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Friday, February 17, 2006

Barcelona wrap-up and indoor wireless

Well, my idea of doing a daily blog entry about 3GSM fell apart under the strain of 40+ meetings....

I'm still trying to organise and analyse the vast amount of information I've absorbed - I've had to "reboot my head" every hour or so, as I've switched conversation topics from handsets to WiMAX to IMS to in-building to FMC to mobile TV.

But overall? Well, first off, Barcelona beats Cannes by a huge margin. Yes there were a few first-time glitches (Vendors: No offsite meetings between 9am-6pm next year, please). But the scale, organisation, atmosphere, friendliness and facilities (OK, except WiFi) were much better. And it's a proper city with plenty of hotels, restaurants and transport (flights, tube trains, cheap taxis...), not a huge campsite like a geeky overpriced Glastonbury. I hope 3GSM stays there, and that the rumours of a return to the South of France in a few years are untrue.

In terms of what I saw and heard, I'd say there was a great deal of pragmatism and reality, once the marketing guff has been stripped away. I have not been "surprised" at all this week, either positively or negatively. I've had lots of opinions reinforced, with a couple of subtle "ah-ha!" moments at best.

One particular area of focus which I've been aware of - the dawning realisation that indoor coverage is a lot more important than in the past. Historically, most carriers have viewed indoor solutions as "special projects" - important, but not really strategic. This is clearly changing, because of a few factors:
  • the higher the frequency, the worse the in-building penetration, generally. This tends to mean that current 3G is worse than 2G... and anything in 2.5GHz or 3.5GHz range (step forward WiMAX) is worse still
  • people tend to use high-bandwidth applications (video, browsing, email attachment downloads etc) when they're stationary, or even sitting down. Which tends to be indoors. HSDPA is a particular nightmare.
  • operators' expectations of achieving the "mobile premium" for cellular calls is looking increasingly untenable indoors. Not only are you not "mobile" when at home/work, but there's a fixed phone available as an alternative... and increasingly a fixed-VoIP phone which is even cheaper or free.
  • WiFi's rapid adoption and evolution has pointed out just what can be achieved with indoor wireless if well-funded innovation and fast standards evolution is possible.
  • it is getting ever more difficult to get outdoor sites for cellular base stations approved under local planning regulations
  • WCDMA operators are having to learn that the "CDMA" bit means they're network planning differs substantially from their older GSM/GPRS networks (cell breathing etc.) and indoor coverage poses particular issues
  • landlords and enterprises are looking to offer facilities to their employees or visitors... and potentially monetise them as well
  • for residential customers, there are all sorts of benefits from triple-play, quad-play and so forth. Add to this the possibility of getting users to pay for their own radi0-network backhaul (via a DSL/cable connection) and home cellular solutions start to look increasingly interesting
  • Net result? 3GSM was full of a plethora of innovative Indoor Wireless and Fixed-Mobile Convergence infrastructure. Picocells, microcells, femtocells, remote radio-heads, repeaters, distributed antennas, UMA, WiFi/cellular SIP, dedicated chipsets, in-plane and maritime solutions and so on....

Dozens of companies had stories here. Radioframe and ip.access have been pitching picocells (direct and through OEMs) for years and continue to do so - although they're behind the curve a bit on 3G. Various major vendors are plunging into the picocell fray - Motorola's AXPT looked well thought-out, Nortel had a product, Andrew has shipped them for ages, ZTE and Panasonic are also in the market. 3Way Networks and Ubiquisys are aiming for the medium-term residential "femto-cell" space. Specialists like Alvarion, Zynetix and Altobridge have local switching added in to propositions based round picocells, ideal for applications like maritime, remote locations or military deployment.

(a quick historical note - a few companies, notably Nokia, Ericsson and Cisco all tried this market too early, around 6-7 years ago. They're all still pretty skeptical as they got expensively burnt at the time, but I think they should dust off some old business plans, as the world's changed since then)

There is one important alternative emerging to in-building infrastructure, however: lower frequencies for normal deployments. Many vendors (and possibly operators) view recycling older 900MHz GSM spectrum for 3G as an urgent priority, as it would solve much of the problem using traditional "outside-in" approaches to coverage and capacity. Expect much lobbying of regulators in the next few years.....

Overall, I don't think anyone would ever describe in-building wireless as an exciting part of the industry. The mobile content companies' parties are much more fun. But this is, arguably, one of the most important aspects to deploying mobile and wireless broadband and multimedia services and applications.

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