Looking Ahead To 2009Monday, January 05, 2009
Welcome to the New Year! When you read this, I will be at CES discovering the great new gadgets and services that will make their way into our offices, homes, and cars in the next year or so. I expect to find all sorts of consumer electronics devices enabled with one-way or two-way wireless, personal navigation devices (PNDs) that can receive updates and almost-real-time traffic, more devices like the Kindle, more notebook computers, a new batch of Internet mobile devices (IMDs), game consoles, perhaps a new version of the Chumby Wi-Fi-enabled clock radio, and lots of wireless connectivity for the home theater market.
The race is on for embedded wireless notebook computers. Intel is counting heavily on getting WiMAX into notebooks and Qualcomm is making serious inroads with its Gobi multi-mode, multi-frequency chipset. CES will be a showcase for both of these along with other embedded wireless. I suspect most of the major notebook vendors will build a token notebook with embedded WiMAX and many more models with the Gobi or another 3G chipset built in. After all, it is about numbers and right now the 3G world has them and the WiMAX world does not. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds. Sprint is touting a dual-mode WiMAX/EV-DO Rev A PC Card and USB wireless modems that provide access to WiMAX where it is available and to its own EV-DO 3G network where it is not. Consumers, of course, will vote with their wallets this year and corporate purchases will be Wi-Fi only or with 3G embedded, because that is what their field force needs when they are out and about.
Moving Further into the Year
The most difficult thing to prognosticate about is what will happen with the 700-MHz D Block and the shared public/private spectrum, as well as the AWS-3 spectrum, because we do not know who will be filling the commissioner seats on the FCC, nor do we know how much of a role the new administration and congress will play. We do know that the new administration has said broadband for all who live in the United States is a priority, but that is one of about a thousand priorities for this administration and it will take some time to learn about its ideas. Meanwhile, I have written a white paper about broadband for all and it is available on our website. I don't believe broadband for all is about technology or spectrum, but rather about two very different economic issues.
I hope the new FCC will take a new, fresh look at the 700-MHz shared spectrum proposal and work with the first responder community and not simply plow ahead. I know this project continues to be delayed, which is not good news for the industry or first responders, but at this point and with our current economic situation, perhaps a little more time is in order to thoroughly examine what would be best for all concerned. The decision to move ahead or to try a different approach should be made only after careful consideration. This is not something to be listed as a crowning achievement of someone's term in office.
I don't like the term "4G" because so far I have not heard a decent description of exactly what 4G is. Yes, it is faster and more spectrally efficient than today's 3G (given enough spectrum), and it is all-IP from end-to-end, but then most 3G systems are already IP at the core. In any event, 3G will continue to be deployed in the United States and around the world and it will continue to be the fastest growing segment of the wireless industry. It looks like NTT DoCoMo and Verizon are stepping up to be the first to begin deploying next-generation systems.
One thing "4G" is not is simply the next generation of 3G. I believe when 4G networks are rolled out, the architecture will employ a variety of cell sites including femtocells and perhaps even hand-offs to Wi-Fi in buildings from the very beginning. I also expect 4G networks to be bundled with services and not just another technology built into a complex handset. To be sure, we will see 4G in handsets by the end of this year, but we will also see other types of devices along with some new service offerings.
As 3G continues to grow, we will see HSPA+ and EV-DO Rev B ready for action. A few network operators that have not yet built out their 3G networks are planning to move directly from 2G to LTE and skip 3G altogether, which, I believe, could be a risky move. However, the network operators I have talked with about this seem to believe it is the best course of action for their company(s). This will also be the year we see the first wireless networks from cable companies. A few of them plan to make use of EV-DO and provide service within their own cable footprint, and then roaming via the Sprint network.
Speaking of Sprint, I hope this year is better than last year. I don't know why Sprint is hanging onto Nextel. While I am hopeful it has a plan, I think many network operators worldwide will have to scale back their plans to some degree because of the current economic circumstances and the shortage of credit dollars. There will be progress, but companies such as Clearwire will be impacted by the economy more than others, and I expect to see its WiMAX mobile rollout slowed during 2009-perhaps cut in half to conserve cash and concentrate on Baltimore and Portland.
While I am on the subject of networks and spectrum, I believe that before the first unlicensed device is put on TV white space (Motorola claims it will have product ready to go in 2009) we will see the issue taken to court. Or perhaps the new administration will revisit TV white space and modify the rules, adding another layer of protection from interference. It's not the TV companies that need protection as much as it is people with TV sets in their homes and businesses who would experience problems in the event of interference. (I, for one, believe interference will be a problem.) I believe we will see this spectrum put to a more appropriate use, but probably not in 2009.
If the TV white space issues go to court, we could see a renewed interest from Google in this spectrum and perhaps even the shared 700-MHz D Block spectrum. Google would prefer to have others run networks over which it could capture eyeballs just as it does today on the wired Internet, but if it feels TV white space usage might be delayed for a few years, it might step up to enable a new network on the D Block or perhaps even a revised AWS-3 auction.
I also think 2009 will see the last of the muni-Wi-Fi systems turned off due to the lack of a sound business model. The idea of this type of joint venture between a city and the corporate world might be revisited by Clearwire, using WiMAX with Wi-Fi into the home and office as in Baltimore. However, I don't think this type of network is appropriate for public safety or first responders for the simple reason that outside their home turf, they would have no access. Better they use one or more of the current 3G network providers for their data requirements until (or if) the D Block shared network becomes a reality.
