Zuckerberg’s Internet.org feels the love (and fear) from carriers

At Mobile World Congress on Monday Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg took the stage with three executives from carriers in developing countries to talk about the progress of Internet.org and its attempts to connect the world’s unconnected with free Facebook use.

You would expect this kind of thing to be a rather boring affair with Internet.org operators celebrating the project, and that was largely the case. But things got interesting toward the end as one CEO voiced what was on every carrier’s mind at MWC: In the process of helping them, [company]Facebook[/company] might just kill them.

That CEO was Jon Fredrik Baksaas of the Telenor Group, which may be based in Norway but runs networks in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. It’s also important to note that Telenor is not an Internet.org member, though it is in negotiations with Facebook to join its effort. Baksaas brought up the touchy topic of Facebook’s recent purchase of WhatsApp and how that messaging service directly threatens his company’s SMS revenues. It’s a “point of contention between Facebook and the operators,” Baksaas said.

He went on to say that there is a big risk that by inviting Facebook to offer free services on their networks, carriers risk Facebook converting their customers away from traditional telecom services to Facebook’s own apps and web-based services.

Zuckerberg responded that Internet.org works closely with its operator members to ensure that isn’t any cannibalization of revenue. WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are not among the free services it offers through Internet.org’s zero rating policies. And the other two carrier panelists, Christian De Faria, CEO of Airtel Africa, Mario Zanotti, SVP of operations at Millicom – both of whom participate in Internet.org – pretty much backed Zuckerberg up.

Zanotti cited some impressive numbers: In Paraguay, Millicom’s Tigo saw a 30 percent increase in mobile data users after it launched free access to Facebook for six months. Millicom’s most recent foray with Internet.org in Tanzania resulted in a tenfold increase in data-capable phone sales, Zanotti said.

During the session Zuckerberg also downplayed the significance of laser-pulsing satellites and drones to Internet.org’s overall mission. He said that everyone focuses on that tech because its sexy, but the vast majority of connectivity in the developing world is going to be supplied through traditional carrier networks. That’s certainly true, but Zuckerberg did have a role in pumping up that technology in the first place, including penning a widely publicized paper on the merits of drones and free-space optics in providing internet access

MWC-2015-ticker

Artemis is building a 4G network in SF to prove its pCell tech works

For the last year WebTV creator Steve Perlman has been trying to convince a skeptical wireless industry that his most recent startup Artemis Networks has developed an LTE technology that solves the mobile data capacity crunch, and now he aims to prove it. Artemis is building a network using its pCell LTE technology that will cover most of San Francisco using Dish Network’s spectrum.

Steve Perlman

Steve Perlman

[company]Dish[/company] is leasing the PCS spectrum it acquired at auction last year to Artemis so it can install its transmitters on San Francisco rooftops by wireless ISP Webpass. Once it’s complete, which according to Perlman could be as soon as this fall, it will sell unlimited 4G data and voice-over-LTE plans to consumers via SIM cards that they can plug into any iPhone 6 and 6 Plus as well as select Android handsets.

Artemis’s ultimate goal, though, isn’t to become a full-fledged mobile carrier competing with the likes of [company]AT&T[/company] and [company]Verizon[/company], Perlman told me in an interview. Instead, Perlman is building this network as a kind of grand experiment to prove to the world that his pCell technology really works. “I’ll be honest,” he said. “We have a credibility problem.”

It sounds plain crazy

pCell flies in the face of a decade of cellular networking wisdom, which states that mobile data networking technologies improve only incrementally. The progression from 2G to 3G to 4G has been about squeezing more bits per second into a hertz of spectrum, but even crossing the single bit-per-hertz threshold was a hard-fought gain. Now Artemis claims it can improve that spectral efficiency by a factor of 35 by replacing big tower-mounted macrocells with a dense layer of pCells distributed throughout a city.

