Key considerations in the development of 5G

I recently gave a talk at a Westminster eForum event, discussing the challenges that 5G development faces.

This was part of a wider discussion about the future of networks, devices and 5G, with speakers from YouGov, Vodafone, Qualcomm and Analysys Mason participating in the conversation. Together we left no stone unturned, examining the latest trends, regulatory perspectives, what 5G will actually look like — and much more.

One clear point that came out of the talks was that, despite recent statements to the contrary, there remains a lot still be decided about 5G. As a result, it’s important we look carefully at who will be using the 5G standard and what implications that may have, not just the technology side of the equation.

5G — enabling new applications
5G isn’t just about doing things faster; it will be the first generation to explicitly target the needs of multiple vertical industries. The graph below is designed to illustrate the challenge at hand. The grey area denotes the applications whose needs LTE cannot currently meet, and these are where 5G could demonstrate real added value over LTE.

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Addressing the Internet of Things and multimedia
One of the key conflicts that embodies the challenge of 5G is between the demands being placed on it by the Internet of Things and multimedia applications.

These each have a vastly different set of requirements, with IoT emphasising low power and reliability, and multimedia content a need for high capacity and data rates.

The diagram below demonstrates the different factors that need careful consideration where 5G is concerned, and how the two applications differ:

2

3

Rather than rushing out the next generation of cellular technology to meet arbitrary deadlines, time needs to be spent now thinking about how 5G can serve the wider societal and industrial needs — not just smartphones and tablets. Much thought also needs to go into the compact between investment and competition, the answers to which could come from network architecture.

At the same time, we need to avoid the real risk of overhyping 5G in the next few years, creating a much larger headache for the industry later on. For the time being, users are only just starting to come to terms with 4G, therefore we need to ensure we take the time to consider the next generation — squeezing out the maximum value we can out of the current generation in the meantime.

For more information on the considerations for 5G, take a look at the slides I presented in full here:

For more information on Real Wireless’s work in 5G, read our recent blog post.

The UK needs to address rural coverage – but national roaming isn’t the answer

This week has seen the UK government bring back proposals for national roaming, the idea being that those in remote villages and towns should be able to jump onto rival networks if their current provider isn’t delivering. It’s certainly an admirable initiative and one worthy of discussion – but national roaming isn’t the answer.

There has been plenty of discussion today on the pros and cons of this approach, with The Register doing a particularly good job of summarising the key reasons why this policy is well intentioned but not well thought through.

So rather than going over the same ground, we wanted to look at other potential, viable solutions to the problem.

LTE is coming

As part of the 4G licence award, Telefónica O2 has an obligation to provide “a mobile broadband service for indoor reception to at least 98% of the UK population and at least 95% of the population of each of the UK nations… by the end of 2017 at the latest.” And, perhaps encouraged by this obligation, all the operators have committed to meeting this target by the end of 2015. So much will change in the next year without further government intervention.

While LTE has been in big cities for a while now, it’s yet to reach much of the countryside or the smaller towns. But it’s on the way.

Real Wireless completed a project for the Scottish Government where we looked specifically at rural coverage and people will be genuinely surprised by just how good LTE coverage is.

We found that providing 95% of the population with indoor coverage, growing to 98% with gradual enhancements, is not beyond the reach of operators to achieve by the end of 2015. This is a huge improvement over 2G coverage, which even today only currently averages around 85% indoors. We also found that the average indoor mobile data speed available across Scotland will increase from about 2.5Mbps in 2012 to approximately 36Mbps by 2023.

The 4G roll-outs will reach 95% of the population surprisingly quickly, and there are ways to accelerate the rollout to 98%. However, it’s the final 2% that presents the most difficult challenge – but nor is this something national roaming would solve.

Rural coverage is expensive

Building networks is expensive, yet the UK already has amongst the lowest mobile infrastructure investment per head – something we touched on in a previous blog here. This is a real problem and one that puts us behind the rest of the world.

Technology has developed so that operators no longer need to invest in coverage over a wide area, to get service where users need it most – indoors. Vodafone’s open sure signal initiative is a good example of how this can work.