During 2009 there will be several attempts to put LTE and WiMAX together as a single standard. I don't believe this will happen, but it will be suggested and perhaps even discussed by multiple players, but the decision will be to let the two technologies continue to go head-to-head. Toward the end of 2009 or certainly in 2010, we will see network devices capable of both WiMAX and LTE, and the really smart network device vendors will add 3G and 3G capabilities to these devices as well, giving us universal and worldwide access. At the end of 2009, I see WiMAX continuing to be what it is today, a niche player in a 3G world just entering an LTE world.
I hope my two favorite personal-area wireless network technologies will emerge in 2009 so companies can make plans to incorporate one of them into their wireless devices in 2010 and beyond and the other to control our home lighting, heating, sound, video, and other requirements. Wireless USB 2.0, which is based on ultra-wideband technology, is designed for local-area and a few desktop devices were introduced last year. I believe a link between a wireless wide-area device and a car, for example that can deliver USB 2.0 data rates would make a huge difference in how our cars and wireless devices interact.
ZigBee is a home technology and while some devices are currently available, we need more to drive down the price. I would love to replace my existing signal over power line controllers in my house with ZigBee devices and hope to be able to do so by the end of the year.
Smartphones are in. Their numbers began to increase in 2007 and 2009 will be a banner year for them with more devices from more companies. I am hoping that in 2009 our smart devices will be paired up with smart networks and smart information systems. Today, a smartphone is really only smart internally. Once it connects to the network or the Internet, it is the phone that controls what happens. I am a true believer in having smart programs, smart networks, and smartphones all working together to provide a much better user experience. Recently, I was introduced to WorldMate Live, one of the best examples I have seen of a smart application that works with a smart device to provide the customer with a great travel experience. We need more such applications integrated tightly with information on the web, rather than being forced to use a web browser to find the information we want and need. My hope for 2009 is that we will see many more programs like WorldMate.
We will also see some mergers or acquisitions that we would not see in normal times involving companies that have built a huge business, gone public, and are now at the mercy of their boards and stockholders. In these times, stockholders are liable to be very shortsighted and go for fast bucks instead of realizing that a merger or acquisition will probably ruin the company in the long term. Our industry has a really, really bad track record when it comes to large companies acquiring other companies and then not taking advantage of the technology and expertise for which they paid good money. In fact, the history of our industry is strewn with companies that have simply disappeared inside larger companies as the larger companies frittered away the assets it thought it wanted.
This is a huge growth area gaining steam with every passing month. E911 requirements started the trend, then the CDMA networks, which had an advantage because they use GPS both in the devices and in the network, jumped out in front of the GSM/UMTS networks and began offering some really great LBS services. Today, the GSM/UMTS community is deploying GPS in handsets as fast as it can and some of the networks are adding GPS to their cell sites as well. In 2009, we will see location being embedded in all types of applications and moving from standalone applications to enhancements for a variety of applications. We will also see more reliable traffic reporting services and the combination of LBS and real-time traffic will change the way everyone from FedEx and UPS to soccer moms (sorry) use location services.
My Wish List for 2009
There are a number of items on my wish list for this year. I failed to get the list to Santa on time, so I am hoping those in the wireless community will grant me at least some of my wishes. The first is that, as an industry, we can teach the Internet community more about wireless and at the same time learn more about the Internet model from them. Included in this wish is the desire to not have to read any more articles from people demanding free wireless Internet because the wired Internet if free (it is not). The websites on the Internet might be free once you have paid for Internet access, but getting on the Internet is not free, so why should getting on the Internet via a wireless connection be free?
Next I would like those who think wireless operators should be content to be relegated to "dumb pipes" to think about the wired world where wired operators have already become dumb pipes. As demand for Internet access grows and demand for bandwidth increases, companies that are dumb pipes have zero incentive to invest more in infrastructure. Why would they want to when they can't make a decent return on investment?
I would like the federal government and the new administration to work toward solving the broadband for everyone problem by recognizing that it is not a technology issue but rather an economic issue, and work with the private sector to find solutions. Once the economic issue is resolved, everyone will have access to broadband everywhere.
I would also like the commercial wireless industry to become better educated about the differences between first responder wireless requirements and what commercial operators can provide today, and conversely, I would like first responder communications professionals to get their collective act together and approach the issue of a public/private partnership with one voice. Being divided into warring factions gives the commercial community the impression that no matter what it does, it will not be able to provide any of what first responders really need in the way of interoperability.
I wish those who understand that radio is part science and part black magic, and that things such as interference need to be dealt with by those who understand the nuances of wireless, will take the time to convey some of their knowledge to those who follow so the new generation that seems to believe software is the answer to everything will gain an appreciation for the art involved in making our wireless systems work.
Most of all, I wish you, my readers, a truly great wireless year. For any of you starting up a new company, or trying to breathe new life into an older company, I wish nothing but success moving forward. Even with the economic problems we will be facing in 2009 and perhaps beyond, our industry remains strong and capable of sustaining itself and growing.
Andrew M. Seybold