Madden: 16 cellular bands, 3 Wi-Fi bands, 1 handset - the complexity of the 'worldphone'

Joe Madden mobile experts

     Joe Madden

The drive to create a single-SKU smartphone is getting a little crazy. Okay, drop the words "a little." Today's flagship smartphones cover 2G in four bands, 3G in six bands, and LTE in six bands. To make things worse, TD-LTE, Carrier Aggregation and supplemental downlink (SDL) bands will increase the total count to between 12 and 16 bands by 2016. MIMO in most of these bands doubles the number of antennas and receivers, creating a giant headache for the RF guys.

At the same time, the Wi-Fi ecosystem is making a transition from 802.11n to 802.11ac, making dual-band operation a standard feature on most handsets. In a few years, we also expect introduction of 802.11ad to become prevalent, with 60 GHz short-range operation for huge bandwidth. The consumer applications for Gigabit communications are already on their way, so in our headline we listed three Wi-Fi bands--a likely possibility for smartphones in the 2016 timeframe. The number could conceivably increase to four Wi-Fi bands, with 802.11ah standardizing bursty communications below 1 GHz for M2M applications.  Nobody can predict whether this mode will be desirable on handsets, four or five years from now.

Mobile Experts has recently completed two market studies to understand the industry reaction to these difficult problems. We've interviewed more than 50 different companies to fully understand what's going on in the handset RF ecosystem. Will all of these bands work together? What sacrifices will be made to performance? Does a CMOS module like the Qualcomm RF360 make a difference? Will Wi-Fi and cellular radio components merge together?

In our study on RF Front Ends for Handsets, we concluded that the industry can, and will, support the increasing complexity. RF vendors have found incredible ways to cram the additional complexity into a smaller size than today's modules, allowing space in the handset for a huge battery. New modules are coming in the market that will help to consolidate functionality, making entry-level smartphones easy to implement and making "Worldphones" feasible with skillful engineering and some extra components.

Number of Active Cellular Bands Worldwide

Source: Mobile Experts

In our study on Carrier Wi-Fi, we found that the low cost of Wi-Fi is making a big impact on the market. Today, about 34 percent of total global mobile data passes through a Wi-Fi access point. By 2017, we expect that 48 percent of traffic will flow through Wi-Fi, with Carrier Wi-Fi contributing at least 15 percent of the total. One key conclusion that came out of our interviews with global operators: Carrier Wi-Fi will be the primary way for billions of people to access the Internet, due to poor residential broadband access in most of the world.   

The rise of Carrier Wi-Fi also leads us to the conclusion that dual-band Wi-Fi will be built into most mobile handsets in the future. The entry-level smartphone will include dual-band Wi-Fi, even if it only includes 3G instead of LTE. There is also a possibility that we will move away from one MIMO "spatial stream" for Wi-Fi to incorporate 2x2 downlink MIMO for handsets, as we have for many tablets.

We will add a third Wi-Fi band for high-end smartphones in 2015 to 2016, when 802.11ad (WiGig) is adopted for very high speed data transfer at 60 GHz. Streaming HD content from a handset to a PC or television screen, or downloading a movie from a kiosk will happen somewhere north of 1 Gbps at very short range...making this a high end feature that will penetrate 10-20 percent of the market by 2018.

Migration of mobile data to Wi-Fi and Small Cells

Source: Mobile Experts

Overall, we see strong, growing market demand for high-speed data communications in 51 frequency bands today, and we expect that as many as 19 data bands will be crammed into a single handset. Add Bluetooth, NFC, GPS, and FM Radio to the list, and we will have 24 radio bands in the "iPhone 8" or the "Galaxy S7"--handsets that are currently implemented as messy lines on white-boards in Cupertino and Seoul today.

The staggering complexity of the "Worldphone" RF design is separating Apple and Samsung from LG, BlackBerry, Nokia, and others. While Apple and Samsung will drive to include as many bands as possible, competing to offer the best "Superphones" on the market, they certainly get more attention in the press. Their strategy has worked out well so far, with the flagship phones driving their overall market share upward.  

However, Apple and Samsung are sacrificing RF performance in their drive for single-SKU capability, and other companies are able to offer products which work better in a local market. For example, BlackBerry has avoided some of the compromises made in radio performance by other companies and currently offers much better radio performance than an iPhone 5 or a Samsung Galaxy S4. In the real world, that means that a BlackBerry may get 5 Mbps when your iPhone is running at 2 Mbps or even less. For the sake of Nokia, BlackBerry, Motorola, and end users everywhere, we hope that mobile operators recognize the difference between multi-band capability and actual performance.

Joe Madden is Principal Analyst at Mobile Experts LLC. Mobile Experts is a network of market and technology experts that provide market analysis on the mobile infrastructure and mobile handset markets. He provides market forecasts for handset, DAS, small cell, and base station markets, with in-depth research down to the nitty gritty details of frequency bands and power levels. Mr. Madden graduated, cum laude, from UCLA in 1989 and is a Silicon Valley veteran. He has survived IPOs, LBOs, divestitures, acquistions, and mergers during his 24 years in mobile communications.