2014 Another Great Year for Wireless?
01.15.2014 by Andrew M. Seybold
The trend for video over wireless is the primary reason for this continued increase in demand, and as more of us own more wirelessly-enabled devices, I don’t see any end in sight.
As we begin 2014, the wireless landscape continues to change. AT&T has almost caught up to Verizon with its LTE build-out, T-Mobile and Sprint are moving quickly to catch up in the LTE department, and of course there have been changes in network ownership. AT&T is still a U.S.-owned company, Sprint/Nextel is now 70% owned by a Japanese company, T-Mobile is still owned 67% by Deutsche Telekom AG, and Verizon Wireless is in the process of becoming 100% owned by its parent Verizon, no longer sharing ownership with Vodafone.
Rumors abound that Sprint is after T-Mobile, which could be problematic from a Federal Government approval point of view, and T-Mobile recently entered into a deal with Verizon Wireless to purchase a slice of 700-MHz, lower A Block spectrum, and give Verizon some AWS1 and PCS spectrum for a good deal of cash. The addition of the 700-MHz A Block to T-Mobile’s spectrum holdings provides T-Mobile with access to spectrum below 1 GHz for the first time. For a number of years, the A Block was not considered desirable spectrum because it sits next to TV channel 52, but with the FCC’s planned auction of TV spectrum below the A Block, it will soon become prime 700-MHz spectrum and will greatly enhance T-Mobile’s ability to compete.
Meanwhile, the 700-MHz National Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) in the upper 700-MHz band is taking shape. Harris County, Texas has a system up and running and FirstNet, the board that owns the spectrum, has entered into spectrum leasing agreements in other parts of the nation, including Los Angeles, which has gone to bid for its own portion of the NPSBN. FirstNet is moving quickly to provide broadband services on a nationwide basis for the first responder community, and I expect a lot of progress in 2014.
Meanwhile, muni Wi-Fi is in the news again. It is amazing to me how many times, in city after city, people have tried to build out metro-wide Wi-Fi systems. Only a few years ago, systems that had been built out were being abandoned and ripped out because the expected financial models simply did not work. What has transpired in the meantime that makes people think they can try yet again and succeed? I believe it will be even more difficult this time around, not easier. First, the 2.4-GHz band is even more crowded than it was back in the heyday of metro Wi-Fi version 1.0. Even here in Santa Barbara, I have moved my access point to 5.8 GHz because I find that 2.4 GHz is ridiculously crowded. For example, in my small neighborhood I can now see twenty different access points up and running. Since there are actually only three 2.4-GHz channels that don’t overlap with the others (1, 6, and 11), finding a spot to park a new access point is almost impossible.
Granted, the FCC is working on freeing up more unlicensed or even semi-licensed Wi-Fi spectrum and TV White Space Wi-Fi is growing slowly in the more rural areas of the United States. However, with so many cable modems being shipped set to channel 6 on 2.4 GHz and being turned on weekly, and the addition of the new Wi-Fi standards that demand yet more spectrum per channel, I don’t believe metro Wi-Fi version 2.0 will be successful either. As always, time will tell, but I am betting that the systems in process and being planned will also disappoint and that the expected financial return on investment will not be forthcoming.
Wireless and wired bandwidth demands continue to grow at unprecedented rates. Wide-area wireless networks are adding capacity, filling in with smaller cells closer together and adding more sites. The trend for video over wireless is the primary reason for this continued increase in demand, and as more of us own more wirelessly-enabled devices, I don’t see any end in sight. Wireless networks are working on LTE spectrum aggregation, which means stitching together spectrum in different bands to enable more capacity. Some network operators are following the development of standards for multicast, the ability to transmit a single video to multiple users simultaneously, but that approach only works in venues where multiple users want to watch the same video at the same time, e.g., at a football or baseball game. The true demand appears to be that each user wants to watch a different streaming video. Multicast does not help in that case.
Of course all of this video and other data is being transported over the terrestrial Internet, yet there is no indication that there is more capacity in the offing. There is a move to build out Internet 2.0, but so far that network is closed and being used by governments and universities—not available to business and consumer users. I still think that with all the fiber owned by Google it has a plan to build out its own version of the Internet, controlled by Google for Google customers. Google is an interesting company because it wants access to everyone and is trying many different ways to accomplish that goal.
I don’t believe Google will bid in the upcoming spectrum auctions because if it becomes a network operator its access will be limited to customers it can attract to its own network, rather than having access to every wireless user. But Google needs to be watched closely as we move further into the decade of wireless. One of its efforts I watched with interest was its attempt at Wi-Fi coverage using hot air balloons. You might recall that only a few months ago Google made a big splash in the press with this concept and it is actually experimenting with the idea. However, weather experts do not believe balloons can provide predicable and regular coverage of a given area because of constantly shifting wind patterns. We all know by now that having access to the Internet occasionally or only some of the time is a non-starter no matter the technology.
Google’s Android operating system has taken off for sure, but I am not a fan for two reasons. First, it is open source so there are multiple flavors of Android in the marketplace, but mostly because it is not a secure operating system. Of all the malware and hacker attacks on wireless devices, the vast majority occur on Android devices. As we all know, the Internet is filled with hackers of all ilks who want to break into websites, company data stores, clouds, federal government and utility sites, and even desktops, laptops, and wireless devices. The most recent major incident was the Target hack that resulted in a large number of credit and debit card numbers, PINs, and more being stolen and sold on the Internet. Security is not something you can bolt onto an existing system. It must be built in from the ground up, otherwise those who want to break in will continue to find ways to do so. (I won’t even comment on the NSA discussion!)
Wireless has become part of our everyday lives in so many ways. Broadband, especially LTE, has opened up the world of information almost regardless of where we are or what we are doing. We have come to rely on wireless access and when it does not work or does not work as fast as we want it to, we tend to become frustrated. I have been involved in wireless since the early 1970s and have witnessed the advent of cellular voice service, text-based wireless, and the early days of wireless data with blazing speeds of up to 8 Kbps. Now we have LTE with true broadband capabilities. All of this has happened quickly with the most recent advances coming at a faster pace than had been imagined.
There is more to come—a lot more including faster speeds, broader access on a wider variety of devices, and who knows what else. But we need to be mindful that radio spectrum is a finite resource. We cannot make any more of it but demand for spectrum from commercial, private, and government users continues to increase. The Federal Communications Commission is doing its best to make more spectrum available for all sorts of individuals and organizations. Still, we have to be realistic about the demands we make on the spectrum. Speeds will vary and access may not always be possible. When it works it is a great tool for business or pleasure, but it might not always be available for us when we want and need it. Murphy is still alive and well and when it comes to wireless communications, his Law seems to be that when you really, really need access you probably won’t have it!
Andrew M. Seybold