Editor’s Note: Welcome to our weekly feature, Analyst Angle. We’ve collected a group of the industry’s leading analysts to give their outlook on the hot topics in the wireless industry.
The 2012 edition of the International CTIA Wireless show held in New Orleans served as the latest stop in this year’s trade show season and, just as with Mobile World Congress, provided a fantastic workout keeping me on the move from meeting to meeting. Taking advantage of 31 meetings and events over the course of this three-day show, I left New Orleans with improved aerobic capacity, a satisfied palate and deep appreciation for ambitious U.S. mobile network operator efforts creating the world’s leading mobile broadband infrastructure and service deployments.
But I also left the Big Easy with nagging uncertainty. Spectrum is central to the nation’s efforts bringing about affordable, ubiquitous high-speed mobile broadband access to government, business and consumers. Yet the United States is saddled with a complex, fragmented and slowly evolving spectrum framework that hinders robust competition and service expansion. Unresolved spectrum issues loomed large over the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center as regulators considered Verizon Wireless’ AWS purchase; operators and trade groups argued for a larger share spectrum allocations; and network equipment suppliers touted solutions for spectrum-starved mobile broadband data deployments.
The spectrum conundrum
The major U.S. wireless trade groups, CTIA and 4GAmericas, took advantage of CTIA Wireless 2012 to draw attention to the promising 1755 MHz to 1780 MHz AWS expansion opportunity. Part of a larger reallocation of federal spectrum extending from 1755 MHz to 1850 MHz evaluated in a March report from the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the AWS expansion presents two compelling advantages: ample spectrum adjacent to commonly used mobile broadband spectrum and the prospect of widely harmonized LTE spectrum across North and South America.
Quick addition of spectrum adjacent to today’s 1710 MHz to 1755 MHz AWS uplink band is helpful because device front-end RF components can be simply extended. Addition of disparate bands in radically different portions of the spectrum is not as easy, as device vendors must wrestle with incorporating entirely new filter, duplex and antenna ensembles that drive up device size and cost.
Gaining regional LTE band harmonization across the Americas is important because lack of harmonization results in device fragmentation that ultimately retards service take-up. With no single band across a wide geographic area, device suppliers will prioritize device support based on the largest available market. The net effect of this could be that while the United States may have its bands supported, future consumers in South America will be left behind. What’s more, roaming prospects for travellers going between North and South America will be limited to HSPA and Wi-Fi. It does not have to be this way. Today many nations across the region are evaluating LTE band allocations. Embrace of an extended AWS band supporting 1710 MHz to 1780 MHz in the United States will spur similar adoption in countries across the region, leading to beneficial regional harmonization.
Unfortunately, the NTIA’s AWS report recommends waiting until extensive federal deployments across the entire AWS range are cleared – even those beyond the more readily available 1755 MHz to 1780 MHz segment. Given the challenge of moving ancient but vital military communications, a long delay is anticipated.
The solution: Constructing hetnets
If the move to secure more AWS spectrum will take several years to accomplish, then the resulting uncertainty means operators need a plan B. For now that plan revolves around deployment of small cells and expanded use of operator Wi-Fi. Accordingly, this year’s CTIA Wireless Show spotlighted small cell solutions from several vendors. Ericsson showcased its growing small cell portfolio including the mRBS base station/mRRU radio head microcelluar offer for outdoor deployment and its pRBS pico for indoors. Nokia Siemens Networks brought its new Flexi Zone radio units to show off a small form factor and flexible deployment options. Huawei, likewise, took advantage of CTIA as an important opportunity to showcase AtomCell, the company’s best-of-breed small cell approach that it launched at Mobile World Congress.
From the operator perspective, these solutions are important additions needed to absorb capacity in network hot zones. As an example, Sprint Nextel’s ambitious Network Vision program plans outdoor LTE small cell deployments as early as 2013, with expectations that Sprint Nextel benefits by moving from traditional DAS deployments to small cells.
Beyond injecting additional licensed spectrum capacity with small cells, operators are turning to Wi-Fi. New operator-friendly mechanisms are coming to Wi-Fi as the result of the Wi-Fi Alliance Hotspot 2.0 initiative. By adding WPA security, 802.1x EAP-SIM authentication and 802.11u service detection, Hotspot 2.0 makes it easy for smartphones, tablets and laptops to find, attach, authenticate and securely access Wi-Fi networks around the world. At the CTIA Wireless show, the Wi-Fi Alliance provided updates on its Passpoint program for certifying access point and device compliance to Hotspot 2.0. When matched with efforts by the Wireless Broadband Alliance creating a worldwide roaming framework for traveling end-users, Hotspot 2.0 stands as an important solution tapping unlicensed spectrum in an era of licensed spectrum uncertainty.
The last word
Het Net solutions such as small cells and operator Wi-Fi help mitigate the risk of capacity saturation, but ultimately more spectrum is required. Continued spectrum uncertainty does real harm to a highly interconnected mobile ecosystem that thrives on scale, but languishes with fragmentation. Gaining rapid access to the mobile-friendly 1755 MHz to 1780 Mhz spectrum bands is an essential step required to assure ample spectrum for healthy U.S. competition and service growth. At the minimum, establishing commitment and roadmap timeframes helps lift uncertainty for operators, equipment builders and device suppliers. The time to act is now.