Monday, 24 January 2011

Are Device Manufacturers Ready for LTE?

At CES this year, Verizon Wireless launched a series of devices, including four Smartphones: the LG Revolution, the HTC Thunderbolt, the Motorola Droid Bionic and the Samsung SCH-I520. A few other devices, a couple of hotspots - job done.

Speaking to many device manufacturers over the years, usually they wait at least six months after a network has launched before they even start to think about developing devices on any kind of scale. A key difference between 3G and LTE deployments is the time between the first tests and network launch is much smaller, so there is much less time for testing the network, QoS and devices. Operators will still be finding protocol and interoperability issues and will continue lab testing of devices and services because everything is new. So if network maturity has always been key, then why rush to get so many devices out into the market so early?

There are a few possible reasons. Samsung LG and HTC have been the most agressive device manufacturers for LTE and are keen to gain a piece of the smartphone market in which Apple so far has dominated. Samsung has already launched the first LTE dual-SIM smartphone with MetroPCS, so are keen to develop devices and be seen as leaders in the industry.

The more likely reason is that Verizon Wireless is keen to close the gap on AT&T in the US smartphone market, where AT&T has built a sizable lead largely due to the iPhone. In fact in 3Q10 AT&T had more than twice as many smartphone subscriptions as Verizon, with 49 million compared to 20 million at Verizon, according to Informa Telecoms & Media data.

It is an interesting strategy from VZW, as they have always touted the fact that the quality of thier network is far superior to that of AT&T, although this is unlikely to be the case early on with thier LTE network. One would have expected the likes of VZW to take their time to get the network to a good standard before they launching lots of devices. Instead they seem to have taken a leaf out of AT&T's book. Perhaps they have realised that customers don't care about the network or which technology an operator uses - its all about the devices.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Will LTE Signal the End of GSM?

At the end of last year NTT DoCoMo launched their LTE network. They had announced back in May, at the LTE World Summit that they have a roadmap in place to migrate remaining customers on thier 2G network to 3G and LTE and plan to swich off the 2G network within 2 years. So we're looking at a switch off date of May 2012. This isn't as agressive and anmitious as it seems, as DoCoMo has an unusually high proportion of its subscrbers already on 3G. Coupled with the fact that DoCoMo uses the rather niche PDC technology for its 2G network, you can understand why they want to part ways with it.

So why aren't other mobile operators in mature markets as keen as NTT DoCoMo is on this strategy? Surely the cost of running a 2G, 3G and LTE network is not sustainable given declining revenues? The first reason is that no operator will switch of their GSM network until there is complete ubiquity of at least 3G. Secondly, GSM provides an excellent voice service and in markets such as the UK where customer bases are polarised either towards being very smartphone savy or just wanting a very basic mobile phone to make phone calls. In this case why should UK opeators go to the effort of migrating everyone to 3G/LTE when 65% of their revenue still comes from voice and the GSM network is so reliable? The third reason is that even though the difference in QoS between EGDE and 3G is considerable, EDGE is still good enough for basic web browsing etc (remember the first iPhone?)

If we start to see 99% coverage requirements for 3G as they have in France, then this will make the case for operators to commence a roadmap for 2G switch off. This however will not happen overnight. Coverage requirements such as the example in France can only really come in to place after the regulators have re-farmed the 900MHz band for UMTS or the 800MHz digital dividend band for LTE - or as in France's case, both.

Operators seem to be resigned to the fact that for now they will have to operator 3 different networks (4 if they operate a series of WiFi hotspots!). In this situation optimising traffic-flows across different networks and having the right policies in place for managing capacity effectively is essential.

If DoCoMo is successful then operators may think again, but for now is seems that GSM still has a long life ahead.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Has the WiMAX Camp Surrendered to LTE?

The Russian operator Yota revealed plans in May to switch tack and start rolling out LTE. The company, which has always preferred to describe itself as a mobile broadband provider rather than a WiMAX operator, had been rumored for some time to be contemplating the change. It will start to deploy LTE networks in five cities later this year.

