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.
Speaking Engagements & Private Workshops - Get Dean Bubley to present or chair your event
Need an experienced, provocative & influential telecoms keynote speaker, moderator/chair or workshop facilitator?
To discuss Dean Bubley's appearance at a specific event, contact information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com