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.

MWC-2015-ticker

T-Mobile will launch LTE in the Wi-Fi airwaves in 2016

T-Mobile came up short compared to Verizon and AT&T in the last 4G spectrum auction, but it looks like it’s found another source of airwaves, and these won’t cost it anything. At Mobile World Congress on Monday, T-Mo revealed that in 2016 it plans to deploy LTE in the unlicensed 5 GHz bands, the traditional home of Wi-Fi, and it’s likely the Wi-Fi industry isn’t going to be very happy about it.

[company]T-Mobile US[/company] has never made a secret of its interest in operating in the unlicensed bands, but until now we’ve never had a firm deployment date, and that date is actually pretty darn close.

The country’s fourth largest carrier will use [company]Alcatel-Lucent[/company] small cells – which are like big tower-mounted cells, just tinier – embedded with [company]Qualcomm[/company]’s radio processing chips and LTE-Unlicensed technology (T-Mobile has tested similar systems from [company]Nokia[/company] and [company]Ericsson[/company] as well). The carrier plans to start a trial of LTE-Unlicensed this year and then adopt LTE-U’s more technically sophisticated brother LTE-License Assisted Access (LTE-LAA) when it takes that network commercial next year.

I just spouted off a lot of acronyms there, but the key thing you need to know about LTE in the unlicensed bands is it will share the 5 GHz airwaves with Wi-Fi, moving from channel to channel to find a clear path for its 4G transmissions, just as Wi-Fi networks coexist with another in the same spectrum today. The problem is, according to the Wi-Fi industry, LTE won’t necessarily play nicely with the other Wi-Fi networks in the band, potentially forcing Wi-Fi users off of their own spectrum.

This issue is going to come to a head over the next year – it’s already becoming a major topic at MWC this year – as more carriers announce their unlicensed intentions. Basically the mobile and Wi-Fi industry are engaging in an old-fashioned turf war. It’s easy to see why carriers are interested in the unlicensed bands. They have hundreds of megahertz of airwaves they could potentially tap for their 4G networks, which could translate into faster speeds and more capacity for their customers.

But it’s also clear why the Wi-Fi industry isn’t exactly welcoming the carriers with open arms. The unlicensed band is meant to be open and shared, but carriers traditionally aren’t the open and sharing types. They’re accustomed to owning their airwaves and doing with them whatever they please.

MWC-2015-ticker

Samsung Pay has all the tools it needs to surpass Apple Pay

A lot of the features in the new Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, like curved edges and glass-and-metal design, are examples of Samsung playing catch-up on the latest smartphone trends, but Samsung’s new mobile payments app stands apart. Apple and Google may have brought their contactless payment technologies to the market first, but Samsung Pay fills in sizable gaps that Apple Pay and Google Wallet have in their services.

Samsung Pay uses both near-field communications (NFC) and magnetic secure transmission (MST) technology from LoopPay. That means that it can not only make the same secure contactless transactions that [company]Apple[/company] Pay can, but it can also make “swipe” purchases on the vast majority of older payments terminals that haven’t upgraded to NFC. Samsung has also retooled the new smartphones’ fingerprint sensors so they work with a press rather than a swipe, making it easier to initiate a purchase with a thumb tap.

Just as significant as the technology is Samsung’s broader financial ecosystem. It’s brought [company]MasterCard[/company] and [company]Visa[/company] to the table as partners along with four of the largest card-issuing banks: [company]JP Morgan Chase[/company], [company]Bank of America[/company], [company]Citi[/company] and [company]US Bank[/company]. (At the launch event, Samsung CEO JK Shin said these were just a few of the financial deals Samsung had signed.) Banking deals were one of the key reasons Apple Pay was a big initial hit, as consumers could load almost any of their existing debit and credit cards into the iPhone’s contactless wallet.

The new Galaxy S6

The new Galaxy S6

For Samsung, those bank deals are particularly important because the biggest selling point for its mobile wallet is that it will work on a far larger variety of terminals in the U.S. than Apple Pay or any other NFC-only payment app. If the banks hadn’t gotten on board Samsung wouldn’t have been able to make that argument come this fall.

The U.S. is finally making the leap to EMV credit cards, which use a smart chip to send encrypted data to a payments terminal. It’s a much more secure technology, and Samsung’s MST technology can’t emulate it the way it can the numbers stored on the mag stripe of credit. But with the banks apparently lining up to work with Samsung Pay, that’s not a problem Samsung has to worry about anymore. The banks can simply pass that encrypted card data from the cloud to a secure element in the Galaxy S6 or S6 Edge, which the phone then passes either through its NFC radio or magnetically, depending on which technology is available at the terminal.

