Mobile Sands

September 27, 2010

White Space Spectrum Becomes Available With Simplified Rules

Filed under: Uncategorized, white space — Tags: , , — AJ @ 12:33 am

White Spaces Officially Available for Unlicensed Use

On 9/23/2010, the FCC officially made unused TV channels (so called “white space” spectrum) available for unlicensed use and resolved several open technical and legal issues. Most importantly, in its Second Memorandum Opinion and Order, it eliminated the requirement that TV bands devices that incorporate geo-location and database access must also include sensing technology. This is a big change that simplifies the development of devices that use this spectrum.

The FCC had first voted to approve unlicensed use of white spaces in Nov 2008 and issued a “Notice of Proposed Rule Making”. This started a a consultation process that culminated in last week’s order. The Nov 2008 required unlicensed TV Band Devices (TVBDs) to not only incorporate geo-location and access a FCC-mandated database but also to include sensing technology to detect TV transmitters and wireless microphones. Fixed unlicensed white space devices (li.e. base stations) had to do spectrum sensing with a 10m high omni-directional antenna! These rules effectively made the spectrum useless for both – providing broadband access or local area networking (see posts from last year). Though I am skeptical of the FCC’s “Super Wi-Fi” claims, I do think the revised rules make the spectrum more interesting for both these applications.

TV Band Devices and a TV Band Database

The FCC order defines two kinds of TV band devices: Mode I (or personal/portable) and Mode II (fixed), and a TV bands database. Mode II (fixed) devices must either have geo-location capability (50 m accuracy) or be professionally installed. In both case, these devices report their location to a TV bands database and get a list of permissible channel on which these devices and the Mode I devices connected to them can operate. Mode I devices operate on channels provided by Mode II devices.

Simple White Space Network

Several companies, including Google, are interested in building a TV Bands Database. This database would contain information on channels used by protected services by geographical location. Details of this database are still being worked out and the FCC has to select database providers. The FCC does leave the door open for personal/portable devices that have spectrum sensing capability. Such devices can work without a Mode I device to form, say, a mesh network, and it will be interesting to see how companies that have done considerable amount of research in cognitive radios will react.

Not Much White Space Spectrum in Major Metro Areas

Still, the real barrier to the development of commercial white space devices is the availability of white space spectrum. FCC rules still bar the use of Mode II devices in both channels occupied by TV broadcasters and in adjacent channels. As a result, there are often just one or two 6 MHz channels available for Mode II devices in major metro areas. Mode I devices are allowed to operate in adjacent channels if the transmit power is less than 40 mw.

Spectrum Bridge, one of the companies that want to provide a TV band database, offers a free online service www.showmywhitespace.com that allows one to check the channels available for white space spectrum.

Super Wi-Fi. Really?

It is still not clear to me how white space spectrum will unleash super Wi-Fi. Compared to a Wi-Fi router, a TV band wireless router will have to share 6 MHz of spectrum with other similar routers in major metro areas and will require an in-building GPS receiver. Still, lots of other applications may be possible, and any tie-in with Wi-Fi helps in promoting new unlicensed band technologies (remember WiMAX?)!

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September 6, 2009

Watchphones!

Filed under: Uncategorized — AJ @ 5:16 pm

For the last few months, I have not paid much attention to handset hardware innovations, working under the assumption that it is all about software and applications. So I was taken by surprise this morning when I read that at least four companies – LG, Samsung, Hyundai and RIM – have announced plans to launch watchphones and there is at least one blog, www.thewatchphones.com, dedicated to this topic. And the first of these watchphones, LG’s GD910, hit the market last week.  See review on www.stuff.tv.

The idea of a “wrist telephone” has been around since the 1946 when it first appeared in the Dick Tracy comic strip. Here is a link to a 1973 Washington Post photograph that shows a mock-up of such a phone being discussed by a group of people.  Now, for 500 GBP and a two-year contract, you can finally have one! Watchphones with small displays and no QWERTY keyboards are the exactly the opposite of smartphones. I can’t imagine giving up my Blackberry, but once watchphones make it the sub-$100 range, I can imagine having one as a “second” phone;  for occasions when I want to stay in touch but do not want to carry my relatively bulky Blackberry in its holster.

