FCC’s Wheeler makes net neutrality case before global carriers

Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler said on Tuesday that he doesn’t put much credibility in claims that U.S. carriers would stop investing in their networks in his new era of network neutrality. Taking the stage at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona before a global carrier audience, he said that the U.S. telecom industry’s actions speak far louder than its public statements.

He pointed out that [company]Verizon[/company] in 2008 bid heavily and won for its initial 4G spectrum in 2008 even though it came with open internet stipulations similar to those implemented under the FCC’s new neutrality guidelines. Wheeler noted that this year’s 4G auction raised a record $41.3 billion even though the specter of the then-upcoming net neutrality vote had hung over the entire bidding process. [company]AT&T[/company] and [company]Verizon[/company] — two of the rules’ biggest opponents — spent a combined $28.6 billion in that auction.

“I don’t think any of the CFOs bidding in the auction just fell off the turnip truck,” Wheeler said after GSM Association Director General Anne Bouverot asked him whether it was fair to implement net neutrality right after those operators spent billions on new spectrum. Carriers bid on the licenses knowing full well that spectrum would be needed for the future growth of their networks whether net neutrality has passed or not, Wheeler said.

He also added [company]Sprint[/company], [company]T-Mobile[/company] and [company]Google[/company] Fiber had all committed to investing in their networks after the new regulations went into affect. Wheeler repeated many of the arguments he’s made for net neutrality over the last few months, though to a global audience unfamiliar with the fiery policy debate in the U.S., the information was largely new.

One question might have thrown Wheeler for a bit of a loop though. Bouverot said many of the countries represented at MWC might object to the nature of the FCC rules because their governments support developmental programs to bring cheap or free internet services to their unconnected citizens. Though she didn’t mention it by name, I assume she was referring to Internet.org, the founder of which, [company]Facebook[/company]’s Mark Zuckerberg, had spoken on the same stage Monday.

Wheeler responded that U.S. net neutrality rules could take those types of programs could be judged on a case-by-case basis, but he didn’t elaborate, and Bouverot didn’t press him. Under the rules, though, it’s unclear whether Internet.org could operate in the U.S. as it zero-rates, or exempts from all data charges, all mobile internet traffic to Facebook and a handful of other sites. Zero rating falls under the FCC’s general conduct rule which gives it the authority to ban practices that favor one service or app over another, which Internet.org clearly does.


Alcatel-Lucent’s new network concept mixes Wi-Fi and LTE

Like many network equipment makers at Mobile World Congress this week, Alcatel-Lucent is pushing the controversial idea of carriers setting up shop in the Wi-Fi airwaves. But while Alcatel-Lucent is just as gung-ho as everyone else in the mobile industry about building LTE networks in the unlicensed bands, the Franco-American company is also proposing an alternative: carriers could just stick to Wi-Fi.

On Monday at the show, Alcatel-Lucent announced a network architecture called Wireless Unified Networks – or WUN for short — that combines LTE and Wi-Fi into the same connection. Wi-Fi’s plentiful capacity and speeds are used for downloads, while upstream traffic is sent over the LTE network. According to Alcatel-Lucent wireless CTO Michael Peeters, the setup optimizes both Wi-Fi and LTE for their respective uplink and downlink task thus pumping better performance either network.

For instance, Peeters claimed that on the typical home Wi-Fi network speeds to the mobile device could increase as much as 70 percent and its range could be potentially, because the network would only be transmitting, never receiving, when in WUN mode. And by using LTE on the uplink, upload speeds also increase dramatically especially on the fringes of the Wi-Fi network where signals are poor and potential interference from other Wi-Fi networks is high, Peeters maintained. WUN is actually the first step in an emerging technology standard called LTE-Wi-Fi Aggregation (LWA), which would merge the downstream transmissions of both networks to create even fatter pipes.