Targeted coverage makes it much more cost effective for operators to deploy sites and also avoids many of the planning challenges that can slow up installations. It’s this sort of technology that needs to be considered when addressing that final 2% figure, rather than expecting a blanket coverage approach. Such technology also provides operators with a way to continue to compete on coverage even as the share more of their wider networks, which is surely in the interest of consumers.

No easy answers

Rural coverage isn’t easy and the challenge has always been balancing the cost of network investment with the potential return. However with the wider rollout of LTE and the development of much cheaper, targeted ways of delivering coverage, there are viable solutions that need to be considered. It’s these approaches that need to be looked at by Government and operators in parallel, rather than pushing ahead with an approach that, while well intentioned, has some significant flaws.   Government needs to be aware of the risks of unintended consequences – just one example is the potential impact on national security flagged by police chiefs and the Home Secretary.

2G and 3G are dead, long live LTE

Earlier this month, Verizon CFO Fran Shammo finally confirmed that the long delayed launch of VoLTE on their networks will happen in Q4 of this year.

This signals a turning point in the technology; it’s been a long and slow road to get here, but we’re finally at the point where it is starting to infiltrate the mainstream conscious.

Both AT&T and Verizon have committed themselves to offering phones that can take advantage of the new VoLTE technology by Q4 – and I’d hazard a guess that means it is certain to be a standard feature in both Apple and Samsung’s latest generation phones. This in turn will undoubtedly mean their competitors are not far behind with their own offerings.

So far no real surprises. The more interesting question, though, is when will we see the first LTE only devices? After all, many operators and handset manufacturers have made no secret of their desire to turn off 2G or 3G networks.

For the operators, supporting these now legacy technologies not only occupies valuable spectrum, but adds additional infrastructure rollout and maintenance costs.

For handset manufacturers, the need to make use of 2G and 3G networks adds additional modem requirements and costs. These in turn negatively impact battery life and phone size. We’ve recently seen several new companies emerge offering “LTE Only”, thin modems at very aggressive prices, which no doubt has piqued the interest of manufacturers.

Obviously switching over entirely to LTE has only been made possible with the introduction of VoLTE. The lack of voice support has meant that a circuit switch fall back has been a requirement up until now, therefore 2G and 3G networks were a necessity.

Another key barrier up to now has been LTE coverage. Obviously, until this catches up, we’re unlikely to see any operator in a hurry to offer handsets that only support LTE, as this would severely impact their customers’ experiences.  But, as we saw in our recent work for the Scottish Government, the speed with which LTE has rolled out means it won’t be long until it catches up – our estimates put indoor 4G coverage in Scotland at 95% by the end of 2015.

Verizon originally forecast the introduction of LTE-only phones to their network by the end of 2014, a prediction that raised more than a few eyebrows. Their updated forecast now pushes this out to early 2016.

I think this is not only likely, but perhaps a necessity; should they wait any longer, the ecosystem will be in place for a competitor to take advantage of their delay.

Wireless in stadiums: It’s not all about the spectators

During the World Cup earlier this summer, we saw plenty of articles that examined the wireless infrastructure – or lack thereof – at the host stadiums.  Due to the  scale and attention on the event, it was inevitable that these mainly focused on whether visitors would be able to tweet from the event.

But wireless in venues is about much more than just letting attendees tell their friends on social networks about their evening. There are a host of other benefits for the venue and its staff that are possible when a stable, usable mobile infrastructure is in place – some of which we detailed in our guide.

The attention on wireless during the world cup should have focused on these benefits.  At this point in time, there are a whole host of options available for stadium owners to implement stable wireless infrastructure in a cost effective manner.

As the UK Premier League returned this week, here are four of my favourite potential use cases – hopefully the industry will be more vocal about these in 2014/15. 

Analyze this

Big data was the marketing buzzword de jour in 2013, so it’s surprising so many stadiums are still in the dark about who attends their events, let alone what they do once they’re inside. But imagine not only being able to see where spectators are inside the venue, but also where they’ve come from and where they go after.

With a solid mobile infrastructure, this is all possible. Thanks to focused coverage technologies – like the recently announced presenceCell – and improved analytics packages, it’s possible for network operators to provide data on where subscribers go before an event.