Artemis pCell

While devices normally have to share the available capacity of the network, Artemis claims its technology will deliver the theoretical maximum speed to every device it connects to, no matter how many smartphones or tablets are competing for attention. Artemis has demonstrated this by placing dozens of iPhones side by side all streaming different videos over the same spectrum, something that would be nearly impossible on standard LTE networks.

pCell accomplishes this by turning the topology of cellular networks inside out. Typically, cells are deployed in a manner that avoids interference. A transmitter sits in the center of a cell and neighboring cells are spaced far enough apart that their signals don’t interfere with one another. We, the users, move throughout these generally interference-free zones and expect to always find a clear signal.

Artemis, however, isn’t creating a grid of non-interfering cells. It’s throwing its signals straight at one another, creating a network where the vast majority of physical space contains a miasma of cross-interfering airwaves. But according to Perlman, there is order in that chaos. Artemis is really shaping the radio airwaves to create tiny oases of pristine signal reception — the pCells themselves — which just happen to be centered on wherever our devices are in the network.

It’s a hard concept to wrap your mind around, but it helps if you think of the network like a pond and each transmitter like a pebble. A pebble dropped into the pond creates ripples, or waves, that radiate outward, much like a cell tower transmits today. If you throw a bunch of pebbles into the pond, the crossing ripples create new, more complex patterns. If you were to drop thousands of pebbles at precise intervals and at specific places into that pond, you could shape those patterns into very intricate shapes. That’s what Perlman claims his pCells can do: paint the Mona Lisa in the airwaves with crisscrossing transmissions. Instead of the perfect smile, though, pCells are really crafting three-dimensional cells that can follow any device through the network.

pCell versus a regular cellular topology

pCell versus a regular cellular topology

If that sounds far-fetched to you, then trust me — you’re not alone. I’ve talked to several mobile networking veterans who — while acknowledging that Perlman’s claims are theoretically possible — are very skeptical that Artemis can pull off such a feat with today’s technology. The limited technical explanations Artemis has so far provided just haven’t been good enough to convince them otherwise. As one CTO of a major global mobile carrier put it, “Artemis needs to show its math.”

In the pudding

Perlman said he’s taken those criticisms to heart, and Artemis is now taking a series of steps to quell that skepticism. Artemis is releasing a detailed technical white paper this week that Perlman said will answer many of the remaining questions about pCell technology, but most importantly, Artemis will show by doing, Perlman said.

The San Francisco network will let anyone willing to slot an Artemis SIM card into their phone test the technology for themselves, Perlman said. Furthermore, Artemis is performing a more intimate pCell trial in Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium with VentureNext to test out the technology in heavily trafficked indoor areas. Finally, it’s releasing its first commercial product, called the Artemis I Hub, to carriers to test pCells in their own networks.

Perlman said he believes all of these efforts will provide both the science and the empirical data to convince pCell’s doubters of the technology’s merits.

Photo from Shutterstock/Gang Liu

As for the San Francisco network, Artemis still has to jump through some hoops to bring it online. Perlman said he wants to offer a full-fledged mobile service that SF residents can use to replace their regular carriers. That means Artemis will have to build a network comprised of thousands of pWaves (its pCell transmitters) on Webpass’s 600 rooftops scattered throughout the city.

Artemis also has to build the core infrastructure to support a VoLTE service so its customers can make phone calls and send text messages. And it needs to strike a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) deal with a nationwide mobile carrier so its customers can roam outside of the city limits. Finally, Artemis needs to get Federal Communications Commission approval for the project.

If all goes according to plan, Artemis could start selling SIM cards this fall, though delays might push it to the end of the year or into next year, Perlman said. I am looking forward to trying out this network for myself.

AT&T boosts data, adds Mexico calling to GoPhone plans

Customers on AT&T’s GoPhone plans will see a substantial increase in their monthly data allotments starting Friday, and those who subscribe to the $60 prepaid plan can also start making calls to Mexico for free.