August 8, 2009

How Unlimited Voice at $50 or Less May Change Everything

Unlimited Nationwide Voice – Now for $50 or Less

18 months ago, on Feb 07, 2008 Sprint became the first major US carrier to launch an unlimited voice & data plan – for $119.99/month.  Verizon responded within 12 days with a $99.99/month unlimited voice planAT&T  immediately matched it & so did T-Mobile.  On Feb 28, 2008 Sprint lowered the price of its $119.99/month “Simply Everything Plan” to $99.99/month and few days later launched a $89.99/month unlimited voice plan.  Carriers called their offering revolutionary and there was talk of a price war.

In January 2009, Sprint’s Boost Mobile subsidiary launched a $50/month prepaid unlimited voice, text, PTT and data plan. Boost uses Sprint’s iDEN network and Sprint probably offered this plan because there was lot of spare capacity on its iDEN network after several quarters of steep subscriber losses. Within 8 weeks of launching this plan, Boost signed up 764,000 new prepaid subscribers – growth that took everyone in the industry by surprise. It was a game changing event. Boost, of course, is not the first unlimited flat-rate voice service. Both, MetroPCS and Leap Wireless, have been offering unlimited voice for $50/month for years. But Boost is the first one to offer unlimited flat rate on a nationwide network.  Virgin Mobile (a Sprint MVNO) announced a $50/month voice + data plan in April. Though Verizon initially criticized Sprint for halving the price for unlimited voice, it started testing an unlimited plan of its own called StraightTalk with MVNO partner Tracfone (an America Movil subsidiary) in June.

Carriers Use MVNOs and Subsidiaries to Offer Lower Rates

Unlike unlimited voice plans offered by major carriers in 2008, this year’s unlimited plans are being offered through MVNOs or subsidiaries. These MVNOs or subsidiaries use prepaid billing, offer a smaller range of handsets, do not require long-term contracts and do not offer any handset subsidies  High-end smartphones like Blackberry and Palm Pre are not part of the handsets offered by the MVNO, and customers may not get certain features they get on the main network.  Consumer now have a choice – they can go with the expensive “full-service” brand (Sprint, Verizon) or with the “discount” brand (Boost, Tracfone).

Service providers in other industries have tried such strategies in the past – often with limited success. This was the idea behind “Ted from United” and “Song from Delta”. Just like MetroPCS and Leap Wireless were offering unlimited voice service before Sprint and Verizon jumped in, Southwest and Jetblue were offering low-cost airfares before Ted and Song. With Ted and Song,  United and Delta tried to emulate Southwest and Jetblue’s cost structures by using single a class of planes (Airbus A320s for United and Boeing 757 for Delta), charging for in-flight snacks, and paying lower salaries to crews. They tried to differentiate against Southwest and Jetblue by using their national networks and frequent flyer programs. However, by doing so, they could not maintain sufficient differentiation between the discount and full-service versions.   Customers earned the same frequent flyer miles whether they flew Ted or United and were able to use the entire network of the full-service airline. Yes,  there were no first class cabins, but most customers did not care. By 2008, both Delta and United had discarded the sub-brands, and today United and Delta operate more or less like discount carriers.

What’s Next?

Though Ted and Song did not survive, they did help convince United & Delta that majority of consumers really don’t care about their “full-service” offerings; that it is better to charge a lower fare and sell snack boxes on board than to charge more and bundle-in meals. It also forced many carriers to simplify their fleets and re-negotiate labor contracts. The airline business was changed forever and Ted and Song were the harbinger of these changes.

Unlimited nationwide voice offered at half-the-price of comparable services, but through a prepaid, subidy-free, business model qualifies to be a similar disruptive innovation. And its impact is likely to be far-reaching. For instance, it may:

  1. End the current, handset subsidy-based business model
  2. Move from postpaid per-minute billing to prepaid flat-rate billing
  3. Change the set of must-have services. Integration with facebook may become more important than three-way calling.

Such far reaching changes will affect everyone in the wireless value chain – from handset vendors to network equipment suppliers.

  1. If handset subsidies go away, it will force handset vendors to compete on the basis of their brands and cost structures rather than carrier relationships.
  2. As ARPUs fall, operators will push equipment vendors to lower network cap-ex and op-ex, creating opportunities for some and eliminating the business of others.
  3. Change in must-have services will allow technology suppliers to make a stronger case for technologies like VoIP over EVDO/HSPA/LTE or femtocells that offer lower-cost but may notalways offer services parity.

Change is in the air. And though it may not benefit everyone in the industry, it will keep the engine of innovation humming.

    May 5, 2009

    Smart Grid – A billion dollar opportunity for wireless carriers?