India’s 2.3GHz-spectrum auctions dealt WiMAX a second blow when it emerged that the list of successful bidders is dominated by companies pledged to launch services based on the TDD version of LTE. Among the successful bidders was Qualcomm – a longtime critic of WiMAX – which secured prime TDD spectrum covering Delhi and Mumbai, and Reliance-owned Infotel Broadband Services, which secured spectrum in all regions. It now appears that the Indian market, which had looked like the next great hope for WiMAX, might go the LTE route.

The decision by Netherlands-based WorldMax to close down its service in Amsterdam just two years after launch – due to license restrictions imposed on the company by the Department of Defense over interference concerns – removes another torch-bearer for WiMAX from the market.

The WiMAX Forum has been forced to acknowledge LTE’s growing dominance, but is still urging operators to deploy WiMAX to win market share early on.

There has been a huge effort behind TD-LTE in 3GPP, the technology trials conducted recently by China Mobile and the multivendor TD-LTE technology demonstrations at the recent Shanghai Expo, all of which point to the likelihood that TD-LTE will be commercially ready around the same time as, if not sooner than, the FDD version.

Investors and operators alike are seeking assurances that WiMAX networks are capable of migrating to LTE sometime in the future. WiMAX vendors are therefore eager to point out that the equipment they supply today can, at some future date, be converted to TD-LTE by means of a software upgrade.

Meanwhile, efforts continue to enhance the performance of existing WiMAX networks and to develop next-generation 802.16m products. But with only a small number of vendors backing 802.16m, or Phase 2 WiMAX, there must be some doubt as to whether the technology can be commercialized late in 2011 as hoped.

The risk to 802.16m is that the availability of TD-LTE, also in late 2011, might make that the preferred technology route for WiMAX operators.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

How Heavily Will Policy Control Feature in the Operators' LTE Strategy?

Operators planning to deploy LTE are looking for intelligent traffic management systems as well as ways to create a more personalised service for users in an increaslingly competitive market. As the mobile operators find themselves dealing with growing volumes of data traffic, new applications and services on the network on top of pressured margins, operators have seen that providing a bigger pipe with the introduction of LTE may not be enough. Policy control and its role in service and subscriber management, has emerged as one of the key talking points in the telecoms industry in the past year.

There have been a flurry of telecoms software companies offering (to use the 3GPP terminology) Policy and Charging Rules Function (PCRF) which is a central point for managing network infrastructure costs and enabling subscribers to enjoy a wide variety of services and a high quality experience. The Policy Controller can also be deployed in conjunction with Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) solutions.

Companies such as Starent, Bridgewater Systems, Camiant, Blueslice Networks, Sandvine and Allot Communications are just some of the companies that have landed deals with large operators.

However, some operators think that introducing tiered pricing will go a long way to deliver enhanced user experience for customers that are willing to pay more for mobile broadband. The Head of OSS from Telenor in Norway said recently at Informa's Broadband Traffic Management conference that operators should keep it simple and LTE should be able to manage all the data traffic that operators will have on thier networks in the next few years.

Is keeping it simple, the best way to managing the network? With the expectation that there will be a vast number of different services that are available on the network, perhaps a more sophisticated solution is necessary. However, after simplifing the network in order to reduce latency, is adding the policy control feature like going backwards and bringing back more complexity into the network?

Thursday, 4 March 2010

What Opportunities does LTE Provide for MVNO's?

In the Verizon Wireless conference webcasts one of the things talked about was how applications and devices can be sold either going through the operator's channels, but that companies could also use the MVNO model (VZW called it the wholesale model) to sell devices directly to the consumer.

VZW has set up nPhase with Qualcomm. As described on their website: nPhase is an enabler of Machine to Machine (M2M) and Smart Services solutions across industries including energy, healthcare, consumer products, telematics, heavy off-road machinery, industrial equipment, and commercial products. We enable our clients with complete end-to-end solutions that wirelessly connect their products and business assets to deliver ground breaking possibilities for new business models, differentiation and growth.

What possibilities does this bring to the table for MVNOs? Should MVNOs be looking at personalised healthcare services or smart metering, since they have the experience of working with the operators to provide these sorts of services?
Wireless Logic the MVNO based in the UK is already looking at M2M and sees embedded connectivity as a strong prospect. The US based MVNO Wyless is also working with healthcare providers to develop niche healthcare services serch as remote monitoring applications.