This data can be used for more than just planning footfall. As well as location, data collected can be used to profile visitors – providing insight in to who they are. You can probably imagine the host of advertising and personalization opportunities this opens up.

WFG: “Working from the game’

The idea of a business person wearing a Bluetooth headphone, tapping away on their laptop throughout a Sigur Rós concert is probably enough to strike fear in to the heart music fans. But for long-form sports, such as cricket and baseball, watching the game doesn’t necessarily mean blocking out the rest of the world for the duration.

Particularly for fixtures that occur mid-week, voice coverage is only the beginning of what spectators need, particularly those often found in the members’ stands. While they might technically be on a day off, it’s still essential that they can check email and respond to anything urgent – even from the ground. Something particularly relevant for VIP customers and those in corporate boxes.

Some venues have already attempted to address this; Sussex County Cricket ground has deployed a Wi-Fi system to the seating areas specifically to provide “virtual office” services to their spectators.

Receiving transmission…

The hefty bandwidth demands that come with transmitting mobile video in a stadium means most owners have traditionally shied away from it. After all, if you’re having difficulties meeting current mobile demands, why add further network strain?

LTE-Broadcast is set to change that. Thanks to its improved usage of network capacity, it’s possible to stream content to multiple devices without overloading the network.

Many stadiums already offer their own video channel on venue-controlled television screens, providing unique coverage of the event at hand. With by transmitting this via LTE Broadcast, this could easily be monetized and made available to spectators inside the venue.

Think of how well received Sky Go’s Ashes Cricket application was by fans. If an owner were to charge visitors £5 a head for access to multiple in-game camera angles, the initial costs suddenly look small in comparison to what could prove a very lucrative enterprise.

The future of security

Most venues will have a basic PMR system in place for stewards and other staff to communicate via radio, whilst some larger venues will have a dedicated TETRA system for emergency service use.

Thanks to new developments in LTE push-to-talk radios, it’s now possible for police and security staff to relay images and video of people involved in incidents to their colleagues. This instantly provides everyone with an exact image of who to look out for and what occurred, rather than relying on vague descriptions.

This last point is perhaps made all the more significant as impending changes to the TETRA emergency services radio in the UK will see it wound down. Rather than waiting for this to happen and rushing to install LTE coverage, smarter venue owners should be starting to prioritise this now.

Calculating the true size of LTE in the UK

A recent comment from a colleague regarding LTE takeup in the UK, or rather lack of, temporarily shook my firmly held belief that we’ve seen good growth. After a series of discussions, it quickly became apparent that we were considering two different timescales – I was using figures that had been published up until that very week, he had used data from September 2013.

The reasons for the difference in our conclusions could be a topic in their own right: Had opening up the market to new competitors in late 2013 stimulated purchases? Were users more likely to buy their LTE devices over the Christmas period? Regardless of the reasons, when changing date range by as little as six months can alter the conclusions so significantly, there is clearly a need for any analysis to make use of the most up to date statistics.

For that reason, I wanted to share with you the analysis I conducted as part of this discussion.

Recent news reports have stated that O2 has “one million customers”, EE achieved 2,000,000 within fourteen months and Vodafone now serves 500,000 users. In a high profile move, Three recently upgraded all users to a LTE tariff free of charge, which would give them 7,900,000 additional LTE customers. However, its own figures put the number of users on its network with a LTE device at 1,700,000, which I would regard as the correct figure to use for this calculation.

In the UK, we now have 82.7 million mobile subscriptions in total, whilst roughly 44.1 million adults own/use a phone (94% of population). Depending on which of these figures you prefer to reference in the term ‘LTE penetration’, the statistics yield either 6.3% or 11% as total penetration.

As a result, the state of LTE in the UK in April 2014 can be reasonably stated as:

  • Having over 5.2million subscribers
  • Penetrating around 10% of the population (either 6.3% or 11%)
  • Covering a third of the population indoors
  • Covering 41% of the population outdoors

 All of this has been calculated without even taking in to account MVNOs, due to lack of data. But with Tesco following Three in offering free 4G to all its customers, we can confidently say that the true figures are likely to be even higher than these.

