Intel, Alcatel-Lucent unveil their cloud mobile network

A year after forming their wireless partnership, Intel and Franco-American network builder Alcatel-Lucent say they’re ready to start moving the mobile network from the cell tower into the data center. At Mobile World Congress on Monday, the two took the wraps off a new networking architecture called vRAN, which looks unlike any mobile system deployed to date.

vRAN moves the baseband processing that drives the mobile network to the cloud and at its center are servers running on [company]Intel[/company] Xeon processors. [company]Alcatel-Lucent[/company] then runs many of the functions of the network as software on that server. The concept is known as Cloud-RAN, and if adopted by the mobile industry, it could fundamentally change how networks are built.

The mobile industry certainly wouldn’t be the first to embrace virtualization, but the move is a particularly fraught one for carriers because of the highly distributed way mobile networks are designed. All of the processing might – and the lion’s share of the expense – of mobile networks is at its fringes, right under the radios that transmit signals to our phones. Today carriers have to maximize the capacity of those base stations so they can handle the enormous demand for mobile data and voice at peak times.

cloud-cell-tower

Cloud-RAN (the RAN standing for radio access network) would move all that baseband processing into a centralized data center and carriers could allot capacity to cell towers as it’s needed. It’s a more efficient way to build a network, and it could result in more reliable and faster mobile service for you and I. Instead of cell sites maxing out their capacity and dropping our LTE connections, Cloud-RAN could amp up capacity at congested cell sites – you can think of it as a kind processing SWAT team wherever its needed in the network at any given time.

There are some limitations to just how “cloud” Cloud-RAN can go. You’re not going to a mobile network built on Amazon Web Services, or a central massive data center for all of the U.S. Latency is a super important consideration in the mobile network so data centers will have to be reasonably close to the towers they serve, but Alcatel-Lucent wireless CTO Michael Peeters told me that ALU and Intel have managed to push that distance put to more than 100 km (62 miles), which is enough to build a virtualized network of thousands of cells.

“You could take a city of a 1 million-population city and host the entire everything in a single central location,” Peeters said.

Even before their collaboration began, Intel and Alcatel-Lucent had been plugging away at Cloud-RAN independently for half a decade or more, as have other mobile networking companies. The difference now, said Sandra Rivera, GM of Intel’s Network Platforms Group, is the two companies now have a commercially viable product in vRAN. “The products have been developed and we’ll be doing trials this year,” she said.

Two of those trial partners, China Mobile and Telefónica, will doing live demos of vRAN at their booths. If all goes as planned, Intel and Alcatel-Lucent hope to start installing their first data centers in commercial networks in 2016.

But Intel and Alcatel-Lucent face plenty of competition. [company]Nokia[/company] announced its competing network virtualization technology called Radio Cloud, and [company]ARM[/company] is working with network semiconductor maker [company]Cavium[/company] to put its processors at the heart of a cloud mobile system. And not every vendor believes that the Intel’s vision of a network running on off-the-shelf chips is feasible for something as complex as mobile network.

In an interview at MWC, [company]Ericsson[/company] CTO Ulf Ewaldsson told me that while moving the mobile network into a data center is most definitely possible, replacing its specialized digital signal processing workhorses with generic processors isn’t. He likened the baseband to the graphics accelerator, which is still separate from the CPU of any computer or high-end mobile device today. Just like GPUs can much more efficiently render pixels than a general-purpose processor, baseband processors can much more efficiently crunch signal data than any off-the-shelf chip, Ewaldsson said.

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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.

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Verizon brings small cells indoors using these cute little dots

Verizon has had a big change of heart when it comes to small cells, which it once said wouldn’t have a big impact on its network. Not only is it using the tiny base stations to blanket San Francisco’s tech corridors with LTE capacity, it has begun experimenting with indoor small architectures, specifically Ericsson’s new Radio Dot system.