On February 20, the $45 GoPhone plan’s data bucket will increase from 1GB to 1.5GB a month, and the $60 plan’s bucket will grow from 2.5GB to 4GB. Customers on both plans already get unlimited texting to Mexico and other countries, but starting Friday $60 plan subscribers will also get unlimited calls to landline and mobile numbers in Mexico.

[company]AT&T[/company] has been upping the benefits offer by both its prepaid service brands recently. In January, Cricket Wireless boosted data allotments across its cheaper service tiers and began offering a limited-time 20GB plan for $60 a month. It also made unrestricted voice calls to Mexico standard on Cricket plans of $50 or more.

Ma Bell’s addition of cross-border calling to the mix is a direct result of its acquisition spree in Mexico and its subsequent promise to create a unified North American mobile footprint. AT&T still hasn’t made Mexico features standard on its regular contract and family plans, though it does offer a $5 a month add-on that will give unlimited voice calls to that country.

RootMetrics: Verizon, T-Mobile lead in consistently fast 4G

Independent mobile network tester RootMetrics has completed its latest round of nationwide speed and reliability tests, and while the best overall performance award goes to Verizon, the speed prize that most tech geeks really care about was a bit of toss-up. Both Verizon and T-Mobile posted impressive 4G bandwidth numbers, reflecting big upgrades both made to their LTE networks in the last year.

Seattle-based Root no longer compiles an average speed number for a carrier’s entire coverage footprint, which is frankly a rather useless number for gauging overall network performance. Instead, it’s now showing the number of metro markets where a carrier’s average download speed hits a particular benchmark, such as 10 Mbps or 20 Mbps. (You can find Root’s individual city reports here.)

Verizon's average speeds in major markets

Verizon’s average speeds in major markets

Root found that in the last half of 2014 [company]Verizon[/company] averaged a 10 Mbps or better downlink connection in 122 cities, while [company]T-Mobile[/company] did the same in 96 cities (that’s out of a total of 125 markets). [company]AT&T[/company] wasn’t far behind with 93 cities pumping out 10 Mbps-plus speeds, but when you start moving the bar upwards, T-Mobile and Verizon really shine. In 41 cities, T-Mobile averaged 20 Mbps of faster speeds, while Verizon was producing similar fast connections in 40 markets. AT&T hit that benchmark in only 14 cities.

RootMetrics 2014 T-Mobile updated

At this time last year, AT&T held Root’s speed crown, but a lot can happen in a year. Verizon and T-Mobile have been tinkering a lot with their networks. Verizon turned on a brand-spanking-new LTE grid in the Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) band — what Big Red calls its XLTE network — doubling the speed and capacity of its original 4G service. Meanwhile T-Mobile has been playing musical chairs with its existing spectrum and airwaves its gotten through acquisition, producing 4G networks in many major markets that match Verizon’s megahertz for megahertz.

AT&T is upgrading its networks as well, but it’s being a bit more methodical, tapping into LTE-Advanced technologies to add capacity here and there. Consequently we’re not seeing a big jump in speeds from AT&T, but a gradual improvement across its 4G footprint. For instance, in the first half of 2014, Root found AT&T could boast an average of 20 Mbps in a single city. Six months later, that number was up to 15 markets.

AT&T's average speeds in major markets

AT&T’s average speeds in major markets

Root also found AT&T to have the far more reliable network with far fewer instances of call drops, call failures and lost data sessions than Sprint and T-Mobile. Ma Bell fell just Verizon in the overall RootScore rankings.

And where does [company]Sprint[/company] fit into all this? The answer is just barely. Root ranked Sprint No. 3 ahead of T-Mobile in overall RootScore, but despite all of Sprint’s talk about producing a barn-door-busting LTE network, its 4G service is still years behind the competition. The large majority of Sprint cities tested were averaging download speeds below 6 Mbps, and not a single market hit the 20 Mbps benchmark. One day Sprint’s Spark may truly become the mother of all networks, but that day is certainly not today.

