The Year in Review
12.22.2010 by Andrew M. Seybold
With the launch of these LTE 4G systems, the real work is only beginning. There will be revisions to the LTE specifications for the next few years, more system tweaking, and...optimization of data throughput making 2011 the starting point for LTE.
Another year is coming to a close. The Holiday Season appears to have been good for the wireless industry and the first quarter of 2011 appears as though it will be a good quarter. It starts off with the Consumer Electronics Show and our 21st Annual Wireless Dinner, an invitation-only event that is sponsored by a number of great companies including Alcatel-Lucent, Buongiorno, Motorola, Panasonic Solutions Company, Qualcomm, Research In Motion (BlackBerry), Verizon Wireless, Voice Assist, and two (so far) tier 2 sponsors, BlueAnt Wireless and Wilson Electronics. I would like to thank our sponsors for making our 21st dinner, the first to be held at CES, a success. The invitations are out and the RSVPs are coming in. If you have not received in invite and are an executive in a wireless or related company, we will accept nominations for attendance until December 31, 2010 (send an email to email@example.com, there are no fees).
The end of 2010 saw Verizon Wireless light up 38 markets and even more airports with its LTE 4G network and MetroPCS increased the number of markets in which it is offering LTE service. I have not yet had a chance to start my round of comparisons for data speeds, but over the next few months I will be testing Verizon’s LTE network, T-Mobile HSPA+, and of course, the Clear/Sprint WiMAX networks in various cities around the United States. If I can work it, I will also include MetroPCS in the mix. I am not sure exactly how much spectrum MetroPCS has allocated for LTE, which works in 1.4, 3, 5, 10, 15, and 20 MHz of spectrum (that is 1.4X4, 3X3, etc.). Verizon’s nationwide license is for 11 MHz by 11 MHz in the United States, which means it is running a 10X10 system. In order to truly compare Verizon and MetroPCS, I will need to find out how much spectrum MetroPCS is using in each market in order to make sure I am comparing like systems.
My knowledge of LTE and its capabilities has grown this past year through my continued involvement with the Public Safety broadband system and I have come to realize just how flexible LTE is and how many different parameters can be set by the network operators. LTE supports various Quality of Service levels so network operators will be able to sell different data rates or offer several types of priority access (but not the type of priority needed by Public Safety). Then there are three outbound data speeds and two in-bound speeds. A network that has not been modified by the network operator will offer the fastest speed closer to the center of a cell site, medium speed in the middle of the coverage area, and the slowest speed at the cell edge.
However, it is also possible for the operator to offer only two speeds outbound, the medium speed and the slow speed (for edge-of-cell customers). In this case, the average speed would be available over a wider area within each cell and more customers would be served with more consistent data speeds. I do not know if the LTE operators are planning to adopt the two-speed model, but I am sure that over the course of their first year in operation with LTE they will be tweaking the many settings built into LTE, using smarter antennas to vary the coverage of the cells, and using macro, micro, pico, and even femtocells to maximize their networks. One of the most difficult aspects for engineers designing these systems is that each cell site uses the same spectrum. In cellular terms, this is known as a reuse pattern of N=1.
This is nothing new to engineers who have already deployed networks using CDMA or UMTS/HSPA as these networks are built as N=1. The Clear network in most cases uses three different portions of the spectrum one for each cell sector so it has a bit more latitude. The issue with the N=1 network design is that especially with LTE, any overlap between cells introduces a level of interference that could result in shrinking each cell sector’s coverage. Therefore, design engineers have to understand the interference issues and make sure they minimize the consequences. Mixing different sizes of cells has to be carefully considered as well because wherever two or more sectors overlap in coverage, there could be interference that will shrink the coverage and this will be seen by customers as lower data rates in those areas.
However, we will be experiencing data speeds we have never before known in the wireless world. When I first started working with wireless data systems in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, we had data rates of between 4 Kbps and 19.2 Kbps depending on which network we were using. When data came to cellular with 2G systems, we had between 30 Kbps and 120 Kbps, and when we got to 3G only a few years ago, the norm became 1-4 Mbps down and 256-786 Kbps or slightly more back up to the network. Verizon says it expects to deliver speeds of between 5 Mbps and 12 Mbps down and 2-5 Mbps up to devices. These speed estimates from Verizon are based on a loaded network and average data speeds available to most customers. T-Mobile’s 3G+ network (which is now called 4G) claims 7 Mbps down and real-world Clear/Sprint data rates are in the 2-4 Mbps down range.
With the launch of these LTE 4G systems, the real work is only beginning. There will be revisions to the LTE specifications for the next few years, more system tweaking, and companies that build products to optimize data throughput making 2011 the starting point for LTE. Things will get faster over time, or will they? The real question affecting speeds going forward is whether there will be a continued increase in demand for wireless data services or if the amount of video that will be streamed and the number of customers in any given cell sector and their data demands will continue to increase. All of the network operators will be working diligently to offer more consistent data speeds to their customers over a wider portion of their networks. However, the demand for wireless data services remains an unknown and could end up having a negative effect on these networks.
There are a number of events during 2010 that I would categorize as game changing. The first of these has to be the introduction of the iPad by Apple. It has started a revolution in what we carry, how we use mobile devices, and of course, it has increased the demand for broadband data, not only for AT&T customers but also for those who use the iPad in Wi-Fi locations. It set the bar for tablets; there are an incredible number of tablets already in the market and coming to market. Intel said in a press release that it has 35 tablet wins for its chipsets and Qualcomm and others are building chips for these devices as well. In 2011, we will have a wide range of tablet choices including rumored iPads on the Verizon network (not to mention an iPhone), at least one, if not two new versions of the iPad itself, the RIM Playbook, Android-based tablets, Windows-based tablets, and Chrome OS (Google) tablets. I am hearing rumors that Chrome will be taken off the market and its features and functions will be incorporated into Android. In short, lots of tablets in 2011 and I believe fewer in 2012 because the market will have voted with their wallets about which ones are keepers and which ones are losers.
In 2010, I wrote eighteen of my COMMENTARYs (this one makes nineteen) covering many different subjects. I sent out sixteen shorter TELL IT LIKE IT IS Blog posts and fifteen issues of PUBLIC SAFETY ADVOCATE, which was begun in 2010. I also wrote a number of columns for other publications including Fierce Wireless, Fierce Mobile Content, Wireless Week, Forbes.com, and Mobile Enterprise Magazine as well as articles as a guest contributor for several other publications. When I look back I see that I covered topics from devices through customer experience and from in-building to wide-area networks here and around the world. I enjoy writing these articles and don’t pretend for a moment that I am always right, but I do always start my articles with a premise or thought then try to develop it and come to a conclusion or two. My favorite articles are ones that stir up controversy and discussion. There is no one person who knows everything about this industry and we are learning as we go along; and I am learning along with the rest. But when I can learn something new because I am called to task for one of my views, I feel like that is what writing is all about to me.
I also started a new free service for the public safety community in partnership with News Patterns, a company that tracks thousands (or more) articles on almost any subject. During elections, News Patterns was hired by both sides to track the state races by evaluating the news generated by each side. The company has financial clients who use the news-radar (the news projected on a radar screen) to make decisions, and its most recent offering is to follow the tablet marketplace and use the number of articles to see what the hot topics are. Our joint effort results in my being able to send out weekly news updates to those who have signed up for my PUBLIC SAFETY ADVOCATE e-newsletters. News Patterns collects all of the articles pertaining to public safety communications and I then sort through them each week and send out a listing of all of the articles that can then be clicked on to read the entire story. This service, I am told by many in the public safety community, is something they really use every week.
All in all, it has been an exciting year, but we are only entering the next phase of wireless—a phase that moves wireless out of simple handsets or notebooks and into hundreds of different types of devices. Machine-to-machine communications, which has been around since the data networks of the early 1990s, is finally flourishing and has the attention of many companies and network operators. Devices such as the Amazon Kindle make use of wireless but it is hidden from the consumer, game consoles are sporting wireless connections, and my favorite is the GPS-equipped dog collar. The wireless action for consumers will be at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in early January. This year I expect to see many new and innovative uses of wireless embedded into all sorts of devices.
In 2010, we also saw standalone navigation systems beginning to incorporate wireless for road and traffic updates, we saw more notebooks available with both Wi-Fi and wide-area wireless, and even a wireless picture frame with built-in wide-area two-way capabilities so not only can you receive pictures with it, you can send them on to others in your family or friends circle. Wireless came to social media big time. Facebook, YouTube, and of course Twitter. Many larger companies snapped up companies that have been working on mobile payment platforms and services because the industry believes mobile payments will be a big deal going forward. And while MediaFLO, Qualcomm’s mobile TV offering waivered and is in the process of dying, there are many others offering steaming video content to all manner of wireless devices.
The wireless operators, again, invested heavily in their networks in 2010. Clear ran into funding problems and has gone back out to raise even more money, Intel announced it would have chipsets for smartphones available soon, and the FCC issued a report that as of 2013, we will be behind the wireless broadband capacity curve by almost 100 MHz of spectrum and more than 200 MHz behind by 2015. The FCC also presented Congress with its broadband report and pledged to “find” 300 MHz of spectrum for more wireless broadband capacity within five years and an additional 200 MHz in the following five years. All in all, a very good year for wireless.
One of the best articles I have seen lately makes a case that video will be the “killer” application for broadband—that is, it could be the application that kills wireless broadband. This article should be a must read for everyone in the wireless industry, which needs to work harder to make sure that as demand for wireless broadband services increases we have the resources to meet that demand. Unfortunately for us, this will mean more and different types of broadband pricing designed to help network operators better manage their networks and to be able to provide more of their customers with a good, if not great, user experience.
As 2010 closes, I am more bullish than ever on the wireless industry. Wireless is now mainstream for sure and it is touching and will continue to touch every aspect of our lives, usually making them easier, more productive, and more fun. Even so, it is sometimes frustrating because it is not perfect and it will never be.
I would like to wish each and every one of our readers a very Happy Holiday Season and a Prosperous 2011.
Andrew M. Seybold