    Filed under: New business models, Uncategorized — Tags: , — AJ @ 4:15 am

    Last month, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile announced M2M initiatives targeted at the smart grid, talking about how this may be a multi-billion dollar opportunity.  My analysis suggests otherwise. In my opinion, even if all 175M electricity meters in the US were digitally connected to smart grid, it may not generate more than a few 100 million in annual revenue for wireless operators.

    Revenue per smart meter

    Typically, a smart meter is expected to record information (approximately 50-100 bytes) every 15 minutes, though it is not expected to upload it that often.  Even if, a meter were sending 50 bytes ever 15 minutes, it would send just 4.7 KB/day or 141 KB/month. Not much.

    Today, carriers are earning more than $0.3/MB (or $300/GB) for data downloaded by retail consumers. Even though most data plans offer 5 GB per month, average smartphone usage is between 30 MB (for email devices) to 100 MB (for iPhones). If a carrier prices its retail smartphone offering at $30/month and an average subscriber downloads 100 MB, the effective price would be $0.3/MB. (I hope this also explains why AT&T and Verizon charge around $0.25-0.50/MB for any data usage above 5 GB on their “unlimited” plans).

    If utilities were able to negotiate the same rate – 30 cents per MB – they will be paying the wireless carrier 50 cents a year per meter. That puts the market size for 175M meters at a mere $87.5M per year. It is unlikely that this number would get any carrier excited, and probably many utilities see more value than 50 cents. The questions remains – how much more? where will the pricing stick?

    Not every smart meter needs to be a 2G/3G node

    Many utilities are thinking about aggregating multiple residential meters at a concentrator (or a “collection point”) using private local-area networks and to then connect these concentrators using 2G/3G wireless data.

    Different companies are advocating different approaches here:

    If there are 17.5M concentration points (1 for every 10 electricity meters), a carrier would have to charge $5/month per concentration point for the total available market to exceed $1 billion a year. There may be some justification to the $5/month number. This is what Aeris used to charge its M2M customers according to an April 2005 story in Forbes. However, by 2015 and with all the competitors in this market, I would be surprised if any carrier can charge a utility more than $2/month per concentration point. At that number, the total available market would be little over $400M/year.

    Utilities have strong incentives to go for cap-ex that reduces recurring cost

    Over the next few years, utilities will have access to billions of dollars of stimulus money. In addition, unfortunately, regulators are agreeing to levy a surcharge of $3-$4 per month for over a decade on consumers in the name of grid modernization.

    Take CenterPoint Energy’s 2.4 million smart meter deployment in Houston as an example. Itron has offered to create meters that can be meshed, and GE is providing WiMAX radios to connect mesh concentration points. This is also the deployment in which regulators have allowed CenterPoint to charge each consumer over $3/month for 12 years for grid modernization.

    In my opinion, it is much more cost efficient (cap-ex and continuing op-ex) for a utility to integrate low-cost, high-volume cellular (GSM/CDMA/UMTS) modem in meters and negotiate long-term deals with public network providers rather than build a private radio network. But, I guess, that would not create as many “green jobs”!

    Comments?

    Smart Meters is just something I have been reading about recently. If you have a different view on the topics in this post, please do share.

    Notes:
    1. Itron investor presentation provides information on number of utility meters in North America and other parts of the world.
    2. Interesting article in the MIT Technology Review (registration required) on how the rush to create “green jobs” in the stimulus bill may be hurting technology and innovation.

    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 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!

    January 26, 2009

    Nokia to launch MVNO in Japan with Vertu

    Filed under: Uncategorized — AJ @ 10:58 pm

    Nokia, so far, has not succeeded in penetrating the Japanese phone market, so it is understandable that they might want to enter the market using the MVNO model.  What surprises me is that they are creating an MVNO around Vertu – their luxury phone line better known for the diamonds used on its keyboard than for what it does, rather than creating one around Ovi – their applications platform.

    Voce, the one luxury MNVO that was launched in the US, did not do great. It was launched in 2005 with a $1500 origination fee and $500/month voice plan. By the time it closed in 2008, the sign-up fee was $500 and the unlimited voice plan was $200/month.  Still they did not have enough subscribers.  Not only was the service too expensive, Voce did not support data. Yes, that means no Blackberrys.