Sprint's average speeds in major markets

Sprint’s average speeds in major markets

This post was updated on Wednesday to correct the number of markets in which T-Mobile achieved 10 Mbps or better average speeds from 108 to 96. The original figures Root supplied to Gigaom had an error, which the company has since corrected, but the change does not affect any of the other numbers or conclusions in the post.

Report: 80% of all mobile data is consumed by just 10% of users

Cisco Systems this week offered some insight into just how much mobile data the world is consuming — 2.5 exabytes a month, to be exact – and now a new report from Amdocs sheds a little light on who among those billions of users is consuming the most. Amdocs found that just 10 percent of mobile users are consuming 80 percent of the world’s mobile data traffic.

[company]Amdocs[/company], a telecom equipment maker that specializes in billing and network operations, calls these folks the “Technorati,” and it’s easy to figure out who they are. They’re the consumers sporting not just advanced smartphones and tablets but often multiple connected devices.

Those numbers aren’t simply reflecting a split between wealthy and poor countries. Amdocs’ State of the RAN (industry shorthand for radio access network) reported on 25 million voice and data connections in major cities around the world, all with lots of smartphone usage, and found that power users are often using as much as 10 times more data than the average mobile subscriber. And since the average mobile data user consumed 100 percent more data between 2013 and 2014, Amdocs found, the data growth what for these Technorati is even more amplified.

Amdocs State of the RAN

Amdocs found not just a demographic split in data use, but also a geographic one: 20 percent of cell sites were generating 80 percent of all mobile data traffic. These areas tend to be the urban hot zones where people congregate, but those areas are also increasingly indoors. Amdocs discovered that 80 percent of all data funneled to mobile devices is being consumed indoors, and that means a large portion of it is hitting Wi-Fi, not cellular networks.

So going by Amdoc’s numbers, what we’re seeing is a very stratified network as mobile data takes over – much more stratified than when voice was the dominant mobile service. A handful of people are consuming the vast majority of all data and they’re doing it in very specific locations of the network.

Cisco VNI mobile data consumption

And Amdocs isn’t the only company that’s seeing these trends. Cisco’s Visual Networking Index focused on overall global carrier trends, not just major cities, but it found the top 10 percent of users consumed 65 percent of all traffic. Furthermore, by [company]Cisco[/company]’s calculations the highest 1 percent gobbled up 18 percent of all of the world’s mobile data, with each averaging 15.2 GBs per month. Apparently there are even more elite tiers within the world’s data elite.

The big 4 carriers will bring LTE to Chicago’s subways

4G services are finally coming to Chicago’s subways. Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile are collectively installing a $32.5 million LTE upgrade in the Chicago Transit Authority’s 22 miles of subway tunnels, allowing commuters to continue chatting, streaming and gaming when they go underground.

As a Chicagoan I know the frustration of losing your smartphone connection when your train car dips below ground level, but you non-Chicagoans may be asking yourselves “Chicago has subways?” Yes: While the name of the Chicago metro train system is the “L”, which is short for “elevated,” Chicago’s two main lines go underground for about 20 stops when they approach downtown.

That means for many L riders, the last 10 or 15 minutes of the commute becomes a wireless dead zone, forcing you to deal with the reality that you’re in a train packed wall-to-wall with other people. When the carriers complete the upgrade – targeted for the end of 2015 — we should be able to continue surfing to our hearts’ content.

[company]T-Mobile[/company], which is taking the lead on the project, will coordinate the construction of a distributed antenna system (DAS) throughout Chicago’s tunnels. Then all four of the operators will connect their networks to it. You can think of a DAS as a cell tower broken into its component parts. Instead of putting a cluster of antennas at the top of a mast, T-Mobile will install individual transmitters throughout the tunnels, which will connect back to a central location called a base station hotel somewhere in the depths of the city. The carriers will all install their network gear in that hotel.

This isn’t the first DAS to appear in Chicago’s subway. Allgon Telecom built a 2G network in Chicago’s subway a decade ago, but the voice-centric system barely worked then and it’s next to useless now. Hopefully, this long-needed upgrade will finally fix Chicago’s underground dead zone problem so we can return to the warm embrace of our smartphones at the end of our commutes. What else are we going to do? Talk to each other?