To make WUN work, though, is going to require some tinkering with all of the networks involved. Devices will need an OS software update and routers and access points to need to be reconfigured, so carriers won’t be able to pull this off without the full cooperation of the Wi-Fi and smartphone camps. Alcatel-Lucent has already landed the support of one major Wi-Fi networker, though. Though Ruckus Wireless stopped short of committing to install the WUN upgrade in its access points, it did say it supported Alcatel-Lucent’s efforts to merge wireless technologies.

WUN is currently in trials with two major operators, Peeters said, and Alcatel-Lucent expects to start selling the technology to in the latter half of 2015.


Qualcomm readies the first 4G chips to use the Wi-Fi airwaves

At Mobile World Congress next week, Qualcomm will unveil its first 4G silicon designed to tap the 5 GHz unlicensed airwaves used by Wi-Fi. The technology is called LTE-Unlicensed, and it’s becoming a bit of a sore point with the Wi-Fi industry, which feels the mobile carriers are encroaching on its turf. But Qualcomm and other mobile network vendors look to making the event in Barcelona a big showcase for the technology.

Specifically [company]Qualcomm[/company] is announcing a new radio transceiver for mobile devices that can pick an LTE signal out of the 5 GHz band. It’s the only upgrade that current mobile devices sold in the U.S. need to access an LTE-U network (Europe and parts of Asia have further requirements). Qualcomm has also developed a new baseband chip for small cells – miniature base stations used indoors or in high-traffic areas – that can cobble together LTE transmissions in both the unlicensed and licensed bands, said Mazen Chmaytelli, senior director of business development at Qualcomm.

The reason carriers like [company]Verizon[/company] and [company]T-Mobile[/company] are interested in LTE-U — and its more sophisticated cousin LTE-License Assisted Access — is because it will let them add more capacity to their networks in without buying new airwaves. The Unlicensed airwaves are meant to be shared with all comers as long as everyone follows some simple rules. You have to transmit at low power, which means no LTE-U blasting from cell towers, just small indoor cells. And you have to play nice with the others in the band, so no drowning out nearby Wi-Fi radios.

The problem, according to Wi-Fi Alliance, is that LTE-U networks would be highly organized, centrally managed entities operating in a world of largely independent Wi-Fi access points. Carriers could take advantage of that situation to take more than their fair share of capacity from that shared band. If the Alliance is right, that could mean slower speeds or spottier connections for you when accessing public Wi-Fi, but if you’re on your carrier’s 4G network you could find your speeds improving.

Source: Shutterstock / iconmonstr

Source: Shutterstock / iconmonstr

If you’re going to trust someone to not behave like an ass in the unlicensed bands, though, Chmaytelli posits that someone is Qualcomm. “We’re not just a big player in 3G and 4G,” Chmaytelli said. “We are also a big player in Wi-Fi.”

Qualcomm owns Atheros, a Wi-Fi chip maker. Creating a technology that would purposely disable or undercut the performance of its other commercial products just isn’t in Qualcomm’s best interests, Chmaytelli said. Much of the development work Qualcomm has done so far on LTE-U has been on ensuring mutual co-existence with Wi-Fi, Chmaytelli added.

[company]Alcatel-Lucent[/company] and Qualcomm are planning a trial for the second half of the year that would put Qualcomm’s new chipset into Alcatel-Lucent’s small cells. Plus we could see several carriers announce their own trials at MWC. The first LTE-U capable handset or modem, however, probably won’t make it into the market until 2016.


Can ARM processors move the mobile network into the cloud?

ARM is already powering our smartphones, and it’s seeing its processor architecture migrate into networks that supply those phones their connectivity, but it has even more ambitious ideas for the mobile industry. It’s latching onto a new idea called Cloud-RAN, which turns the mobile network as we know it inside out. At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next week, ARM and Cavium will be demoing their concept of a mobile network on a chip.