    For the MVNO model to succeed, the MVNO needs to target a market segment:

    1. Where the MVNO will have a lower customer acquisition cost than its network operator partner

    2.  That the network operator really does not want to go after because of any number of financial or structural reasons

    3. Is willing to pay more per-minute (or per-MB) for the service than what the network operator charges.

    Virgin Mobile, Tracfone and Jitterbug are three US MVNOs that have been reasonably successful in the US market and all of them meet the criteria above.  Others like Voce, ESPN and Disney did not.

    Most likely, Nokia’s market research shows that there is a large number of very rich Japanese customers who just want a bonafide luxury phone to make simple phone calls.  They would love to buy this phone in a luxury store in Ginza, and will willing to pay more per minute to do so. But I would be surprised if  NTT DoCoMo (Nokia’s network operator partner) would not want to go after this segment themselves with a diamond-studded Panasonic phone.  For now, I will give the smart guys at Nokia the benefit of doubt and wish them good luck.

    January 22, 2009

    Have you downloaded more than 30 apps on your iPhone?

    Filed under: App Store, eBooks, games, iPhone, Smartphones, Uncategorized — AJ @ 5:36 am

    Apple just announced results for its quarter that ended on Dec 27, 2008.  According to these results, Apple had sold 11.3M iPhone 3G phones between July and December of 2008.  If we estimate that 1.2 million phones were purchased in the first three weeks of Jan 09, it would mean that the total installed base of iPhone 3G phones is ~12.5 million. 

    On Jan 20th, Apple’s website proudly proclaimed that its app store has over 15,000 apps and over 500 million apps have been downloaded.  Even if we assume that 25% of these apps were downloaded on iPod Touch, it means that 12.5 million iPhone 3G owners downloaded an average of 30 apps each. This means that there are lots, yes lots, of people who have downloaded more than 30 apps!

    The large number of applications downloaded by iPhone users underlines (1) that consumers are hungry to do more with their phones (2) a large base of excited developers is essential for creating successful apps.  Everyday I am amazed by the kind of applications that developers are creating.  For instance, yesterday I found an app to do pushups better and compete with people around the world who are doing pushups.  

    Rival phone makers need to do react, and react fast.  There isn’t much stickiness in the traditional feature phone market. Motorola, for instance, has seen its market share decline from 30% (the golden days of RAZR) to 6% by the end of 2008.  And while, Apple announced record results, Nokia is expected to report a 14% drop in revenue today, even though it remains #1,  selling an estimated 470 million units in 2008.

    January 21, 2009

    Obama’s Inaugration

    Filed under: Uncategorized — AJ @ 4:37 am

    President Obama was sworn in today and expectations are high everywhere – including the telecom market. Many in the industry expect the new adminstration to have a more proactive technology policy, open up more unlicensed spectrum and maintain net neutrality. 

    I consider it unlikely that that adminstration will use the “net neutrality” argument to force mobile wireless operators to open up their networks. As the CTIA argued in its briefing to the Obama transition team, the United States has one of the most competitive wireless markets in the world.  Wireless operators are not monopolies and most have them have paid huge amount of money (since auctions were started in 1990’s) to get exclusive access to their spectrum.  CTIA can also point out that majority of the fundamental innovation in wireless technology- from the first analog mobile phones to TDMA, CDMA and OFDM happened in US.  And, they can add iPhone and Blackberry to that list as well (Yes, I know RIM is Canadian, but wasn’t US their first market?).

    I am, however, not arguing that the mobile Internet should be closed. Just that, as long as the adminstration keeps the wired Internet “neutral”, consumers (“market forces”) will keep pushing wireless operators to open their networks.  Wireless operators will find that opening their devices and networks to innovation is a more profitable thing to do than operating walled gardens that no one wants to visit.

    January 18, 2009

    Mobile Services, Applications, Networks and Devices (MobileSAND)

    Filed under: Uncategorized — AJ @ 3:45 pm

    I have worked in wireless radio access network (RAN) infrastructure for most of my career – from radio network planning software to radio network management, large basestations to femtocells.  Last October,  I decided to take a break from infrastructure and learn about what else is there in the mobile market; to try and build something new.

    Mobile may not be the hottest technology area today (that distinction goes to green-tech) but it is still holds tremendous opportunity. And almost all the opportunity in mobile starts with the widespread deployment of mobile data networks and the adoption of open mobile internet devices. Together, these two open the way to new Services and Applications, demand for Network capacity enhancements and must-have mobile Internet Devices.  And these are what I plan to write about.

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