I’d call that healthy take-up for 12-18 months, personally.  

 

Further reading:

The hidden secrets of the UK’s 4G Auction

The UK’s 4G auction was completed in February and Ofcom published detailed information on the bids made in the auction soon after. I thought it would be interesting to sift through this information in order to bring out the story of what happened in the auction and see if there were any indications of the mobile operators’ wider strategy.

So I put my deerstalker on and went through the data looking for clues. I was lucky with the auction design which let operators switch between a number of different types of spectrum ‘lot’. I’ll explain below how each time an operator jumped between different lot types, they left vital clues behind to unravel the secrets of the auction. However, this is still a work of deduction (though not detective fiction I hasten to add) and although the conclusions might not stand up in a court of law, I hope they make interesting reading.

A brief description of the auction design (skip if you’re already familiar)

Ofcom issued hundreds of pages of documentation about the auction, but I thought it would be useful to condense it into a few points. Ofcom auctioned two basic types of spectrum:

  • low frequency spectrum in the 800MHz band, better for penetrating walls and providing good quality reception inside buildings (important because a lot of mobile broadband use takes place in the home or office) but a substantially lower amount of spectrum – 2x30MHz – on offer.
  • higher frequency spectrum in the 800MHz band, less good at providing good quality reception inside buildings, but the larger amounts on offer – 2x70MHz  and 1x50MHz – means faster download speeds can be provided than with 800MHz.

The 800MHz band was split into two categories. One category had a coverage obligation – to cover 98% of the population by the end of 2017. The other category was free of any coverage obligation. The 2.6GHz band was split into 4 categories including paired spectrum and unpaired spectrum.

In the auction, participants bid for combinations of spectrum “lots” in the different categories and specified how much in each they wanted. Most of the bidders had caps on how much they could buy in total and in specific bands. This was done to ensure that market would be competitive after the auction.

Bidders could switch between lots of different types, at a fixed rate that stayed the same during the auction.  For example, the one 800MHz lot with the coverage obligation had twice as much spectrum (2x10MHz) as the four 800MHz lots without the obligation (2x5MHz each) and bidders were able to switch from the former to the latter at a rate of 2:1.

At the beginning of the auction, bidders specified how much spectrum they would initially bid on at the reserve price, and this set their eligibility – how much spectrum they could bid on in the next round. Bidders could reduce the amount of spectrum they bid for as the auction progressed (thus reducing their eligibility as the auction progressed). However, bidders were not allowed to increase they amount of spectrum bid on, i.e. bid more than their eligibility.

There were a number of phases to the auction and I focus on the primary bid rounds and the supplementary bids round, which are the most important for determining the winners and giving clues as to their wider strategies.

In the primary rounds, prices increased round by round (and demand fell in response) until the total demand for the spectrum equalled the amount available – there were 52 primary rounds. The supplementary bids round is a single round that follows the primary bid rounds. It gives bidders greater flexibility to express how much they are willing to pay for spectrum, consistent with how they bid in the primary bid rounds.

The overall progression of prices and demand in the auction

Before looking into the detail, I’ve put together some charts to give an overview of how the bidding ran in the primary rounds. The first chart shows how the prices changed round by round for 800MHz and 2.6GHz and the second chart shows the total number of lots demanded in each category.

Evolution of lot prices in the primary rounds

Evolution of total demand for lots in selected classes in the primary rounds

 

The competition for 800MHz spectrum

In round 16, Everything Everywhere, the UK’s largest operator, becomes the first operator to reduce its demand for the more valuable and strategically significant 800MHz. It then stops bidding entirely on 800MHz spectrum in round 24.

At this stage in the auction EE risks missing out on 800MHz spectrum if the price were to keep rising substantially. However it may be a smart move if it brings the bidding on 800MHz to an end more quickly (and more significantly at a lower price). EE will be able to modify how much it bids in the supplementary bids round, though its room for manoeuvre will be limited. . Moreover, EE has a substantial amount of 1800MHz spectrum, which it is already using to offer 4G services, and it may see this as a good back up if 800MHz becomes too expensive.