So far [company]Verizon[/company] only has the Dot system up in its regional HQ in Southfield, Michigan, but it’s the first use in the U.S. of [company]Ericsson[/company]’s new small cell architecture, which allows to building owners or carriers to install an indoor mobile network as easily as a Wi-Fi system.

enterprise small cells

Ericsson’s Radio Dot

There’s no word from Verizon on when and if it plans to install Dots in other buildings, but it definitely seems to have gotten small cell religion in the last year. The technology allows it to surgically insert capacity into its networks without building new towers or acquiring new spectrum. The end result for consumers is more LTE capacity and speeds in high-trafficked areas where you’d usually expect to find congested networks. In addition to San Francisco, it’s installing outdoor small cells in New York City, Chicago and Phoenix.

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.

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SK Telecom uses fancy antennas to hit LTE speeds of 600 Mbps

SK Telecom just last month amped up its LTE network in Seoul to support blistering speeds of 300 Mbps, but the carrier is already tinkering with LTE-Advanced technologies that could double that speed in the future.

The South Korean operator is working with [company]Nokia[/company] Networks on new antenna technologies that effectively double the number of data streams sent from a cell tower to your device. Called 4×4 MIMO (multiple input-multiple output), the two companies claim they’re clocking speeds of 600 Mbps and they plan to demo the technology at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next week.

You may already be familiar with the term MIMO because it’s a common feature in every LTE network and device today. Instead of sending a single signal from the tower, MIMO sends parallel streams, which are in turn picked up by two antennas on the device. By using four antennas instead of two at either end of the transmission, Nokia and [company]SK Telecom[/company] are able to double that capacity again.

Cool beans, right? Well, don’t get too excited.

4×4 MIMO is going to be a hard thing to pull off in a commercial network. Not only would it require device makers to pack four antennas into the limited space they have in their smartphones, but a 4×4 MIMO air link is quite delicate. When the going gets rough in today’s 4G systems, networks regularly downgrade connections from 2X2 MIMO to a single transmission path. Maintaining the proper radio frequency conditions to support a 4X4 MIMO link is going to be even more difficult, which is why the industry has been focusing its efforts on other LTE-Advanced technologies like carrier aggregation.

But I’ll be the last guy to tell SK Telecom what it can or can’t do. Ever since the dawn of 3G, SK has been on the cutting edge of wireless networking technologies, so if anyone is going to make a commercial case for 4×4 MIMO it’s probably our friendly operator in Korea. And if it works, it could be a big boon for the mobile industry because 4×4 MIMO would allow carriers to double the capacity of their networks without getting their hands on new spectrum.

SK looks to have a big presence at MWC. In addition to 4×4 MIMO demos with Nokia, SK will be showing off a very future-looking radio system with Samsung that claims to deliver 7.55 Gbps of throughput. The technology utilizes the millimeter waves, which lie higher frequencies than those used for cellular communications today. That millimeter wave technology is a big candidate for future 5G standards, though we’re still a while away from defining what exactly 5G is exactly.

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.

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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.

Verizon is laying down 400 tiny cells in SF to boost LTE capacity

In the coming months, workers and visitors along San Francisco’s major tech corridors may notice some very big improvement in Verizon’s 4G network speeds in some very specific places. The carrier plans to blanket the city’s SOMA, Financial District, Market Street and North Beach neighborhoods with 400 pint-sized transmitters called small cells.

You can think of small cells as a big tower-mounted macro cell shrunken down to size of your dorm-room space heater. They’re mounted on utility and light poles, and while they carry the exact same amount of capacity as a big macro cell, that capacity is concentrated in a much smaller area — in [company]Verizon[/company]’s case, a 250 to 500-foot radius.

Small cells are intended to be surgical tools in the network: Carriers use them to layer significant amounts of capacity in high-traffic and high-demand places. And in the case of San Francisco, there’s probably no more high-demand area than downtown, where the city’s tech industry is concentrated and everyone always seems to be surfing on smartphone or tablet, said Eric Reed, VP of entertainment and tech policy at Verizon.

A rendering of what two small cells (on different frequencies) would look like on an SF light pole.

A rendering of what two small cells (on different frequencies) would look like on an SF light pole.

