Jarich: The long-shot technologies and services in wireless for 2012

Current Analysis Peter Jarich

Peter Jarich

On the evening of Friday June 8th, the University of Virginia's president--Teresa Sullivan--was asked to tender her resignation by the school's board, for reasons they didn't detail.  She complied with its request.  Living in Charlottesville, my wife and I followed the news closely. We were out of town, however, so we watched the events with a somewhat detached perspective. 

What struck us most was the energy of the students who mobilized to support Sullivan. In all honesty, I looked at their efforts as nothing short of naïve or even a waste of time. I wondered why the board would reverse course and move to bring her back--losing face in the process. Why would she come back to work with people who just did this to her? What were these kids thinking? Last Tuesday, the University's board met. It reinstated President Sullivan. She accepted its offer.

More than simply having a "bad read" on things, it was clear that I'd become old and jaded. While I was looking on cynically from the other coast, the kids back in Charlottesville were idealistically organizing in support of a leader they loved. Maybe they hadn't lived enough to understand that their cause was hopeless. Maybe they didn't care.  Ultimately, they were right and it made me wonder how many things I might get behind or believe in if I simply didn't, "know better."  How many technologies or services would thrill me if I wasn't worried about traditional market realities getting in their way or derailing them? While I haven't taken the time to put together an exhaustive list, a few stand out in my mind.

Extreme Beamforming.  The concept of beamforming to improve spectral efficiency has gotten some new life over the past few years. Alcatel-Lucent's lightRadio--including an active antenna component--was a media darling of 2011, accompanied by active antenna news from vendors like NSN and Powerwave. The concept of directing radio power where it's needed (and forming "nulls" where it's not) makes sense…so much sense that it's something we've been talking about for well over a decade. What I recently realized, though, is that I miss the lofty promises of the early beamforming marketing, back when vendors were promising 10-fold improvements in efficiency…or better. Perhaps it may never be possible to get these results in a fully mobile environment.

However, a recent discussion with backhaul vendor Tarana Wireless suggests some folks are working on leveraging beamforming for more than incremental efficiency benefits; Tarana, in particular, is looking at beamforming to deliver inexpensive, high-capacity point-to-multipoint backhaul solutions, promising 10X performance improvements. At the same time, with vendors like Alvarion (via its Wavion acquisition) proving out the workability of the technology and others trying to sell their recent innovations, more marketing around the topic is clearly necessary.

Open Source OS Platforms.  My colleague Avi Greengart and I recently had a little debate about new open-source, HTML5-focused platforms like Firefox OS (formerly Boot 2 Gecko) and Tizen. You see, I'm a fan. I like the notion of HTML5 for simple app development. I like what these folks have done to help monetize non-native apps (consider Mozilla Marketplace or a focus on WAC). I know that operators are looking for OS diversity that stretches beyond Android and iOS. 

Avi doesn't necessarily disagree with much of this. Instead, he points out that the lead of Android and iOS is possibly too much to overcome, at least without massive marketing support from operators. Combine this with the fact that HTML5 performance is still somewhat "wonky" on many platforms. Yep, it's clear why, regardless of recent Firefox OS endorsements from vendors and operators, it's right still to position this as a long shot.

Peer-to-Peer. When Qualcomm announced Flashlinq last year, it seemed like another proprietary technology with an unproven value proposition. Sure, its AllJoyn developer program held out the promise of delivering peer-to-peer (P2P) applications which would leverage Flashlinq's P2P user discovery and communications capabilities…not to mention encompassing other P2P technologies.  Yet, as long as Flashlinq remained proprietary, many people told us, its potential would be limited. 

In an effort to get it integrated into what is now known at LTE-Direct, it makes sense, then, to take it to the road--in the press and at events like the NGMN's recent Industry Conference and Exhibition in San Francisco. Reported support from other vendors (ALU, LG, NEC, Nokia) is encouraging.  Yet, with 3GPP Release 12 likely a 2015 reality, we've clearly got some time to wait.  And while talk of an ad hoc standard to get products into the market is nice, the value propositions of LTE-Direct aren't yet well-defined and don't help the cause.

Broadcast – Multicast. Who can argue with the value of broadcast and multicast technologies for making the most efficient use of spectrum resources? Sure, in a long-tail world, multicast video might not have much of an impact. But, what about use cases like multicast data for things like software updates? What about stadium or special event coverage where a majority of users are likely to be looking for the same information? And, if you can build the functionality into existing technologies like LTE (IE, eMBMS), then what's not to like?  The answer: a combination of fragmentation and incrementalism.

eMBMS is vying for attention alongside broadcast technologies driven by local TV stations (remember the work between Samsung and MetroPCS announced back around CES?). Complicating matters is the fact that two groups of broadcasters are driving their own content agendas here in the states. More important, however, is the question of how much efficiency this all brings. Can 10 percent to 20 percent of traffic essentially be offloaded from unicast to multicast? How often? Operators have no shortage of technology initiatives they can consider and implement. Maybe someday they will get to those technologies that bring them an incremental benefit. However, they aren't likely to get lots of attention soon.

White Spaces. Remember back when "white spaces"--TV channel spectrum not being used, or being underutilized--was a big topic? Remember back when about 10+ companies were named as potential white spaces database administrators? No? Well, this was all about 18 months ago. If the lack of recent buzz in the area is telling, so too is the fact that only two companies have been given the go-ahead as administrators (Spectrum Bridge and Ericsson / Telcordia). Where is the great white spaces evangelist Google?

As much as white spaces work continues, the real hope is that white spaces is about more than white spaces; as any administrator will tell you, the real value is in prepping for agile radio applications that will help to maximize spectrum usage going forward. I talked a bit about agile radio last month, and my concern about the complexity that comes with it. While the prospect of white spaces radios in mass market, consumer devices isn't something I'm optimistic about, it's nice to know that the technology should solve some of that flexibility going forward.

Ten (heck, even five) years ago, if you had told me that in-home base stations--aka, femtocells--would be readily available from various operators and various vendors, I would have called the prediction a "long shot." Circa 2012, it's a reality. The beauty of a long shot, however, is that there's always a chance of success if equal parts luck, technology, marketing and youthful optimism come together.

Peter Jarich is the Service Director leading Current Analysis telecom infrastructure practice. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.

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