H3G is the second major operator to drop out of bidding for 800MHz in round 30. H3G knows it is very likely to win at least one block of 800MHz spectrum, because of Ofcom’s competition rules which limit the amount of 800MHz spectrum that O2 and Vodafone could win to 2x10MHz and because it is better placed than EE which dropped out of the bidding for 800MHz earlier.

The final burst of activity in the two 800MHz categories determines which out of O2 and Vodafone is likely to get the spectrum with the coverage obligation.

Interestingly, before the auction started, O2 argued that the price per MHz in the two 800MHz categories should be the same, whereas Vodafone argued that there should be a discount on the price of the lot with the coverage obligation. If the value of 800MHz spectrum were similar for Vodafone and O2 we should expect O2 to be willing to pay more for the lot with the coverage obligation than Vodafone.

As I said before, bidders could switch between 800MHz lots with and without the coverage obligation at a rate of 2:1. Now, if the extra cost due to the coverage obligation were minimal (e.g. if an operator would have met the coverage targets with or without the obligation) the coverage obligation would be worth twice as much as the lot without – reflecting difference in spectrum between the two lots.

However, the ratio of the starting (reserve) prices is significantly lower at 1.11 because Ofcom was cautious about the cost of the coverage obligation when setting the starting point.

So, excess demand is much greater for the coverage obligation lot early on in the primary rounds because it is relatively cheap compared to the other 800MHz lot. This causes the relative price of the coverage obligation lot to rise and it reaches 2 in round 40. At this point, Vodafone switches to the lot without the obligation and supply equals demand in both 800MHz categories as a result.

The case of the 2.6GHz lots

The bidding on 2.6GHz spectrum is seemingly straightforward, but there’s a twist at the end which any writer of detective fiction would be proud of (OK perhaps I’m exaggerating a little here). Up to round 27, the available 2.6GHz spectrum is more than three times oversubscribed and there is little change in the bids of the major operators. Then, Vodafone cuts its bid for paired 2.6GHz spectrum in half to 2x20MHz, and marginally increases its bid for unpaired spectrum (to 45MHz).

H3G makes a similar move to Vodafone, in round 30, reducing its bid on paired 2.6GHz spectrum by more than half to 2x20MHz and increasing its bid for unpaired spectrum marginally. H3G also drops out of the bidding for 800MHz at this point, suggesting that prices could be nearing its underlying values or that H3G may be close to a budget limit –H3G had bid just under £1.5 billion, though it bid nearly £1.7 billion in the supplementary bids round.

In the next round, 31, it’s O2’s turn to reduce significantly the amount of 2.6GHz spectrum it bid for (both paired and unpaired). This still leaves substantial excess demand for the 2x70MHz of paired 2.6GHz spectrum available – H3G, Niche (BT), O2 and Vodafone are each bidding for 2x20MHz and EE for 2x40MHz.

Similarly there’s also substantial excess demand for the 45MHz of unpaired 2.6GHz spectrum – H3G, Hong Kong Telekom, Niche (BT) and Vodafone each bidding for 45MHz and O2 for 15MHz.

Things move steadily on until EE makes a dramatic grab for the unpaired 2.6GHz spectrum (and stops bidding on the paired spectrum) in round 38. EE is the only one left bidding for the unpaired 2.6GHz spectrum at the end of the primary bid rounds and Vodafone, O2 and Niche are the only bidders remaining for the paired 2.6GHz spectrum.

But, just one more thing, as Columbo might say. I’ve forgotten the supplementary bids stage. The final twist is that the positions at the end of the primary bid rounds are overturned in the supplementary bids round. So the final result is that Niche and Vodafone win the unpaired 2.6GHz spectrum instead of EE, while Vodafone Niche and EE win the paired 2.6GHz spectrum.

Conclusions

Ofcom should be satisfied with how the auction ran. Bidders did respond as economic theory predicts to changes in the relative prices of the different lots in the auction and it showed the importance of having a supplementary round to extract more information about what bidders were willing to pay. There is no clear evidence to suggest that bidders were trying to ‘game’ the auction, i.e. put in spurious bids to trick their competitors (although there are some bids that are more difficult to explain in the two minor categories I haven’t talked about).