Verizon is using small cells in other cities — New York, Chicago and Phoenix to name a few — but the San Francisco network in particular is an apt proving-ground for the technology because Verizon’s customers scarf down mobile data there like few other places in the country, Reed said. Specifically, Verizon anticipates a three-fold boost in capacity in the areas covered by these [company]Ericsson[/company]-designed transmitters, and customers should also notice some big increases in average speed as tinier cells split their capacity among fewer users.

There have been other small cell deployments in the U.S. — [company]AT&T[/company] is in the middle of a big one — but Verizon’s is particularly notable because of its extent. It’s packing a lot of cells into a limited area to create a very dense network, rather than just plopping cells down here or there to fill a coverage or capacity hole. While these cells won’t be in a massive single cluster, they’ll be spaced near enough that Verizon has to be careful they aren’t too close, otherwise their signals might interfere with one another, Verizon’s director of network engineering and operations Jake Hamilton told me.

What Verizon is building is what is known as a heterogeneous network, or HetNet, a kind of multi-layered system, which reuses the same spectrum over multiple radio technologies. Both the small and large cells will transmit over the same frequencies, which normally would result in a murky soup of cross-interference, but Verizon and Ericsson are taking a lot of steps to make sure that doesn’t happen. According to Hamilton, they’re shaping the radio patterns from Verizon’s towers so they wrap around the small cells where possible, and they’re also using an LTE-Advanced technique called enhanced Inter-Cell Interference Coordination (eICIC) to make the two networks behave as one.

Verizon is working with the city of San Francisco to use its utility infrastructure, and it’s currently getting all of its paperwork in order so its installation crews can get to work in the second quarter, Hamilton said. Verizon expects to have all 400 cells up and running by the end of the year.

SK Telecom and Nokia make big cells and small cells play nice

SK Telecom has just incorporated a tongue-twister of a technology into its Nokia-built LTE network in Gwangju, South Korea. It’s called Enchanced Inter-Cell Interference Coordination, or eICIC for short, and its aim to make networks packed with all different sizes and shapes of cells work in harmony.

What [company]SK Telecom[/company] and [company]Nokia[/company] Networks claim to have done is produce the first commercial cellular heterogeneous network, or hetnet, in which a bunch of tiny little cells mounted on utility poles or on building walls transmit under the umbrella of a big tower-mounted macro-cell. Normally in that type of situation you’d get a murky soup of cross-interference, as the big cell’s signals would overwhelm the signals of the smaller cells or vice versa.

With eICIC, though, the network can coordinate how and when those cells transmit in order to prevent much of that interference from occurring. eICIC is a key component of that grab bag of technologies we’ve come to know as LTE-Advanced and it will be critical in building super-dense networks of the future with loads of broadband capacity.

A diagram from Qualcomm showing small cells under the umbrella of a macro-cell

A diagram from Qualcomm showing small cells under the umbrella of a macro-cell

SK has actually been tinkering with the technology for some time – I first spoke to the carrier’s engineers about their lab eICIC lab test back in 2011 – but it’s proven a very difficult LTE-Advanced technology to master. Interference has always been the bane of RF engineers’ existence because the more transmission points you put in the network, the more places you create overlap between those transmissions. And everywhere you get that overlap you get interference, bad signals and crappy data connections.

Instead of trying to avoid that overlap, the hetnet takes the problem head on, depending on technologies like eICIC to get them out of its interference bind. SK says it’s now ready to start spreading its hetnet across South Korea with the help of eICIC. Hopefully that means the rest of the mobile industry is ready to follow in its footsteps. If carriers can eliminate – or at least mitigate – the interference problem of small cells, we could start seeing networks that don’t get overloaded in crowded places and pack tremendous amounts of capacity.

Sprint will finance Spark rollout through its network suppliers

Sprint appears ready to invest in its long-delayed Spark network rollout, but it’s getting some help from the companies that will be providing the equipment. Nokia, Samsung and Alcatel-Lucent are supplying a combined $1.8 billion in LTE gear and engineering services on credit. Sprint is getting a $300 million loan form Export Development Canada. Though Sprint didn’t announce any new timeline for the snail-pace rollout of its Spark uber-4G network, hopefully this will light the necessary fires to bring Sprint’s LTE service on par with its competitors’ sooner rather than later.