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 4, 2009

Cable Operators Paying Increasing Attention to Outdoor WiFi

Filed under: Metro Wi-Fi, Smartphones, Wi-Fi — AJ @ 3:43 pm

Large cable operators seem to be paying increasing attention to outdoor WiFi.  Cablevision said last May that it will invest almost $300M to build a WiFi network in the NY, NJ and Connecticut area and, in September,  it launched its network in Nassau County and parts of Suffolk County Long Island.  At that time, there was speculation that Cablevision is investing in WiFi because unlike Comcast, Time Warner and Brighthouse, it is not investing in Clearwire. However, yesterday Comcast, one the largest cable investor in Clearwire, said that  it is trialing a WiFi network trial at 100 railroad locations in New Jersey.

Cable operators have the ability to overcome the two major obstacles that stood in the way of previous attempts to deploy metro WiFi – the ability to access utility poles and backhaul. Cable companies have been negotitating rights to access poles and conduits with utilities and cities for years, and have the necessary relationships, capital and patience to obtain them for a WiFi deployment.  See FCC-07-187 NPRM for a summary of how cable companies (or others) can get access to mounting assets.  Another useful document on this topic is a white paper on the “Pole Attachment and Telecommunications Act of 1996” written by Bercovici and Magee.  The right to use a pole costs as little as 10 dollars a year (yes, year) after paying a few thousand dollars non-recurring engineering expense.

In addition to being able to get mounting assets and using their own backhaul, cable companies  can leverage their existing customer acquisition and customer service infrastructure.  Further, anyone building a Metro WiFi network now will be able to use more mature equipment than what was available to companies like Earthlink and MetroFi few years ago. 

If cable operators can build good outdoor WiFi networks,  these networks may help them differentiate their broadband offerings from those of  companies like Verizon and AT&T.  And these networks might also play well with WiMAX, whenever that network is ready.

January 24, 2009

3G and Wi-Fi hotspots – old rivals become best friends

Filed under: 3G, Metro Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi — AJ @ 6:45 am

Back in 2001-2003,  Wi-Fi hotspots were going to kill 3G, or so proponents of Wi-Fi hotspots said.  This is how their argument went – data is used by laptops. Most laptops have Wi-Fi and  people use laptops when they are stationary.  So as long as we can provide Wi-Fi in all public places, who needs 3G? And while we are at, we can cover whole cities and compete with DSL and Cable as well, right?  Wi-Fi was riding high on the hype curve.

So hundreds of millions were spent building hotspots around the world.  Verizon even dreamed up bring Wi-Fi to every telephone booth in New York.  And cities from Philadelphia to San Francisco chased the dream of free mobile wireless coverage for all.  Today, though hundreds of thousands of hotspots exist around the world and many are regularly used, the original vision of Wi-Fi as the magic bullet lies shattered.  Verizon turned off Wi-Fi in NYC telephone booths and Earthlink shut down Philly’s network. While public Wi-Fi floundered, 3G prospered and generated billions of dollars for its backers.

Now, ironically, 3G is helping public Wi-Fi make a comeback.  Once 3G networks were built, operators needed handsets that could generate $20-$30/month of additional ARPU.  After years of trial and error, data phones that people actually want are on the market.  That is fantastic news for carriers.  The bad news is – consumers don’t want these phones to access the carrier’s carefully managed walled garden. They want  phones – smartphones – to access the Internet;  to listen to live radio from Pandora and watch videos on Youtube.  And to do this consumers wants lots and lots of capacity – more data capacity than 3G networks can deliver today.

Re-enter Wi-Fi hotspots.  See, once a carrier has signed up a customer for a $30+/month flat-rate data plan, the most rationale thing is to offload as much data traffic as possible to a cheaper and faster network. Doing so has the double benefit of reducing network cost and increasing customer satisfaction. AT&T already gets that and with over 20,000 Wi-Fi hotspts,  is now the biggest Wi-Fi operator in the United States.  And as other operators succeed with iPhone-like devices, I expect them to follow a similar strategy.

I also expect Metro WiFi to make a comeback, but in a new avataar.  Not a technology that “bridges the digital divide with free Internet access” but as a technology that provides loads of  bandwidth to smartphones and mobile-internet devices in high-density outdoor areas.  Deploying Metro WiFi networks does need access to utility poles, but as Metricom, US Internet and Cablevision have shown, this is a time-consuming but not unsurmountable problem.

Rivals no more, Wi-Fi and 3G, are on their way to become best friends.

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