Get Ready for a Year of Intense Cellco Marketing, VoLTE Intros & Mobile Intelligence

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, TMC  |  January 16, 2014

Wireless in 2013 continued its ascent, and the number of wirelessly connected devices and people is expected to climb in the year ahead.

At the end of 2013 there were more than 2 billion smartphones, 300 million tablets, and one billion portable PCs in use globally, according to Deloitte’s Global Mobile Consumer Survey. Deloitte estimates there were one billion smartphones sold last year, up from 750 million in 2012.

That doesn’t even include the quickly growing category known as the Internet of Things. This space, which excludes PCs, tablets and smartphones, will grow to 26 billion units installed in 2020, representing an almost 30-fold increase from 0.9 billion in 2009, according to Gartner Inc., which expects IoT to generate incremental revenue exceeding $300 billion, mostly in services, in 2020.

"The growth in IoT will far exceed that of other connected devices,” said Peter Middleton, research director at Gartner. “By 2020, the number of smartphones tablets and PCs in use will reach about 7.3 billion units. In contrast, the IoT will have expanded at a much faster rate, resulting in a population of about 26 billion units at that time." 

That said, it comes as no surprise that mobile data traffic continues to grow at a breakneck pace. Video is the largest and fastest growing mobile data traffic segment, and it’s expected to increase by 55 percent annually until the end of 2019. And we can expect mobile data traffic to grow by a multiple of 10 between 2013 and 2019, according to Ericsson Mobility Report issued November 2013.

GSM/EDGE-only represents the largest share of mobile subscriptions today, says Ericsson, which adds that’s starting to decline in developed markets as they move to more advanced technologies.

“Despite this,” Ericsson goes on to report, “GSM/EDGE will continue to represent a large share of total mobile subscriptions. This is because new, less affluent users entering networks in growing markets will likely choose a low-cost mobile phone and subscription. In addition, it takes time for the installed base of phones to be upgraded. GSM/EDGE networks will also continue to be important in complementing WCDMA/HSPA and LTE coverage.”

LTE Update

As for LTE, networks and subscriptions based on this new, 4G technology continue to be turned up at a very respectable pace.

There were 222 commercial LTE networks in operation in 83 countries in the third quarter of 2013, according to Ericsson. LTE subscriptions globally hit 150 million in the third quarter, and forecasts indicate LTE subscription will reach around 2.6 billion in 2019. At the end of October 2013, 22 wireless carriers had launched LTE networks, with 18 service launches in the last two months and 38 more expected by end of 2013, according to Deloitte, which said about 59 percent of the consumers it surveyed indicated they want to update to LTE in the next 12 months.

Some markets are very far advanced in terms of LTE and some are not, but LTE is very prevalent in the U.S., says Jim Guillet, vice president of wireless marketing at Alcatel-Lucent, where the cellular carriers are locked in a battle of one-upmanship.

Verizon (News - Alert), which in December celebrated its three-year anniversary of being to first to launch with LTE, today offers LTE in 500 U.S. markets. The company notes that means it’s available to more than 303 million people, or more than 95 percent of the U.S. population.

“With the most reliable 4G LTE network, the largest footprint, and deployment of its Advanced Wireless Services spectrum now adding capacity nationwide, the company is ahead of the competition in terms of quality, coverage and technology,” wrote Verizon spokesman Paul Macchia (News - Alert) in a Dec. 5 blog. “Verizon 4G LTE is available where customers need super-fast mobile broadband connections, from major airports to many small towns through the LTE in Rural America program. And Verizon Wireless’ 4G network is pure 4G LTE, not a mix of 4G technologies.”

AT&T doesn’t seem to like talking about its overall 4G LTE coverage, as details about that are not listed in either the FAQs part of its website or in the boiler plates to its new market launch press releases. Instead, AT&T, which uses a combination of LTE and HSPA+ technology to deliver what it refers to as 4G speeds, emphasizes its new builds, dollar-figure network investments, and – notably – the fact that it’s considered to deliver the fastest 4G speeds in the marketplace.

Meanwhile Sprint today delivers LTE in 300 markets. Sprint recently made news with the launch of its Spark campaign, which promotes the fact that the carrier uses three spectrum frequencies to deliver peak 4G LTE wireless data speeds of 50 to 60mbps.

“In 2013, we made major improvements across our 3G and 4G LTE network,” says Bob Azzi (News - Alert), Sprint chief network officer. “In the growing number of markets where the upgrades are nearly complete, our customers are noticing. Re-engineering our entire network has been a big undertaking, but now it’s delivering tangible benefits to our customers. With the announcement of Sprint Spark, the increasing availability of 4G LTE and the improvements we have made to our voice network, we’re full speed ahead for 2014.”

