Jarich: Mid-summer musings - LTE Advanced, carrier Wi-Fi, SDN & feature phones

Current Analysis Peter Jarich

     Peter Jarich

It's summer now and that can mean only one thing--an inability to focus. Maybe it's just me, but between the change in weather, impending vacations and the need to get up super-early in order to watch the Tour de France, I'm having a tough time dedicating too much brain power to any one technology or market theme. Bear with me, then as I run through some of what's been keeping me, and the rest of the Current Analysis crew, busy over the last month or so…and what will likely be keeping us busy into the rest of the year.

  • LTE Advanced: What it Means, What it Doesn't Mean and Whether We Will Call it 5G. Remember the debates about the initial use of the term "4G" and the claims that too many people were using it too loosely? Well, get ready to relive them. You see, as LTE has matured and operators begin deploying LTE Advanced technologies, they'll naturally want to tout their LTE Advanced networks. Some may even want to call them 5G (though no vendor has made this sort of leap). There are two potential problems here. First, from a technical perspective, it's not clear what "5G" actually means. Likewise, it's not clear that deploying one or two LTE Advanced technologies--think carrier aggregation on its own--means the carrier is offering a legitimate LTE Advanced service. The second set of problems revolves around user experience.  Where "Advanced" or an additional "G" implies a major shift in user experience, it's unclear that LTE Advanced will deliver the goods. With Samsung touting its LTE Advanced device support and SK Telecom talking up its deployment of carrier aggregation, this debate has kicked in. Just like the 4G debate before it, sound-minded, well-meaning techies are railing against the overuse of 5G and LTE Advanced market. And, just like those debates around 4G, I have to say that there are better things to worry about.  From a technical perspective, 5G means nothing. At best, it's a marketing term. Likewise, there's no agreement on how many LTE-Advanced components a service needs to include to "count." One? Two? A dozen? Where do you draw the line? On what basis? From a user perspective, end-users will vote with their dollars, and battling marketers should keep each other in check. If my 4G is slower than your 3G (completely possible given channel sizing options), it won't remain a secret.  If nothing else, it will become the foundation of a good competitive ad campaign. And, oh yeah, if carrier aggregation--all by its lonesome, even--allows operators to deploy more spectrum in support of LTE, then the user experience should be vastly improved. That may not be the reality with initial deployments, but it will come.
  • Software Defined Networking: The Revenge of the Marketers. While we're on the topic of over-eager marketing, we might as well address the current state of SDN. As we discussed earlier in the year, SDN--along with Network Functions Virtualization, NFV--is shaping up to be one of the most important technology themes of the year. Yet, like any buzz-worthy topic, SDN has become overused. Some might even say "abused." We saw this back at Mobile World Congress where many vendors talking about NFV labeled their work as SDN--assuming that the latter term was simply more likely to get attention. We saw this a few months later when Huawei announced an "SDN-based Mobile Backhaul Solution."  This solution is essentially the management of cell site routers by an aggregation router, which my colleagues agreed was stretching the limits of SDN. At best, it seemed reminiscent of Cisco's Network Virtualization (nV) technology, launched a few years back before SDN was a buzzword. We saw this at CTIA where SDN and NFV weren't major themes, but at least one vendor took the opportunity to link their customer insights data into both NFV and SDN. The links were essentially about integration rather than being an actual SDN or NFV solution; the new product could be hosted along the lines of an NFV model, its findings integrated into an SDN controller for driving network resourcing decisions). The marketing goal--hoping to get attention by connecting yourself to two hot topics--was clear. In between all of these, there were plenty of other good examples. Unlike the impending tussles around "5G" I think this could be more of a problem. Yes, the market will come to a conclusion around what SDN really is and what operators need from an SDN solution.  Operators will, eventually, learn to ignore specious marketing, and vendors who partake in it will be punished.  In the meantime, what we're left with is market confusion. Marketers will, naturally, look to take advantage of that confusion. However, where operator buying horizons are much longer than those of your average consumer, the damage from mixed messages and mischaracterizations could be significant and long-lasting.
  • Carrier Wi-Fi: Be Careful What You Wish For. It's been an eventful few months for Carrier Wi-Fi. Vendor news out of CTIA made it one of the biggest themes of May and then last month's Wi-Fi Global Congress (the WBA's flagship event) gave the industry a chance to highlight its progress. More important than any of this, however, were the industry-boosting efforts from Samsung and Apple. Specifically, Samsung's support for Hotspot 2.0 specifications (Passpoint certification, to use the correct parlance) in the Galaxy S4 and Apple's similar work with iOS 7.  The industry has been claiming for some time that Passpoint device availability was a gating factor on Hotspot 2.0 launches. Now, with Passpoint support in two flagship smartphones from the market's leading smartphone vendors, that argument should begin to go away. Yet, this is something of a double-edged sword. Yes, it's a good thing for operators who want to move on to Hotspot 2.0 as soon as possible. At the same time, it means that there should increasingly be less of an excuse for operators to delay deployments--particularly if other device vendors follow Samsung and Apple's lead. Where devices were just a convenient excuse for putting Hotspot 2.0 on the back burner (perhaps because the ROI on Hotspot 2.0 isn't well-understood yet) that excuse should begin to fade. Going into 2014, we should get an idea for how committed operators really are.
  • Feature phones circa 2013: Back to the Future for Peter. Towards the end of 2011, I upgraded my personal cell phone to the Galaxy Nexus. With LTE, NFC, a big screen and dual-core processor, it was exactly what I expected in a flagship smartphone. Over the next 18 months, however, connectivity issues drove me to get it replaced twice by my carrier. When the warranty ran out and it stopped picking up my own Wi-Fi network, I realized two things. (1) My smartphone was, in many ways, just a souped-up feature phone. (2) I was managing to get by just fine. Why, then, not just go back to a feature phone for everyday use? More than a rhetorical question, it's just what I plan to do for the rest of the year.  Beyond the value of being less distracted and more connected to the non-digital world, I hope to explore the possibilities enabled by new shared data plans--things like pairing up my feature phone with a connected tablet, all for about the same price as my old smartphone plan.  Do I really need to drag a smartphone everywhere I go?  Will I be better off without one from time to time? I'll find out. As I see it, two potential stumbling blocks stand out. The first is personal; I have access to lots of smartphones that have been given or lent to me by colleagues and customers--they represent a major temptation.  The second is commercial; operators just don't want you to buy a feature phone. Where Q1 saw 61 percent of Verizon's postpaid subscriber base with smartphones and AT&T topped that by about 10 percent (72 percent of its postpaid base being on smartphones), it shouldn't be surprising that operators wouldn't spend a lot of time trying to sell you anything but a smartphone.  Our own data from May, however, shows that feature phone amounted to less than 13 percent of all device placements at the top four carriers. The implication? It isn't easy to find a sleek, sexy "basic phone" in today's device line-ups. That's why you'll see me toting a RAZR2 for the purposes of my experiment. Wish me luck!

Peter Jarich is the VP of Consumer and Infrastructure at Current Analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.