Cellular networks are typically built with their processing power on the edges, right under the cell towers that send out radio signals. As demand for LTE capacity mounts, carriers are forced to put more and more horsepower into their cell sites. Network vendors like [company]Ericsson[/company], [company]Alcatel-Lucent[/company] and [company]Nokia[/company] are building more powerful base stations designed to host dozens of cells spanning multiple 4G frequency bands and support tens of thousands of subscribers.

But the mobile industry is starting to look for alternatives to this constant chasing of capacity and it’s looking squarely at the data center. If we could move all of that processing into the cloud, we could have a much more flexible network that moves baseband resources from cell to cell as demand dictates. What’s more, instead of using highly specialized baseband processors in equally specialized base stations, you could use off-the-shelf processors and servers and run all of the functions of the network as software.


That’s where [company]ARM[/company] and network semiconductor maker Cavium come in. [company]Cavium[/company] is using its ThunderX data center processors, which use up to 48 ARMv8 cores, as the building blocks for a virtualized base station. At Mobile World Congress, Cavium and ARM will basically “load” an LTE network into system-on-chip (SoC).

The concept isn’t unique. [company]Intel[/company] has long been pursuing Cloud-RAN and it has a big head start on ARM. It’s already working with mobile network vendors like Nokia and Alcatel-Lucent and some of the world’s biggest carriers, like [company]China Mobile[/company], [company]SK Telecom[/company] and [company]Telefonica[/company], to run elements of their networks on its Xeon processors.

For itS part, ARM is thinking bigger than just Cloud-RAN. On Thursday it announced a grand-scale vision it calls Intelligent Flexible Cloud, which puts ARM processors in every nook and cranny of future software-defined and virtualized networks. In addition to Cavium, it revealed partnerships with [company]Altera[/company], [company]Advanced Micro Devices[/company], [company]AppliedMicro[/company], Enea, [company]EZChip[/company], Linaro, [company]Marvell[/company] and [company]Xilinix[/company].


WhatSim becomes ChatSim as it expands to apps beyond WhatsApp

Last month, I reported on an interesting new mobile service from Italy’s Zeromobile called WhatSim that promised unlimited WhatsApp messaging anywhere in the world for just €10 ($11.60) a year. Well, a month later — and before it’s even shipped its first SIM card — WhatSim is already changing up its business model to move beyond a single messaging app, but it has also placed some restrictions on the service that make it less attractive to hard-core chatters.

It’s rebranded itself as ChatSim and it’s now supporting QQ, [company]Facebook[/company] Messenger, WeChat, Skype, Viber, Line, KakaoTalk, Telegram, Snapchat, [company]Twitter[/company], [company]Google[/company] Hangouts and [company]Apple[/company] iMessage in addition to WhatsApp. If you want to do anything besides sending text and emoticons on those services, though, you’ll have to buy credits. Each photo, video, voice message costs a different amount of credits, which vary depending on the country you’re in.

Those credits can also translate directly into prepaid megabytes, which you can use for any mobile app or to surf the internet. But be careful: Once you start buying credits, ChatSim removes the blocks on non-messaging internet traffic and a smartphone can eat up those credits (and your euros) pretty quickly.

Zeromobile also added some confusing fine print to its service that places limits on its supposedly unlimited plans. If you’re traveling the world and spreading your usage among different countries, then you won’t face any restrictions. But if more than 60 percent of your usage is in one of six geographic zones, then ChatSim will start throwing up roadblocks.

For instance, in the U.S., which is in a zone that includes 30 more countries ranging from the U.K. to New Zealand, you would be restricted to 25 MB of chat traffic before additional charges kick in. That translates into about 12,500 messages, or 34 messages a day, according to Zeromobile. That’s not a paltry number, but it’s a threshold any committed chat user can easily surpass.

So if you truly are a globetrotter living out of your suitcase, or business traveler who regularly travels between two of ChatSim’s zones, this service is a great deal (though your jetsetting ways would suggest you’re not exactly looking for a bargain). But if you’re generally staying put, then you might find ChatSim isn’t as good of a deal as was originally advertised.