MVNOs seem best placed to provide value added services for specific vertical markets. It will be interesting to see what other innovative ideas MVNOs can come up with and what the impact of having LTE and a bigger pipe will be.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Is Skype the Future of Voice?

The industry has decided that IMS (or VoLTE) is definately the solution to providing voice over LTE, but recent announcements by the likes of Verizon Wireless who will be joining forces with Skype, was an interesting move.

From March, consumers in the USA will be able to get Skype on a wide range of VZW phones, including the BlackBerry, Droid by Motorola, Eris by HTC and the Motorola Devour. The service will allow users to make and receive unlimited free Skype-to-Skype voice calls and send and receive instant messages. The devices selected for the Skype deal are likely to be generating most of the revenues from data anyway. Could this be VZW starting to look a new business models for its upcoming LTE network?

Commenting on the announcement, Dario Talmesio, Senior Analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media, said: “The Skype/Verizon announcement demonstrates that mobile operators are beginning to change their attitude towards VoIP providers, they have gone from blocking to managing what they consider to be an issue."

VZW isn't the first operator to embrace this level of openess. 3UK launched “Skype on 3” back in May 2009 and celebrated it billionth phone call over Skype last month. Preferring to offer free voice for it customers and generating revenues from data only, this has proved to be an extremely successful business model in them in the UK.

Skype has just released software for Nokia's Symbian operating system, expanding its reach to more than 200 million smartphones around the world, allowing users to make free Skype-to-Skype calls rather than using voice minutes. Nokia has been ramping up Internet services to boost its sales in the highly competitive smartphone market. Last month, it began giving away its navigation software, Ovi maps. Skype added that it will soon release its service for other Symbian devices from handset makers including Sony Ericsson.

The majority of mobile operators however, have yet to make a firm decision on mobile VoIP. Operators have realised that future revenue growth will be from data services and that in the future - and especially with the introduction of LTE, voice will just be one of many applications on the handset or smartphone. But voice still accounts for a major part of operator revenues and they want to hang on to it for as long as they can.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Can a LTE-WiFi Business Model Work?

With most operators deciding to back LTE over WiMAX, the LTE versus WiMAX debate is over. WiMAX will have its place in the industry, but will not be the global mass market technology that it was touted as. But what about WiFi?

Over the past year WiFi has been the operator’s new best friend. WiFi offload has been an important part of traffic management for operators such as ATandT and Telefonica. Both operators have city-dwelling iPhone users that have had less than satisfactory 3G experience. In a recent interview with Fierce Wireless CEO of Telekom Austria, said that the company was prepared for the continued growth in mobile data traffic, but suggested that pushing data onto Wi-Fi made sense and CEO of Softbank said in recent interview that mobile networks would not be able to cope without WiFi. In Japan 50% of data traffic happens inside the home during peak hours, which makes it ideal to harness WiFi technology. He did also add that "3G and LTE is the way to provide blanket coverage, but WiFi helps to provide a richer experience."

Thousands of devices have been WiFi enabled, as Blackberry and Apple have turned Mobile WiFi into a prime time mobile technology. Even though it is not a technology that is likely to have huge levels of coverage, WiFi is still fast becoming a mainstream mobile technology.

By cellular standards WiFi is a crude technology. With no power control, no frequency awareness, limited mobility, handover capability and range the QoE simply doesn't match that of 3G, but WiFi’s simplicity and low cost has led to mass deployment of the technology.

Although some operators seem happy to offload some of their traffic onto WiFi, will this still be the case with LTE? Both LTE and WiMAX positioned themselves as WiFi killers and surely with the amount of investment that is going into or will be going into LTE, there shouldn't be a need to offload traffic onto WiFi?

Vendors are however looking to provide dual mode LTE-WiFi devices. This confuses the LTE business model slightly as consumer will have to pay a premium in order to connect to the high speed, low latency (etc etc) LTE network, but could potentially be bumped off onto a cheap, lower quality WiFi network. It is a model that seems to work for 3G, but can it work for LTE?