Jarich: Repeaters, phone reception, voice pricing… and living like a spy

Current Analysis Peter Jarich

Peter Jarich

The good folks over at Wilson Electronics sent me one of their Sleek 4G-V signal boosters last week; I'm driving cross country at the end of the month and know that I'll probably have a tough time with reception at any number of points along the way. Before my wife and I head out, we're packing up our house, which means I'm working out of the dining room for a while. To test out the Sleek, I leveraged the home/office set-up, stringing an antenna across the dining room table and suction-cupping it to the nearest window. 

While I was checking out the improvement in signal quality (-90dBM vs. -102dBm), my wife summed up her impression of the situation quite succinctly: "You look like you're running an espionage operation." It was somewhat of an inside joke. As an analyst, it's not always easy to explain what I do for a living; combined with the travel involved and a degree in Foreign Service, there are people who suspect I may actually be a spy. Still, I have to admit that mobile broadband circa 2012 sometimes makes me feel like I'm living the life of a spy. 

I got this impression showing my mom the Zillow app a few weeks back. She's somewhat tech-savvy for someone her age, but the idea that she could pull up the value of her neighbors' homes on her iPhone seemed like magic to her. The fact that the app is free was even harder to comprehend.  I didn't bother explaining the economics behind Zillow or that last quarter it saw more homes accessed through mobile devices than PCs. More recently, I got this impression when describing the plans for driving cross-country in what I refer to as my 4G SUV (a Mini Cooper Hardtop S).  Leveraging the cigarette lighter plug in the boot, I'll mount the Sleek and a mobile hotspot of some sort (right now, I'm thinking my old Motorola Atrix). Up front, I'll be using a Nexus 7 tablet as a navigation unit and music player. With a Bluetooth OBD2 adaptor, I'll also be able to tap into the car's diagnostics and performance info. Heck, I might even try a Skype call…that is, if my wife's doing the driving, and I manage to find a good tablet mounting option for the cockpit (honestly, if you know if a good Nexus 7 mounting option for my Mini, let me know).

We might complain about the cost of mobile broadband, the lack of creativity in mobile data pricing or even the lack of diversity in successful smartphone (or tablet) platforms, but there's no denying how far the mobile ecosystem has come and how fast it has evolved. 

Yet, there's also no denying that, despite the advances in mobile broadband, voice isn't going anyway in the near-term. I'm not talking about the over-the-top voice apps that folks like Verizon and AT&T are trying to marginalize with their shared data plans. I'm talking about good old carrier voice services. You know, the services that still accounted for 56.4 percent of Verizon's second-quarter 2012 revenues, with AT&T coming in at a similar 56.8 percent? In an era where every operator in the U.S. is scrambling to stock the iPhone (no matter the impact on their bottom line) and innovative MVNOs are popping up to offer cheap mobile data and unsubsidized devices, it's clear that we're at a point where smartphones--not feature phones--are the go-forward focus for nearly every operator in the U.S. Let's not forget, however, that they're still "phones." If you need a gentle reminder, consider these two data points:

·        VoLTE momentum. Expectations around Voice over lTE rollout timing vary. Most recently, we've seen some network vendors who are involved in VoLTE trial activity position the technology as a late-2013 / early-2014 revenue opportunity. This suggests rollouts come later. At the same time, we've got MetroPCS, SK Telecom and LG Uplus moving forward this week, with other U.S. operators talking up their 2013 deployment plans. Regardless of when it gets deployed, there's a lot of energy going into VoLTE planning and deployment.  And, as the name implies, it's about voice. LTE, after all, can't be any operator's primary mobile technology until it supports voice services that are on par with 2G and 3G networks.

·        Pricing plans. I haven't talked about this much in the past, but a big part of what we do here at Current Analysis is track the service offers and pricing strategies of mobile operators. We have an entire team of folks who know much more about the daily ins and outs of voice and data pricing in individual markets across the country than anyone really should. Stripping out basic promotions (the rise of the "switcher" strategy is worth its own discussion), there have been about a dozen significant pricing changes and alterations involving voice plans just since the start of July. Voice may not be as sexy as data, but it's still getting attention.

So, you're asking yourself, "What's the point?" Data is the new hotness, but voice is still important?  Tell me something new, right? 

Just to close the loop with my cross-country trip in the hotspot-equipped 4G SUV, the wrinkle here is reception. Data services are more tolerant of spotty coverage or devices with sup-par radios; you might never notice a few dropped packets and if something's running slow, it could just as well be an issue somewhere out on the Interwebs. Voice is different (and that applies to VoLTE or interactive video too). This is why we're generally not seeing VoLTE launch until network coverage is solid. It's also why operators need to begin paying more attention to the quality of the radios in their devices. This should go without saying, but the tension between adding more and more frequency bands into the phone and the need to keep costs in line directly impacts on the ability to deliver this quality. Small cells are one solution (putting signal closer to the user). Advanced antenna designs are another. Ultimately, none of these options can be ignored; even spies need to talk on the phone from time to time.

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