The competition proposals did probably affect behaviour in the bidding for 800MHz, although there was still a reasonable amount of bidding activity and the overall amount of money raised, when corrected for population, was similar to other European 800MHz auctions.

NTT DoCoMo announces first LTE and 3G femtocell

While outdoor small cell products supporting both technologies have previously been announced, this is the first intended for small locations such as offices, shops and homes. It delivers up to 112.5 Mbps (DL) / 37.5 Mbps (UL) in LTE mode alongside a 14 Mbps W-CDMA mode. It will be launched commercially from December.

Ofcom finalises 4G auction rules

Ofcom today published its final rules for the 4G spectrum auction in the UK. Key points:

  • The combined total of reserve prices is £1.3 billion
  • Provisional application date is 11th December
  • Bidding begins in January
  • The outcome depends on the bidding process, but bidders should know what they have won and its cost in February/March
  • Ofcom expects resulting services to be launched in May/June
  • Press release
  • Full statement

4G’s here … the last word in mobile network capacity?

The UK’s first 4G service has just gone live with others set to follow next spring, but some people are asking whether anyone really needs faster 4G speeds yet.

In addition, the amount of spectrum that can be used for mobile services is more than doubling with the 4G spectrum auctions that have or will soon take place in Europe. So the future’s bright … our mobile and wireless networks should have the capacity to meet the future demands of consumers and businesses for using our smart phones and wireless broadband services?

However, the amount of data we consume through our mobile devices has been growing frenetically and many expect that growth to continue, particularly as smart phones and tablets become more widespread.

The chart below shows a series of market forecasts that vary widely but all show rapid growth – the Mid forecast shows roughly a 100 times increase in demand for mobile data over the next 10 years. NOTE – it’s plotted on a logarithmic scale which gives a compressed view of how fast demand for data is predicted to increase. Going up one notch on the vertical axis represents an ten-fold increase in demand (not a doubling). So is there perhaps a question to answer despite the imminent arrival of 4G and so much new spectrum. And what could we do if there were a risk of a mobile network capacity crunch in the future?

 

Source: Real Wireless

Does or can government help industry meet soaring demand?

One reason to consider this now is because, if we do need to bring more spectrum on stream in the future, the process is cumbersome to say the least – potentially years of international negotiations and heaps of technical work. In order to get more spectrum in 10 years’ time, we might need to set the wheels in motion quite soon.

The key things to consider are:

  • how fast demand for mobile data may grow in the future, taking into account that some of the demand might be carried over Wi-Fi or indoor small cells (i.e. a mini femtocell or picocell base station inside a home or office)
  • what spectrum may be available for mobile in the future – it also makes a difference whether other countries are considering doing the same thing
  • potential future developments in technologies which could improve mobile network capacity.

My associates, Real Wireless, experts in mobile technologies mapped out the potential future technology enhancements that could increase the capacity of mobile networks in a study for Ofcom. Generally we can identify quite a few techniques now which could be introduced over the next 10 years (despite the uncertainty inherent in technology forecasts):

  • deploying more infrastructure – either outdoor small cells (micro / picocells) or full scale base stations (macrocells)
  • improvements to 4G technologies e.g. LTE Advanced should enable mobile networks to use spectrum more efficiently and flexibly and increase the top speeds mobile networks can deliver
  • techniques to use mobile frequencies more efficiently – e.g. increased sectorisation and use of multiple antenna technologies (MIMO)
  • distributed processing and sharing of traffic loads across multiple cell-sites – e.g. Coordinated multi-point and Cloud RAN.

Real Wireless worked out a number of plausible combinations of these techniques and looked at how much additional spectrum Ofcom is currently predicted to make available for mobile use over the next 20 years – up to 350MHz (which compares well to the 200MHz of 4G spectrum currently being released in Europe). This enabled them to make a good forecast (using information on real geographic areas) of how mobile network capacity is likely to increase in the future.

This allowed mobile data demand to be matched against mobile network capacity (once the fluctuations of mobile data demand during the day were taken into account to get a measure of the peak demand).

Spectrum currently earmarked for mobile could be exhausted in just over a decade

The result is that that there may well be a network capacity crunch, in as little as 10 to 12 years’ time in some areas, even given the likely technological improvements and increased spectrum we currently expect to come on stream.