Samsung Pay will not only make both “smart” and “dumb” transactions, so to speak, but it has the potential to turn what would normally be insecure static payments into more secure, dynamic As LoopPay co-founder and now Samsung employee Will Graylin recently explained to me, MST can send dynamic data through a magnetic read head designed only to take static data. The terminal thinks it’s just getting a regular credit card number, but Samsung Pay could send out a prefix code that alerts the payment processor that the numbers it’s about to receive are EMV cryptograms. Samsung Pay can use the same method to send tokens — one-time-use numbers supported in the newest payment technologies — through even the oldest, junkiest card readers.

An earlier version of LoopPay's MST technology. Instead of living in a phone sleeve, LoopPay will be embedded directly into new Galaxy S-series phones.

An earlier version of LoopPay’s MST technology. Instead of living in a phone sleeve, LoopPay will be embedded directly into new Galaxy S-series phones.

MasterCard chief emerging payments officer Ed McLaughlin explained to me that the potential implications for the payments industry could be big indeed because the banks and consumers will no longer be tied to a particular type of transaction based on a merchant’s hardware.

“The type of payment you make is a business decision, not a technology one,” McLaughlin said. “This is a clear way to work with older [payment terminal] stock out there.”

While Samsung seems to have minded all of the technical and financial details, we’re going to have to see Samsung Pay in action before we can levy a final judgment. I was at the Galaxy S6es’ big launch at Samsung’s Unpacked event at Mobile World Congress on Sunday, and while Samsung executives showed a video of Samsung Pay in action onscreen, there didn’t appear to be a live demo at the event. None of the new Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge phones I played with at Unpacked even have the app installed.

If Samsung Pay launches with a bang this summer, Samsung will have a compelling mobile wallet that can rival Apple Pay in many ways, but it will only have that advantage for so long, especially in the U.S. As merchants upgrade their payment terminals for EMV, they’re also upgrading them to support NFC. Within a year or two, NFC transactions could become the norm rather than the exception.

MWC-2015-ticker

Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge: A new look for Samsung and a new wallet

We were expecting a major reboot of the Galaxy S line, and that’s what Samsung gave us Sunday night at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, in the form of the S6 and S6 Edge. The two new phones represent a major and stunning redesign of the Samsung line, but the changes weren’t just cosmetic. The biggest new technical feature to arrive in this Galaxy reboot was the much-anticipated mobile wallet Samsung Pay, which uses two different contactless transaction technologies to expand its reach far beyond that of any other mobile payment service.

Samsung has done away from the plastic cases that always characterized its phones and adopted Gorilla Glass front and back panels, which are then encased with a metal band. Also gone are Samsung’s removable battery and micro-SD card slot. The biggest cosmetic difference between the S6 and the S6 Edge is that the Edge has curved edges on both the front and back sides of the device.

Otherwise the two phones have almost identical specs. They both sport 5.1-inch Super AMOLED screens with 577 pixels per inch of resolution. They have an F1.9 lens in their 16-megapixel rear and 5-MP front cameras. They come with 3GB of RAM, and since they have no expandable memory slot, Samsung is selling the phones in three storage configurations ranging from 32 to 128GB.

The device Samsung unveiled at MWC in Barcelona used eight-core Exynos chip, but Samsung didn’t reveal any details about whether it would make a variant for the U.S. market. Qualcomm has supplied its Snapdragon processors to Galaxies in the past, but this Samsung may be making a switch. Qualcomm recently reported a key smartphone customer has dropped Snapdragon from its designs and Samsung has developed its own integrated LTE radio-application processor technology.

The S6 and SG Edge will be the first smartphones to use Samsung Pay, a contactless payments technology that’s intended to match [company]Apple[/company] Pay, but in reality will probably surpass it. That’s because Samsung isn’t just using near-field communications (NFC), which only works on newer terminals, but a special LoopPay-developed chip that generates a magnetic field that can be read by any point-of-sale terminal with a mag stripe reader.

Samsung also announced deals with Visa and MasterCard to support tokenized transactions the way Apple Pay does, as well specific partnerships with card-issuing banks like [company]Chase[/company], [company]Citi[/company], [company]Bank of America[/company] and [company]US Bank[/company] to support their plastic in Samsung Pay. The wallet will initially be available to customers in Korea and the U.S. this summer, shortly after the Galaxy S6es debut on April 10, but Samsung said it will expand to other regions.

Finally, the S6 and S6 Edge will be the first Galaxy smartphones with wireless charging build directly in, replacing the Qi charge covers Samsung used in the S5. These new devices won’t just support Qi, but chargers using from Power Matters Alliance technology as well.

MWC-2015-ticker

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.

MWC-2015-ticker

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.

thunderxcavium

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].

MWC-2015-ticker

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.

MWC-2015-ticker