Muni-Wi-Fi with a Twist, Voice over LTE

If voice over 2G and 3G networks is good, and works, and is very low cost for the network operators, why are they all looking toward VoLTE and working as hard as they can to implement it quickly? The answer is that they really want to shut down their 2G systems and then their 3G systems so they can use the 2G spectrum first for LTE and then convert the 3G spectrum to LTE as well.


Santa Clara is in the heart of Silicon Valley and San Jose lies within the same county. In 2004 during the height of the Muni-Wi-Fi craze, MetroFi was born but went bankrupt when no real business model could be found. After MetroFi went belly up, the city bought up the remains of the defunct network.

Recently, Silicon Valley Power, a not-for-profit municipal electric company, came up with a plan to re-launch free Wi-Fi while at the same time help convince smart power meter skeptics that smart meters are okay. It is combining the promise of free Wi-Fi and smart meters into a common offering. The theory is that since you get Wi-Fi for free, you will be more likely to let the utility install a smart meter at your house. The utility will be reading your meter via Wi-Fi as opposed to some of the other smart meter systems such as ZigBee and others that are available.

Sounds like a great idea until you look at what is really being offered:

  1. Data speeds up to 1 Mbps, but might be less depending on the number of users in a given area.
  2. If you want to stream video or move large files, you are asked to please use your existing DSL or cable modem service.
  3. You are warned not to expect any indoor service from this Wi-Fi.
  4. BUT it is free!

I have been writing about muni-Wi-Fi for many years and have yet to see a successful implementation. The problems are many. Is there a business model that will really work? In this case there might be one for the utility since it will be using Wi-Fi to read the smart meters and as a lure to get you to install a smart meter. However, I am not at all convinced that having outdoor, free, 1 Mbps Wi-Fi is much of an incentive, but if Wi-Fi comes with the package, the only cost to the utility is to provide connectivity to the Internet. Still, I am not at all sure that this is a sustainable business model.

Next is the service. It is outdoor only, 1 Mbps top speed, and if you want to stream video or move large amounts of data you are asked to use some other service. I guess if you have a riding lawnmower and want to check your email while you are mowing the grass this might be an interesting service. However, with so many other ways of connecting available today, and the fact that this service will not replace your DSL or cable service, I simply don’t see the point of this system except for the utility to be able to install more smart meters. The purpose of the smart meters is twofold. First, the utility doesn’t have to pay people to walk into your backyard every month to read the meter, and second, at some point in time the utility will offer you incentives to let it control your appliances during heavy usage periods.

Muni-Wi-Fi seems to be one of those things that simply will not go away. The idea of providing free Internet connectivity for everyone keeps tempting city and county elected officials and the mesh Wi-Fi vendors are constantly peddling new business models to cities and counties. Every once in a while, some city will, with a big flourish, announce grandiose plans to provide everyone in its city with free Wi-Fi. One type of Muni-Wi-Fi that seems to be working is where a city lights up a park or other venue where the usage will be outdoors while people are in the park, sitting on benches and enjoying the outdoors, but I know of no other systems where Muni-Wi-Fi has been successful. In the case of Santa Clara, I don’t see its business model being a game changer either.

Voice over LTE

Unless you are one of the few MetroPCS users in the United States using Voice over LTE (VoLTE), your LTE smartphone still switches you to 2G or 3G networks for your voice calls. These networks have been around for many years and voice is handled not as data but as true voice calls. When the operators move to VoLTE, that will change and the calls will be packetized data running on the LTE network. So far, Metro PCS is the only network operator to implement VoLTE. There are many reports that the battery life for the devices supporting MetroPCS’ VoLTE is very poor but I am told by many in the chip business that it will improve over time.

If voice over 2G and 3G networks is good, and works, and is very low cost for the network operators, why are they all looking toward VoLTE and working as hard as they can to implement it quickly? The answer is that they really want to shut down their 2G systems and then their 3G systems so they can use the 2G spectrum first for LTE and then convert the 3G spectrum to LTE as well. LTE is the first truly worldwide wireless standard, it is IP-based end-to-end, and it has the best spectral efficiency of all of today’s wireless standards. Over the next decade, LTE will replace existing 2G and 3G systems, and we will move closer to having a single device that will provide voice and data services on a global basis.

So the push is on. Voice over LTE is the last remaining hurdle for the network operators, and there are a lot of very smart engineers working on the battery issues, audio quality, and other nuances of the technology. The development of LTE is exactly 180 degrees out of phase with the development of most previous wireless technologies, which were voice first and foremost with data capabilities bolted onto them later. LTE, on the other hand, was developed in the 3GPP standards body and within other organizations to be a data-first broadband wireless technology. Now that the industry as a whole has decided to move forward quickly with LTE, it is important to the network operators to add voice capabilities as quickly as possible.

But the transition from 2G and 3G voice will still take a long time. There are millions of 2G and 3G handsets in the world. AT&T, some months ago, sent a notice to those who were still using 2G-only devices that they needed to upgrade to at least a 3G device since it planned (at that point) to decommission its 2G network in the mid-2010 timeframe (2014-2016). Unlike the move from analog 1G to 2G and 3G, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has not, and probably will not, set a sunset date for the end of life for 2G networks. It will simply leave it up to the network operators. However, 2G networks are not only about voice, at least in the United States. There are millions of Machine-to-Machine (M2M) connections running on 2G networks that will also have to be replaced with more modern technologies.

All of this will take time but we will be hearing more and more about VoLTE as it makes its way into the marketplace. While this is a technology advancement, it is being driven by the network operators that want it available sooner rather than later. However, eliminating 2G and moving people to LTE will require the operators to build out LTE networks to match the coverage of their existing 2G networks—something that will also take time and cost a lot of money. However, the promise of LTE and the soon to be released LTE Advanced is to provide the most efficient wireless services to date. LTE stands for Long Term Evolution, meaning that each future release will make it more capable and faster. Moving to LTE Advanced will also enhance its spectral efficiencies, and because both LTE and LTE Advanced are based on end-to-end IP technology, the expensive switches used today for 2G and 3G voice are being replaced with routers and servers. Will we live in an all-LTE world anytime soon? The short answer is no we won’t, but the better answer is that because of the spectrum shortage around the world, LTE is seen as the best way to maximize the network operators’ investment in spectrum, therefore a lot of resources are being directed toward making VoLTE a reality as soon as possible.

Speaking about LTE

While it is a worldwide standard, LTE is spread out over many different portions of the spectrum. At one point in time, LTE was being looked at for more than 35 different portions of the spectrum, making a true world device impossible. However, through some recent events, it now looks as though things are improving on several different fronts at once. When it comes to LTE spectrum, it now appears as though a device capable of 700 MHz, 850 MHz, 1.8 GHz, 2.1 GHz, and 2.6 GHz will almost provide a world device. In the United States, LTE is being deployed in the 700-MHz and AWS-1 bands (1700-2100 MHz). Qualcomm has been working to beef up its Snapdragon chips and now offers multiple bands and multiple technologies (2G, 3G, 4G, LTE) in a combination of devices.

As spectrum choices consolidate around the world and companies such as Qualcomm continue to innovate with multi-band and multi-mode devices, the LTE world phone could become a reality sooner than most people expected. It will be great for those who travel internationally to be able to carry a single device and have it work almost anywhere in the world with LTE.

Andrew Seybold

One Comment on “Muni-Wi-Fi with a Twist, Voice over LTE”

  1. Martyn Roetter says:

    Andy, Like you I look forward to an LTE “global device”. However of the frequencies you refer to for this future device only the 2.6 GHz band is likely to be usable on all continents, and so far in the U.S. this band is effectively in the hands of only one operator, Sprint/Clearwire. The 700 MHz band plan used by the U.S. which for now is not even interoperable across this band or between AT&T and Verizon, will likely only be relevant in Canada, Turks & Caicos and a few other Caribbean islands, since Latin America is well along a sensible path to adoption of the more efficient Asian band plan for 700 MHz. If the hopes of a second digital dividend band at 700 MHz for ITU Region 1 are fulfilled post 2015 to add to its 800 MHz band, then there will be an opportunity to use digital dividend frequencies in addition to 2.6 GHz (or 2.5 GHz as it is referred to in the U.S.) in all parts of the world even including Latin America but excluding the U.S. and Canada. I hope that the U.S. will pay more attention in future to increasing harmonization of its spectrum for LTE with the rest of the world wherever possible (which it sometimes is not because of legacies). Exceptionalism in this domain is not a virtue.

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