washington DC.   Once the two cities are on the air, each vendor will be expected to work out all the kinks in its products, a process well known in the industry as “First Office Application (FOA)”. A FOA can take anywhere from 3-9 months, depending upon the complexity of the system and the quality of the vendor’s product.

Once FOA is complete for LTE systems, either by the end of 2009 or in early 2010, Verizon is saying that it will start building out a sizeable national footprint.  In the EV-DO case, Verizon announced its decision to start building a national footprint in January 2004. Within 9 months, Verizon had launched EV-DO service in 14 metropolitan areas and by Aug 2005,  it covered 52 metropolitan areas.  All these services were launched using EV-DO data cards.  If Verizon’s LTE vendors can wrap up their FOA by Q1’2010, expect Verizon to at launch LTE data cards in dozen or so markets by Q3 or Q4 of 2010.

The other key player whose actions determine the pace at which Verizon can roll out LTE services is QUALCOMM. Verizon cannot launch an LTE handset (smartphone) unless this handset supports both 1xRTT and EV-DO. It needs 1xRTT to support all the legacy voice features (tough to replicate on IMS) and needs EV-DO for data service wherever there are LTE coverage holes. QUALCOMM is the only company that can build a dual-technology LTE/CDMA chip, and it is doing just so. On Feb 16th, Qualcomm introduced its MSM 8960 3G/LTE chipset, and said that this chip will sample in mid-2010. Since handset vendors need at least 12 months from the date Qualcomm samples its chipsets, to build a commercial device, one should expect the first dual-mode CDMA/LTE handset to reach the market in Q3’2011.

To summarize:

  • Verizon is likely to light up two cities with LTE in 2009 and have meaningful national footprint in 2010. They have a playbook for large scale wireless rollouts and they seem to be following it.
  • There will be no LTE handsets/smartphones in 2010,  just data cards. Therefore, Verizon will continue to add capacity to their CDMA network at least till the end of 2010.
  • Expect CDMA/LTE handsets to reach the market in Q3’2011. 

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