T-Mobile Super Bowl ad entreats us to “Save The Data”

T-Mobile is using a Super Bowl ad to push its new Data Stash program, which lets users rollover unused megabytes from month to month, and last night it gave a sneak peak of the 30-second spot on YouTube.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTwzsV3I3OQ&w=560&h=315]

The tongue-in-cheek commercial plays on the the public service announcement, with Kim Kardashian West alerting viewers that “each month millions of unused gigs are taken back by wireless carriers.” All of that unused data could have been put to use viewing selfies of Kim Kardashian West, she said.

Many of the mobile carriers use the Super Bowl as a way to show off new ad campaigns, so [company]T-Mobile[/company]’s may not be the only new mobile commercial we see. We might even seen competing ads for rollover data programs. [company]AT&T[/company] launched its own data banking program this week to compete with Data Stash.

FreedomPop cobbles together a Wi-Fi network of 10M hotspots

FreedomPop started selling its own Wi-Fi-only phone last year, so it was only a matter of time before the mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) started selling Wi-Fi service. On Wednesday it will turn on access to a Wi-Fi network of 10 million hotspots and an unlimited voice, SMS and Wi-Fi data plan for $5 a month – quite a deal if you don’t mind cutting the tether to the cellular network completely.

The Wi-Fi network is actually owned and run by many different ISPs and hotspot aggregators, FreedomPop CEO Stephen Stokols told me in an interview, though he wouldn’t reveal the names of specific providers. He did, however, name specific examples of places FreedomPop Wi-Fi can found: [company]Starbucks[/company], [company]Burger King[/company], [company]McDonalds[/company] and [company]Panera Bread[/company] locations; [company]Walmart[/company] and [company]Home Depot[/company]; malls and outdoor hot zones in major metro markets.

So FreedomPop is obviously working with some of the biggest Wi-Fi aggregators in the country such as [company]Google[/company] and [company]AT&T[/company] as well as big ISPs like the cable operators, who run urban hotspot networks. Stokols did confirm that FreedomPop is not working with [company]Boingo[/company] so you’re probably not going to see FreedomPop’s Wi-Fi service in a lot of airports, but he said there is a deal with Devicescape in the making, which could add millions more crowdsourced hotspots from small businesses to FreedomPop’s network in the coming months.

To tie all of those different networks together, FreedomPop has developed an Android app (no word yet on iOS) that will act as a kind of skeleton key for those 10 million hotspots. The app will automatically log the device into the access point when they’re available and will establish secure links at hotspots that support encrypted connections. As more ISPs move adopt newer Hotspot 2.0 technology, FreedomPop will migrate its app to the new login technology as well, Stokols said.

FreedomPop won’t just be selling offering the service over its own tablets and phones. The company plans to use the network to expand beyond [company]Sprint[/company] devices — it currently resells Sprint’s 4G data services – to practically any device that has a Wi-Fi radio. Stokols said that there are millions of retired devices lying around people’s homes that no longer have cellular service from any of the major carriers. FreedomPop is offering to reconnect those devices through Wi-Fi. There’s also an opportunity to sell FreedomPop’s Wi-Fi access to prepaid phone users with limited data plans, Stokols said.

It’s safe to say that FreedomPop’s customers are already pretty comfortable with Wi-Fi. The virtual carrier’s baseline “freemium” service gives any customer 200 VoIP minutes, 500 text messages and 500 MB of 4G data at no charge, so customers naturally gravitate to their home, office and public Wi-Fi networks to augment their data usage. FreedomPop eventually plans to begin asking its customers to bring their own personal Wi-Fi routers into the fold, creating a crowdsourced network similar to Fon’s, Stokols said.

AT&T strikes back at T-Mobile with its own data rollover plan

T-Mobile’s Data Stash, which lets you carry over unused megabytes from one month to the next, has only been lived seven days, but AT&T has already come up with a counter plan. It announced its own data rollover program on Wednesday that will allow customers on its shared plans to save their leftover data at the end of each billing cycle.