By capacity crunch we mean that the mobile operators will have exhausted all the techniques for increasing capacity we can currently forecast, and the only way to increase capacity would be a significant expansion in base station sites. This would not only be costly, but physical and planning limitation could mean that a major expansion was unlikely to be feasible, particularly in urban areas.

The result was derived by evaluating the costs of the alternatives for increasing mobile network capacity, i.e. using more of the spectrum available for mobile vs.  new technologies vs. deploying more base stations. The most cost effective way to increase capacity to meet demand was calculated on a rolling 2-3 year basis. The result is shown in the graph below.

 

Source: Real Wireless

What could be done to provide more capacity?

The option that is most in the control of governments and regulators is to try to allocate more spectrum for mobile. It’s likely that any suitable candidates are already being used for something else, hence there would be a cost to society in switching over such spectrum to mobile.

The 700MHz band is one possibility. Although currently used for terrestrial TV broadcasting, moves are afoot in Europe and in other regions to consider possible future mobile use. The 700MHz band is attractive because it may gain broad international support. This would make it more likely that leading handsets would work on it. Also, its physical characteristics mean that it can provide more reliable coverage, and hence capacity, compared to the majority of existing mobile spectrum.

700MHz could alleviate the potential capacity crunch

Our research shows that mobile operators could save substantial sums of money by deploying 700MHz spectrum at the key point in the future, instead of deploying more base stations. Consumers should benefit as well through lower prices and more consistent service quality.

However the timing of when 700MHz is available is important, particularly the closer we are to the worst case scenario of when mobile broadband demand is high and the government cannot release as much spectrum for mobile as it currently expects over the next 10 years.

If 700MHz spectrum were available in 2020, the benefits for mobile operators (and consumers) would be much greater than if it were only available when current 700MHz licences expire in 2026.

If 700MHz is not available until 2026, mobile operators would have to start deploying new base station sites when the capacity crunch hit in 2022 to 2024. Deploying new sites would lock the operators into a certain course of action (to exploit the new sites to the full). The potential cost savings from using 700MHz would be much lower than if 700MHz had been available before the new sites were deployed. In other words, there is a risk that the industry could get locked into the wrong technology path.

Conclusions

Despite the exciting changes that 4G is likely to make to our smartphone and tablet experiences, regulators and mobile operators have to keep an eye on the future needs of the mobile networks. Our technological inventiveness may not be enough to avoid a capacity crunch 10 years down the line, hence the mobile sector is likely to need even more spectrum, preferably harmonised on a European or wider basis.

The 700MHz spectrum is potentially a good prospect, but the cost savings it could bring need to be offset against the costs of clearing out the existing broadcasting users.

 

Full details of the work, including an illustrative video, download of the full report and a link to Ofcom’s use of analysis in their UHF strategy consultation are available at:

http://www.realwireless.biz/mobile-capacity-in-the-uk-major-study-published/

Small cells in the big wide world

 

We have been supporting Virgin Media Business’s trials of a hosted managed small cell service. The trials have involved two small cell vendors: Alcatel-Lucent and Airspan, who worked with the Virgin team to trial LTE small cells mounted on lampposts in Newcastle and Bristol. The measurements included both indoor and outdoor locations.

Our role has been to provide independent analysis of the trial data and determine how it informs some of the key questions regarding small cells, including:

  • How well do small cells work? 
  • Where should they be placed?
  • How many are needed?

The results so far are very promising as indicated in Virgin Media’s press release. And the potential was brought to life in a compelling
 demonstration yesterday, including representatives from mobile operators and the city councils. The shoebox – sized small cell was mounted outdoors but provided impressive service to a host of devices indoors, providing seven (yes, 7) high-quality video streams, 4-way video conferencing and web browsing – simultaneously!

But there are plenty of open questions and challenges ahead, including the practical challenges of gaining access to the right street furniture and of providing suitable backhaul. A hosted, managed service (for which we have coined the term SCaaS – Small Cells as a Service) looks like a promising option to help with both of these.

 

Yesterday’s event was also well-attended by the press – here’s a selection of the resulting articles: