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Monday, November 13, 2006

more significant than it appears: Nokia and Elisa demonstrate 3G at 900MHz

This morning I had a bit of a go at Nokia for putting out a release with a rather over-the-top headline about Mobile TV. Well, this afternoon's press missive from Nokia seems to go to the opposite extreme, understating what is quite possibly the most important thing to have happened in the 3G area for about 5 years.

"Nokia and Elisa complete the world’s first commercial WCDMA900 data call" . Yawn. Likely to get completely overlooked by most of the world's media, and probably half the specialist telecoms press as well.

Whereas in fact, this is possibly the first move of something that could actually make 3G a more mainstream platform, and solve one of the thorniest problems the technology possesses - indoor coverage.

The problem is this: at 2.1GHz, the main frequency band for WCDMA, penetration into buildings - as well as range more generally - is generally poor. It gets soaked up by walls, furniture and so on. Measured as a function of signal strength as a distance from a window, there's much more attenuation than you get with 2G. Yes, in dense urban areas it's improving, but it's very far from working ubiquitously. And even where you get coverage, because of the way that the CDMA RF works, you may find that a disproportionate amount of resource is taken by a few users on the fringes of signal availability, messing up the network economics & planning. If 2.5GHz gets used for WCDMA as well, it'll probably be even worse. And, ironically, most non-voice 3G apps are used, yes - you guessed it - indoors. Oops. Basically, it's a fundamental flaw in the overall 3G proposition, and it's down to the immutable laws of physics, and the practicalities of siting base stations.

Hence all the myriad solutions for pico/femtocells for indoor 3G, a big push on conventional RF distribution technologies like DAS and repeaters, and the ongoing saga of dual-mode cellular/WiFi. While many of these also offer various other benefits and use cases, a key secondary rationale is just to improve 3G coverage inside buildings.

There is, however, a potential solution. In much of the world, 900MHz spectrum has long been used for the first batch of GSM operators, joined subsequently by PCS at 1.8GHz. If the 900MHz band can be "refarmed" for 3G, many of the indoor (and rural area) coverage problems could be fixed. The fact that Nokia is a big fan of this approach is unsurprising.

I am certain that we will see this example used in lobbying regulators and radiocomms authorities - the big stumbling block is convincing those in charge of spectrum to allow a modification of operators' licences from technology-specific (ie GSM-dedicated 900MHz) to one which also permits UMTS. The idea being that the operator keeps its spectrum but is allowed to use it differently.

Now, this raises some additional interesting questions - if it's not technology-specific spectrum, and the rules are going to be changed - should it be to just permit WCDMA900 (Nokia indicates that it's coexisting with Elisa's GSM), or should it be to a complete tech-neutral free-for-all? And if its just going to be kept by the existing licence owners, should they be charged more for the privilege of running a new (and potentially more lucrative) bearer in that range?

And, to be honest, if 900MHz is going to be up for grabs, I can see an awful lot of WiMAX and other spectrum-hungry folks pushing for full openness.

Either way, this sets an important precedent, and seems to suggest that all the complex dual-mode solutions with WiFi have a finite window of opportunity, before wide-area broadband wireless finally gets to compete head-to-head in the living room, office floor and basement.

9 comments:

Rick said...

Thanks Dean. Very interesting. But isn't this really just too little too late.

1. The political process to redo spectrum would take years.

2. Wifi and Wimax are here now.

3. WCDMA is still limited bandwith, isn't it?

Also, does Nokia have any Wifi or Wimax technology? Are they searching for alternatives?

lugboy said...

I'm not up to speed with all the protocols being mentioned here, but I am wondering if the Nokia press release is referring to the same call as this press release from Option, the Belgian data card company.

http://www.option.com/news/detail05.cfm?newsitemgroup_id=484

Option say it was a UMTS900 call, Nokia talk about WCDMA. Did they do two calls or are these two labels related?

Relations between Nokia and Option may be a bit frosty, as Nokia put out a press release recently saying they will produce an HSPDA data module in 2007 together with Intel, which will eat Option's lunch.

That caused a 40% drop in Option's share price, although it is still doing nicely. My feeling on that is that Nokia may be underestimating the size of the task.

The other interesting question about the call is, who did what?

If it went over an Option data card, what did Nokia provide?

My guess is that the future will be small laptops, with HSPDA data cards/modules, a VOIP mobile plug in, a camera and mobile TV. The laptop will have a useable QWERTY keyboard, a CD drive, and a decent screen, and of course will be the VPN connector for the mobile worker. It will beat the various chunky mobiles coming out at present. Nokia wants/needs to get in on that, but Option have a lead with the data card/module.

So what exactly went on up there in Finland yesterday?

Dean Bubley said...

Thanks for the comments.

Rick
- I agree that spectrum regulation often involves a lengthy process, but it may be that some form of international consensus could be agreed at next Autumn's World Radiocomms Congress, as well as signs that European regulators are waking up to more "active management" of spectrum
- Mobile WiMAX isn't really "here now" in any meaningful sense. It's unlikely to be "common" on a global basis until 2009-10 I'd say.
- for all their flaws, today's mobile operators still have one major competitive advantage: thousands of hard-to-acquire cell sites, which will take competitors years to catch up to.
- it's actually WCDMA/HSDPA, so reasonable bandwidth as long as the cell sites have enough backhaul capacity. And in any case, the real interest is if 900MHz is used for voice, not just data

Lugboy
- it's the same announcement, it's from Nokia's networks division, not their devices business
- ie it's a Nokia network base station, Option data card and Elisa spectrum/network
- WCDMA is part of the UMTS family of network standards

slacker711 said...

A couple of thoughts on the move towards UMTS on 900MHz....

I wouldnt worry much about WiMAX on this band. I think Europe has something in the neighborhood of 50MHz available here and WiMAX doesnt make much sense unless you are using >10MHz channels. It will be hard enough to clear enough spectrum to get the 5MHz required for UMTS. The real battle over open spectrum in Europe is going to be in the 2.5GHz band.

In addition to relations between Option and Nokia being a bit frosty, they might have left off mention of the data card because it has a Qualcomm chipset inside. Relations are downright arctic between those two.

Anonymous said...

Option is indeed using the Qualcomm chipsets for their datacards, but I can't find a Qualcomm chipset that support UMTS900. Option is using the MSM6280 for the 7.2-ready datacard.
Can anybody explain how Option was able to support UMTS900?

http://www.cdmatech.com/download_library/pdf/msm6280_chipset.pdf
GSM:
850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900 MHz
UMTS:
2100 MHz
1900 + 850 MHz
2100 + 800 MHz
2100 + 1700 + 800 MHz
2100 + 1900 + 850 MHz

slacker711 said...

Qualcomm and Lucent are in trials with O2 for UMTS 900MHz using test devices with the MSM6280.

http://www.3g.co.uk/PR/July2006/3405.htm

I think they had stated in May that at least one European operator was going to mandate support for UMTS 900MHz by June '07. I have my doubts about that, but it seems that the technical trials are moving along. The question will be how quickly the regulators move.

Anonymous said...

Hi Stuart,

To answer your question about the 6280 .
i have been looking into the electrical diagram to see how the system is build up.

http://www.cdmatech.com/download_library/pdf/diagram_msm6280_cs.pdf
The 6280 is the heart of the design but is working on the "basebandlevel".

So ithink that option made themself the "radiopart" that "receives" the 900 mhz signale , demodulate the "radiosignal" and feed this signal in the 6280 chip.

This is what option is good in .... the radio-part of the design.

you can compare it with following :

radio in you car is audio ( music = signal that human ear can understand 20 - 20 000 HZ ) , this is modulated on RF-signal of 100.6 mhz ( studio brussel :-) )

so what do radio do ?
take the 100.6 mhz signal 100600000 hz ) and demodulate it to a signal that your ear can understand = music ( 20 - 20000 hertz )

same is in this design... to simplify the model :-)

lugboy said...

The Isle of Man UMTS900 trial seems to be only using the Sierra Wireless card, as far as I can see.

http://www.3g.co.uk/PR/Nov2005/2224.htm

http://openpr.de/news/67043/O2-Sierra-Wireless-und-Manx-Telecom-starten-den-Einsatz-der-AirCard-850-fuer-3G-Service-von-Manx-Telecom.html.

lugboy said...

Re the radio part of the design of the Option card, this is what they are saying in their latest press release:

http://www.option.com/news/detail05.cfm?newsitemgroup_id=488

"Option’s unique Advanced Radio Technology (ART) internal architecture differentiates the GlobeTrotter GT MAX “7.2 Ready” from other HSDPA devices by introducing Receive Diversity and Receive Equalization into the product design, delivering important performance benefits to users and operators.

Receive Diversity exploits dual antenna and receive chains to improve signal reception and reduce the impact of spatial variations in signal strength. Receive Equalization, on the other hand, improves immunity to interference of the radio signal. In usage scenarios tested during GT MAX field trials, ART improved average throughput speeds up to 50% compared with non-ART devices giving greater connection stability and higher data throughput vastly improving the overall user experience. For operators, mobile receive diversity increases network capacity by up to a factor of two while reducing base station power requirements."

No doubt the boffins in here will be able to see through the blurb and provide a critical review of the significance of this.