Goodbye To Analog CellularThursday, December 27, 2007
First and foremost, I wish each and every one of you all the best for the holidays and a very successful new year. 2008 will certainly go down in the annals of wireless as a year of change. Will Sprint roll out WiMAX? Who will win the 700-MHz auctions? Will the D block (shared with public safety) be won by anyone? Will Google actually win a block of spectrum at the auction? If so, what will it do with it? Will Apple unveil a UMTS-capable iPhone? And on and on it goes. There are enough uncertainties for the next year to keep us on our our toes.
However, of one thing there is no doubt: On Monday, February 18, 2008, any network operator that is still supporting analog cellular in the 850-MHz band can pull the plug and start using that spectrum for digital cellular services. This should not be earth-shattering news to anyone since it has been coming for a number of years. On several recent trips to cell sites, I stood and watched the analog equipment and not a single analog channel was in use. The changeover probably won’t affect many handset customers, but it will affect OnStar customers whose cars are equipped with an analog-only cell phone, burglar and fire alarm systems that still use analog cellular to call in an alarm and a few M2M (machine to machine) devices.
So I don’t expect a lot of impact on end users, but I do expect network operators who get to turn off analog to experience noticeable gains. Verizon and other smaller CDMA network operators will gain the use of a full CDMA channel (1.25 MHz). This can and will be used for additional voice capacity in many cell sites, but it can also support a single EV-DO Rev A carrier, so some areas that do not have it now will be getting EV-DO Rev A soon after the analog sunset. From a personal perspective, it means that the Verizon cell site above my house should have EV-DO Rev A available during the first quarter of 2008 so I will have a fallback to my DSL connection, which is good to have just in case.
GSM network operators will gain additional voice or EDGE channels but won’t be able to use this spectrum for UMTS/HSPA unless they add some of their existing spectrum to it since a UMTS carrier uses 5 MHz of bandwidth and most networks will be freeing up about 1.5 MHz of spectrum. AT&T will be shuttering the rest of its TDMA network—you might remember that it went from analog to TDMA instead of GSM, added GSM to its network and now, of course, UMTS/HSPA, so it goes from having to support four different technologies down to two: GSM and UMTS. This will give AT&T more spectrum from the TDMA shutdown as well as from the analog shutdown. (AT&T began decommissioning its TDMA network in the summer of 2007 and plans to have it totally dismantled by early 2008.)
Analog cellular has been with us since the first cellular system was turned on in 1981, 27 years ago. In truth, the only reason it lasted this long is that the FCC kept analog as a requirement for several years to ease the transition to digital cellular. Some of you may remember carrying analog phones and then analog/CDMA or analog/TDMA phones while the networks were in transition. There are no FCC mandates for today’s technologies, so the timing of future network conversions to new technologies will be driven by network operators and suppliers, not by the FCC or the government.
Analog has served us well, from 3-watt mobile phones, to bag phones, to handhelds. As the systems grew in size and coverage, equipment vendors responded with smaller devices that were more mobile than ever before. It won’t be long before entire analog cell sites will show up on eBay, and I’m sure some will buy them just to have a piece of wireless history in their basement or garage.
Network operators who had to keep analog up and running won’t be sad to see it go. It has been painful for them to have to build more sites for increased capacity while they were sitting on enough spectrum to relieve the problem in many areas. T-Mobile and Sprint, as well as a number of the newer, smaller networks, haven’t had to deal with analog since they came after digital standards were released and did not fall under the grandfathered analog rules. They have been able to use all of their spectrum for digital communications right from the beginning.
How fast will analog be replaced with new digital channels? About as fast as technicians can get to each site, insert new channel cards and pull out the old analog equipment. After 27 years, the world of analog cellular service will be going dark in the United States, and today wireless phones are commonplace and are smaller and lighter than ever before. Times have changed, and as the sun sets on 1G (first-generation cellular), 4G is not far off!