Rollover Data launches on January 25, and it will automatically apply to all customers on AT&T’s Mobile Share Value plans. But as always with programs like these, there is a big caveat. [company]AT&T[/company] won’t let you keep banking the same data month after month. You have to use it up in the next billing cycle or lose it. Here’s how AT&T explains it:

If you have four lines and have a 15GB AT&T Mobile Share Value Plan and only use 10GB in a given month, you’ll roll over 5GB and have a total of 20GB available to use within the next month.  If you were to only use 10GB in the second month, you’ll again roll over 5GB and have a total of 20GB available the next month. Bottom line: if you have unused plan data this month, it automatically rolls over to be used within the next month in case you need more than your plan’s allotment. This gives you that extra data to do the things you love across all your devices, like surfing the web, watching videos, listening to your favorite music or sending email.

[company]T-Mobile[/company]’s Data Stash lets you keep banking data for a full year after you accrue it (think of your saved megabytes as frequent flier miles that expire after a year). But T-Mobile’s program has its own caveats, the biggest one being that it’s only available to individual line subscribers with a postpaid data plan of 3GB or more. Also, for some strange reason, you can’t actually start rolling data over on Data Stash until you use up an initial 10GB of free data with which T-Mobile is seeding all of its eligible customers’ accounts.

Each program has its pros and cons. AT&T’s Data Rollover is available at any level of shared plan so you can carry over data even on the lowliest 300 MB plan. That data can be used by any device attached to that plan. Data Stash, on the other hand, is restricted to heavier-use individual plans. But because of AT&T’s Data Rollover’s mechanics, you can’t cram big piles of gigabytes under the mattress. Meanwhile, T-Mobile’s plans let you truly bank big chunks of data for a rainy day.

What’s most interesting, though, is how quickly AT&T responded to T-Mobile’s new Uncarrier policy. T-Mobile isn’t even getting a month to test the waters before AT&T’s rival rollover plan goes into effect. AT&T was fast to follow T-Mobile’s phone upgrade program Jump as well, announcing its Next upgrade plans just a week later.

It’s clear that AT&T views T-Mobile’s Uncarrier strategy as a big threat if left unchecked, but AT&T also seems ready to swing at everything T-Mobile throws at it.

Time Warner Cable, Boingo turn on Hotspot 2.0

Time Warner Cable and wireless ISP Boingo signed a roaming deal in June, which allows TWC’s broadband customers to use Boingo’s Wi-Fi hotspots at airports and convention centers and Boingo subscribers to tap TWC’s growing network of outdoor hotspots in its cable territory. These kinds of deals are pretty standard fare among Wi-Fi operators, but in this case there was one big difference.

The two agreed to use a new Wi-Fi networking standard called Hotspot 2.0 to link their networks, and on Wednesday they announced that feature is finally enabled. What that means for [company]Time Warner Cable[/company] and [company]Boingo[/company] customers is that their smartphones can move securely between and automatically connect to those two networks without requiring any kind of manual registration or login.

That may not seem huge, but simple deals like these mark the beginning of a new era in public Wi-Fi in which every operator could negotiate dozens, if not hundreds, of Wi-Fi roaming deals and offer their customers expansive hotspot footprints. Today we live in a world of segregated networks, granting access to those armed with the proper passwords or the willingness to go through a registration screen. That isn’t exactly conducive to creating a seamless wireless network experience.

But with Hotspot 2.0, all of those credentials are handled in the network. Newer smartphones with Wi-Fi Alliance-certified Passpoint clients can automatically link to any network they’re authorized to use. Right now the industry is slowly adopting Hotspot 2.0, signing one-off deals such as Boingo and TWC’s and the recent cross-city limits agreement between San Jose and San Francisco. Hopefully we’ll see these partnerships expand beyond just two parties, creating truly global hotspot networks