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.

Yep, Google wants to be a mobile carrier — again

It’s a new year, which means we’re all ready for a new round of speculation that Google will become a mobile carrier. Right on cue, The Information’s Amir Efrati published a report saying Google will shortly begin offering its own mobile plans by becoming a mobile virtual network operator – a network-less service provider that buys capacity on another carrier’s infrastructure.

I’m not trying to bust Efrati’s chops – well, maybe a little – as he’s rarely wrong, but this is a story that’s been ‘evolving’ for the better part of the decade. Last year, The Information reported very much the same story with a few details changed. At that time Google was in discussions with [company]Verizon[/company] and [company]Sprint[/company] to use their networks. Today the discussions are with Sprint and [company]T-Mobile[/company] and the effort has a code name, “Nova.”

One other new detail of significance: Efrati reports that Google views this project as an “experiment” aimed at challenging the status quo in the U.S. mobile industry. That’s an interesting thing to note because there’s definitely precedent for Google monkeying around with the industry to get carriers to change their behavior.

In 2008, [company]Google[/company] entered the 700 MHz spectrum auction bidding right alongside Verizon for airwaves that would eventually become the foundation of Big Red’s LTE networks. Google readily admitted it didn’t want to win that spectrum and become a 4G service provider. It just wanted to force the eventual winner beyond a price threshold that would ensure those airwaves would be open to any device or application. The ploy worked.

As I’ve stated on many forums I really doubt Google has any interest in becoming a full-fledged mobile carrier. I’m not saying it’s outside the realm of possibility – Google had done far crazier things, such as Project Loon. I’ve even written posts speculating what a potential “Google Wireless” might look like. And sure, I could definitely see Google trying to temporarily shake things up in the industry, as the Information suggests, with a new approach to the technology and business model of wireless (it’s doing much the same thing with Google Fiber). But in the long-term, selling minutes and gigabytes, climbing towers and fielding phone calls from irate customers is not the kind of utility business Google wants to be in.

Who knows? After years of rumors and speculation, maybe this is what Google Wireless was always meant to be: a virtual carrier selling time on someone else’s network (perhaps with a little added help from hopped-up Wi-Fi hotspots in Google Fiber markets). It’s definitely more feasible then some of the other rumors like Google buying T-Mobile or purchasing its own spectrum.

Or this could just be another red herring. At this point I suspect the tech media wants Google to become a mobile carrier much more than Google does.

 

FCC mobile competition report once again dodges its key question

Another year, another report from the Federal Communications Commission on the state of competition in the U.S. mobile industry, and as has been the case in the last four years, the FCC didn’t actually reach any conclusion on whether that industry is competitive.

Instead the FCC just presented the facts it gathered over 2013 and the first half of 2014: More consolidation has eliminated big regional operators like MetroPCS and Leap Wireless as independent providers and put more subscribers and revenue into the hands of the Big Four (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint), which accounted for 96 percent of the U.S. market.

The report (pdf) noted that while 99.9 percent of the population lived in census blocks with at least one mobile carrier providing coverage, the number of overall service choices for consumers is in decline. The percentage of people with a choice beyond the Big Four was only 22.8 percent, though the report did find that 91.4 percent of the population did have access to at least four different carriers. While carrier choice may be shrinking, the report also found that new technologies like LTE are expanding to further corners of the country, giving consumers more service options.

The FCC claimed that it can’t draw any single conclusion about whether the overall wireless market is competitive or uncompetitive since there are so many other factors that go into such judgment beyond those it analyzes in its reports. That may be true, but it also means the report can mean anything anyone wants it to be.

For years consumer advocacy groups have want to the FCC to come down more strongly on the issue since its view on the state of competition would have a big impact on the big mergers and buyouts that wind up in front or regulators. Meanwhile, the mobile industry takes the FCC’s lack of conclusion as a sign that the market is plenty competitive after all. For instance, here’s the statement CTIA VP of Regulatory Affairs Scott Bergmann issued after the report was released:

“The FCC’s report yet again proves that America’s wireless users enjoy a variety of choices, from carriers to service plans to devices. According to both the FCC’s report released today and more recent figures on the competitive landscape of America’s wireless industry, 97 percent of Americans may choose from at least three different carriers while a previous report said only 15 percent of wired users may choose from at least three different providers. With more than 700 different smartphone plans offered by the four national carriers, and more than 790 unique handset models to choose from, it’s no surprise that the Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Bill Baer said that when the agency looked ‘long and hard at the wireless industry,’ it found ‘the [wireless] market is thriving and consumers are benefiting from the current competitive dynamic.’”

 

CTIA picks former FCC Commissioner as the mobile industry’s chief lobbyist

U.S. mobile industry group CTIA has named former FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker its new CEO and President. She will replace retiring CTIA chief Steve Largent on June 2, and brings a pretty long CV working on both the government and lobbying side of telecom policy. She served in the Obama Administration’s Federal Communications Commission from 2009 to 2011 before controversially resigning to become to become SVP for government affairs for Comcast-NBCUniversal(s cmsca). Before that, she worked as Deputy Secretary of Commerce under George W. Bush and acting head of the National Telecommunications of Information Administration, which manages federal airwaves.

Report: Mobile hardware will be a $500-billion industry by 2015

Global mobile device and infrastructure revenues are growing at an annual rate of 11 percent per year, which will make wireless communications equipment a half-trillion-dollar industry in 2015, according to IHS iSuppli. The driving factor? LTE.