As 4G demand balloons, here come the “super” base stations

Mobile World Congress kicks off in a little more than a week, and while most of the tech world might be anticipating the Barcelona show for the launch of Samsung Galaxy S6, MWC is actually the place where the newest network gear makes its debut. This year network equipment makers seem particularly focused on building bigger, badder base stations — the processing workhorses of any cellular network — as demand for more LTE speed and capacity hits new highs around the world.

Ahead of MWC, [company]Ericsson[/company] announced its newest base station, simply called the Radio System, which can support 24 individual cells, 80,000 total subscribers (with 8,000 simultaneous connections) and 960 MHz of total bandwidth on a single baseband unit. What does that mean exactly? Well, lets take one of Ericsson’s customers [company]Verizon[/company] as a hypothetical example.

cell phone tower / cellphone tower / antenna

Verizon is launching LTE all over the spectral map. Its main LTE network uses 20 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band. Its new XLTE network uses 40 MHz of spectrum in the 1.7/2.1 GHz band, and it’s launching supplemental LTE capacity in the 1900 MHz PCS band in places like San Francisco and New York. Furthermore, Verizon is reusing the same spectrum at its cell sites by splitting them into three or more sectors, each of which have the capacity a full-fledged 4G cell. And by virtue of LTE’s dual antenna, or MIMO, capabilities, it’s sending two data streams to every 4G device. If Verizon were to deploy the Radio System, it could host that entire multi-faceted network on a single base station and still only use up a little more than half of its overall capacity.

[company]Alcatel-Lucent[/company] is also showing off a new souped-up base station at MWC, and though it has a more arcane name (the 9926 eNodeB) than the Radio System and it doesn’t have quite the horsepower or Ericsson’s big unit. Alcatel-Lucent’s base station can also support up 24 individual cells or sectors, but only 16,000 simultaneous users. The baseband processor is designed to support some crazy upgrades to future LTE networks such as eight-antenna MIMO schemes and other LTE-Advanced technologies.

This might seem like overkill to you or I, but it’s an important trend because operators globally are starting to add more and more capacity to their 4G networks at an increasingly faster pace. All four of the nationwide carriers have already started cannibalizing their 2G and 3G networks to get at more 4G airwaves. Verizon and [company]AT&T[/company] just bid big in the last federal spectrum auction. And next year’s 600 MHz spectrum incentive auction will likely get even more attention from mobile carriers.

To keep up with all of that new spectrum, carriers need base stations that they can grow into, otherwise they’ll be forced to start from square one every few years by building new networks. Despite its new monster-sized baseband, Ericsson is anticipating carriers will still need to double or triple up on base stations at every cell site. So it has redesigned its network housing, creating what is essentially a track lighting system for mobile gear. Carriers mount rails on their towers and every time the need to add a new piece of gear, they just stick it on the tracks.

Ericsson's new radio-on-rails architecture

Ericsson’s new radio-on-rails architecture

But the mobile industry has started to question whether this constant cycle of cell site upgrades is really the best way to build a network. Instead mobile infrastructure vendors have started looking to the data center as a model for future network design. Instead of building a huge amount of processing power into every cell site, they can put all of that baseband capacity in the cloud and divvy it out to cells as demand dictates. The concept is called Cloud-RAN (RAN standing for Radio Access Network) and carriers like [company]China Mobile[/company], [company]SK Telecom[/company] and [company]Telefónica[/company] are already testing it out with the help of [company]Intel[/company] and many of many telecom equipment makers.

[company]Nokia[/company] Networks plans to talk up a new centralized network architecture at MWC called Radio Cloud, which takes many of cues from the IT world. It uses Ethernet to connect cells to an IP network, it runs its baseband functions on off-the-shelf servers and Xeon processors, and it adopts open-source software to manage the whole shebang, Nokia said. Cloud-RAN is still a year or more away from arriving in a commercial network, but we’re going to hear at lot more about it at MWC.


Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen takes back his old role of CEO

After pulling the strings from Dish Network’s boardroom for the last four years, Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen is once again assuming the CEO’s mantle, replacing Joseph Clayton, who will retire on March 31. Ergen co-founded Dish more than 30 years ago and stepped down as CEO in June of 2011, but he’s remained quite active as chairman and has been particularly involved in Dish’s recent stockpiling of mobile spectrum. Dish has said it plans to those airwaves to create a new U.S. mobile carrier, and apparently Ergen wants to be back at the helm for that fundamental change in its business.

Google buys Softcard, teams up with carriers on mobile payments

Google and the mobile carriers have long been at odds over mobile payments, but faced with the runaway success of Apple Pay, the two rivals have become friends. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile are selling their mobile wallet joint venture Softcard to Google for an undisclosed amount, Google and Softcard revealed on Monday in separate blog posts, and they have agreed to pre-install Google Wallet on their Android smartphones starting this fall.

That’s quite a full circle to arrive at, considering that for the last three years the three operators actively blocked Wallet from their devices in blatant protectionism for their own mobile payments service Isis. The problem was that Isis, which changed its name to Softcard last year, was slow to arrive to market, meaning few Android phones had access to any kind of near-field-communications (NFC)–based wallet.

That left the nascent smartphone contactless payment market stillborn in the U.S. until [company]Apple[/company] stepped in with Apple Pay. Apple Pay is not only available on every iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus (as well as the forthcoming Apple Watch), but it also built in a much bigger ecosystem for its service, bringing card-issuing bands and online merchants to the table that neither [company]Google[/company] nor Softcard managed to attract.

Those two also-ran wallets are obviously feeling Apple’s heat, so instead of battling it out in the Android space, they’re teaming up, which should make banks, merchants and especially Android-owning consumers happy. It probably would have made more sense to sign this deal a year earlier, though, as other companies are trying to fill the vacuum the Isis-Google war created with their own Android wallets.

Samsung last week bought universal digital credit card startup LoopPay, which uses an alternate technology to NFC that gives it access to most point-of-sale terminals in the market. As I wrote last week, Samsung still has to add a few missing pieces to its payments puzzle – most notably direct partnership with the banks – but there’s a good chance we might see the first Samsung contactless payments app debut in the Samsung Galaxy S6 when it is unveiled at Mobile World Congress next week.

T-Mobile shows a rare profit as its growth spurt continues

John Legere’s Uncarrier campaign may have landed T-Mobile plenty of customers over the last two years, but Uncarrier’s numerous consumer enticements haven’t exactly been friendly to the actual carrier’s bottom line. T-Mobile has posted quarterly losses far more often than it’s reported gains, but the fourth quarter was a welcome exception to the rule.

[company]T-Mobile U.S.[/company] reported a net Q4 profit of $101 million, which, coupled with its even more gainful second quarter, put T-Mobile in the black for the year with a total net income of $247 million. That may pale in comparison to the $12 billion in profits posted by Verizon in 2014, but it should help quiet some of the criticism that T-Mobile is gaining customers at the expense of profits.

T-Mobile added 2.1 million new connections to its networks in Q4, capping off 2014 with 8.3 million more customers than it had at the beginning of the year. T-Mobile now has 55 million connections total and is now nearly tied with the country’s third largest carrier, Sprint (which ended the year with 56 million subscribers).

In 2015 T-Mobile is projecting another big growth year, though not quite as big as 2014. In its forward-looking guidance, T-Mobile said it expects to add between 2.2 million and 3.2 million postpaid subscribers (customers who subscribe to its core Simple Choice plans) in 2015, compared to the 4.9 million postpaid customers it attracted in 2014.

