Tuesday 22 January 2008

2008: Which Technologies?

There are many tecchnologies being standardised or about to be rolled out this year. A summary of these along with the predictions are available on RCR News website:
WiMAX Certifications: As promised, the WiMAX Forum opened up its labs in December for mobile WiMAX certification testing. The expectation is that 802.16e-based products will start earning the forum’s stamp of approval by mid-year with, “hundreds of devices to go through certification,” over the course of the year. The larger hope is that certification will drive operators currently testing the technology (300-plus by some estimates) into broader, commercial deployments.

In reality, certification may be little more than a formality. Why?

1) Operators wouldn’t be deploying kit that they didn’t think complied (at least somewhat) to the 802.16e standard and WiMAX Forum profiles.

2) The forum’s plugfests have helped to get vendors roughly in-line in terms standards implementations.

3) Even if you don’t agree with points one and two, consider the following: Some so-called mobile WiMAX products may never get certified. Implementations in potentially popular bands such as 5 GHz or 1.5 GHz may always remain relative niches, never garnering enough interest from vendors to warrant the creation of WiMAX profiles in these bands. And, while Taiwan is oft painted as a hotbed of WiMAX device development, vendors there are reportedly bristling at the prospect of costly certification testing, setting the stage for certification delays or two tiers of products (fully certified and compliant, but not certified). Now, that would be buzz-worthy.

Long Term Evolution: If only in trade shows, WiMAX and LTE seem inextricably linked — usually separated by the word, “versus.” And, as with WiMAX, the LTE market will steadily develop throughout 2008. Tradeshow booths will be filled with prototype LTE systems. The 3GPP should make progress on getting the standard completed. Trials (based on finalized radio interface specs) will take place. Additional operators will declare their allegiance to 4G. Yep, it will be a good year for LTE … and we’ll hear about it often. None of these trials or demos, however, will change the facts. Commercial kit won’t be available until sometime next year; until then, we won’t know how any vendor’s solutions actually perform. Broader field trials will likely be a 2010 phenomenon given the habit of device availability trailing networks by a good margin. This means that commercial service deployments might be expected in the 2011 timeframe. Considering the fact that operators will continue to ramp up 3G usage, that might even be optimistic. So, at the end of the day, enjoy the show floor demos, pick up a few flashing toys for your kids at home and know this: The LTE landscape at the end of 2008 should look a lot like it did at the end of 2007. LTE will be broadly accepted as a dominant 4G standard, but services will be years away and real-world performance will be a question mark.

Note: On referring LTE to 4G please read this and this.

700 MHz spectrum: With all due respect to my troglodytic (cave-dwelling for those didn’t get My Word Coach for your Nintendo this Christmas) friends, the FCC’s 700 MHz auction begins later this month. In the run-up, intrigue around who will bid, how much they will bid, and the bidding/service rules they will face has provided fodder for nearly daily news. Once the bidding begins, we’ll get day by day (and hour by hour) updates on the auction process and what it means for the U.S. telecom landscape. I personally plan to avoid the fray by being in the middle of the ocean when the auctions start and then retreat to the West Virginia border (true story, I go from vacation to our annual corporate retreat at The Homestead). The buzz, however, is somewhat understandable, given the propagation characteristics at 700 MHz (great for broad coverage and in-building penetration), and the fact that it could support new market entrants … not to mention the potential for 700 MHz developing into globally standardized wireless spectrum.

But, what’s going to happen this year? Auctions will take place and spectrum will be allocated. Networks, however, won’t get deployed; I’m planning to continue watching analog TV with my old rabbit ears right up until I can’t anymore. More importantly, operators looking to 700 MHz as a platform for their 4G networks may need to wait for several years before they can even get access to the equipment they need (see rant above).

And, the value of propagation and global standardization? The prospect of 700 MHz spectrum being available around the globe will doubtless bid up the value of the band here in the U.S. and price me out of winning the B-Block CMA covering my house.

Yet, it will take years, if ever, before other countries can move on the band. By that point the costs of developing multi-band devices should be lower, perhaps thanks to innovations like software-defined transceivers. At that point, any operator building out a 4G network should be building for capacity and FMC solutions leveraging Wi-Fi or femtocells (or something we haven’t yet heard of) should solve most of our in-building coverage problems (cue the anti-femtocell rhetoric).

Femtocells: Speaking of femtocells … I like femtocells. I even have one on my desk; it’s a mostly-empty mock up handed to me last year as one of the industry’s pioneers was looking to empty out their booth at the end of 3GSM (back when it was still called 3GSM). 2008 should be a banner year for the little boxes since trials will start taking place beyond the more limited moves in 2007. These trials, in turn, will be critical for providing insights into how (or if) the products work. Just as we’ve heard about most major femtocell RFPs and commitments, we’ll hear about these trials as they move forward (often thanks to tradeshow sessions). What these trials won’t do is provide any immediate answers.

Yep, 2008 will be a year of figuring out what makes sense: the best business models, the best mobile core integration options, the best device management strategies, the best interference mitigation strategies, the reality of zero-touch installations, the tradeoff between products filled with bells and/or whistles and a bill-of-materials that can support profitable services. To this end, Sprint Nextel deserves credit for getting the ball rolling early, deploying commercial services instead of waiting for others to figure it all out. Yet, for all of the femtocell buzz (some of it warranted), 2008 will be largely about setting the stage for 2009.
More of it here.

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