T-Mo’s outspoken CEO also had a few choice words about the blockbuster spectrum auction that ended last month with a record $41.3 billion raised. Of the major carriers that participated, T-Mobile wound up winning the fewest new airwaves, paying $1.77 billion, compared to the $10 billion–plus paid by [company]AT&T[/company], [company]Verizon[/company] and [company]Dish Network[/company]. On T-Mobile’s Issues and Insights blog, Legere called the auction a disaster for American consumers because it placed even more spectrum in the hands of the country’s most dominant carriers, and he accused Dish of gaming the system.

Instead of winning licenses directly, Dish bid through shell companies in order to gain massive discounts ($3.3 billion, to be specific). It’s a pretty despicable practice, but it’s a practice that all of the major carriers have engaged in in one form another. That’s why you aren’t hearing much complaining from the other operators.

In fact, T-Mobile is going into the next auction — which will reallocate valuable low-band frequencies from the TV broadcast industry to the mobile carriers — with a very big advantage. In that auction, the Federal Communications Commission is setting aside blocks of airwaves in every major market for carriers that don’t own much low-band spectrum, meaning T-Mobile and Sprint will likely get new 600 MHz licenses at sizable discounts over AT&T and Verizon.

Wi-Fi industry is worried about mobile invading its airwaves

There’s a new technology buzzing around mobile carrier circles called License Assisted Access that promises to make our 4G networks faster by dipping into unlicensed airwaves. Most people have never heard of it, but the Wi-Fi industry sure has and it’s raising some red flags.

LAA, also known as LTE-Unlicensed, would tap are the same frequencies Wi-Fi relies on for to deliver its wireless connections, and Wi-Fi advocates are scared the new 4G will muscle out wireless LANs when pitted head to head. The rules of the unlicensed band dictate all users follow some basic rules to prevent devices from interfering with one another. What it all boils down to is if you detect someone using one frequency channel then you move to another channel.

LAA would act much like a Wi-Fi network, but instead of transmitting a Wi-Fi signal in the 5 GHz band it uses LTE. Carriers then combine these LAA signals with their regular 4G transmissions, creating much fatter data connections for smartphones and tablets. Carriers, however, face the same rules as other unlicensed band users in the band. They have to transmit at low power so LAA is really only good for indoor scenarios, and they also have to play nice with other users – i.e. they can’t drown out your home router. Consequently the same interference detection and channel selection technology built into Wi-Fi access points are built into LAA.

So what’s the problem then? The wireless LAN industry’s big trade group, the Wi-Fi Alliance, worries that that carriers will have an edge in the unlicensed bands because their networks are centrally managed. Wi-Fi networks, on the other had, tend to be a patchwork of access points and routers all operating independently but miraculously managing to cooperate. Introducing a centrally controlled and scheduled LAA network into that mix could mess up that mojo. Says the Alliance:

There is a risk that LAA, and especially pre-standard systems deployed ahead of coexistence work being done in the industry, will negatively impact billions of Wi-Fi users who rely on 5 GHz today for networking and device connectivity. It is generally agreed in principle that fair sharing is required, but there needs to be further work from all parties to address this risk in practice.

Driving metaphors are overused when talking about networking, but here the analogy of a racetrack applies. All race cars might be following the rules, but a group of cars acting as a team could gain an advantage by drafting off one another or forcing competitors into different lanes. The Wi-Fi Alliance says that if the mobile carriers took that capability to the fullest extreme they could effectively turn the unlicensed airwaves into a kind de facto licensed band to the determent of all Wi-Fi users.

We’re still in the early days of LAA testing so there is still time to sort the issue out. And the Wi-Fi Alliance isn’t calling for any drastic measures such as banning LTE from the unlicensed band (it would be a bit hypocritical for it do so). But the trade group does want the mobile industry to slow down commercialization work on the technology until it can get these co-existence issues worked out.

[company]Ericsson[/company], already has a LAA small cell in its product pipeline and is testing the technology with [company]Verizon[/company], [company]SK Telecom[/company] and [company]T-Mobile[/company]. Meanwhile T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray has already committed to using LAA in his networks once the technology matures.