AT&T and T-Mobile are also turbo-charging their 4G networks, writes Kevin Fitchard in a Nov. 7 Gigaom story, which explains that AT&T has begun leveraging its PCS spectrum for LTE.

“Unlike Verizon’s forthcoming 4G monster, Sprint’s planned Spark network and T-Mobile’s recent doubling of LTE bandwidth, AT&T’s new PCS LTE network won’t boost the speeds of its current networks,” Fitchard writes. “The 10mHz configuration AT&T is using is only half the size of the 20mHz network it’s already running in the 700 mHz band, which means it will support only half the theoretical speed. But I doubt AT&T is too worried.”

That’s because, as noted above, AT&T already is the market leader in terms of LTE speeds. What the new PCS spectrum use for LTE at AT&T is about is new LTE capacity.

This idea would seem to dovetail with the concept of LTE-Advanced, a standard out of 3GPP that addresses how the radio access network can combine airwave pipes (which can involve a wide array of spectrum, even the stuff that carriers amassed during their 2G days) between small or macro cells and consumer devices in an effort to achieve higher capacity. LTE-Advanced is now in trials, with first commercial deployment expected this year. But user handsets will have to support this new technology for end users to benefit.

“Wireless operators have to pull every lever they can to address the capacity needs that mobile broadband requires,” notes Alcatel-Lucent’s Guillet.

While they are doing that on the network side, on the marketing side cellular providers are expected to become more visible in promoting how their services differ from the competition.

Verizon has been talking a lot about staging video demonstrations to show what can be done with video over its 4G network. In fact, Guillet says, Verizon leadership recently mentioned it will demo this kind of thing during the Super Bowl in February.

“With LTE and with some broadcast capabilities in LTE you can broadcast over LTE live streaming of video,” says Guillet.

While the big four cellular carriers battle it out over 4G in the U.S., LTE is also ramping up in China.

China Mobile (News - Alert) was first at bat, which makes sense considering its 3G network is based on TDS-CDMA for 3G, which doesn’t really offer a clear path to 4G, explains Guillet of Alcatel-Lucent. China Mobile, which says it is rolling out the world’s largest 4G network, offers 4G TD-LTE services in 16 cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. By the end of 2014, the cellular carrier expects to have launched service on 500,000 4G base stations, which will cover more than 340 cities.

Alcatel-Lucent in December was named as one of the top suppliers for China Telecom’s (News - Alert) LTE build. Ericsson, which was not involved in China Mobile’s 3G network, is another of the carrier’s 4G suppliers. Ericsson has been selected to help China Mobile deploy LTE in 15 key provinces in China, providing its EPC solution as part of the deal. Huawei and ZTE, which were named as key suppliers for the build back in August, are also key suppliers for the China Mobile 4G effort (owning 25 percent each of the build, according to some reports).

China Telecom, whose 3G network is based on CDMA (another technology without a clear path to 4G), moved on the heels of China Mobile. In December China Mobile tapped Alcatel-Lucent to provide it with small cells. Nokia Solutions and Networks in December also announced it had won LTE business from China Telecom, which will use NSN’s Flexi Multiradio 10 Base Stations, its NetAct network management system, and related launch optimization, implementation and care services.

And China Unicom, which currently relies on W-CDMA, is expected to move beyond its LTE trials soon, according to Guillet.

Mobile VoIP

While cellular companies in the U.S. and abroad continue expanding and improving upon their 4G network builds and marketing campaigns, they are also looking forward to finally introduce VoLTE to the mix.

Voice over LTE is expected to launch in a significant way in 2014. According to a new study from iGR, we can expect several major U.S. mobile operators to make VoLTE commercially available on a widespread basis in the second half of this year. And, iGR says, the number of VoLTE subscribers will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 187 percent between 2012 and 2017.

VoLTE is noteworthy to cellular service providers and their customers for at least a couple of reasons.

First, it will enable some cellcos to lower their costs and better leverage their assets because now they can move voice traffic onto newer 4G networks and spectrum. That means they can decommission older networks when it makes sense, and leverage the spectrum now earmarked for voice fallback for other uses.

Second, cellcos see VoLTE as a potential answer to the mobile VoIP threat by over-the-top providers like Apple, Facebook, fring (which was recently purchased by telco infrastructure outfit GENBAND) and Google, and a wide array of others. That’s because VoLTE can deliver high-definition voice services.

"VoLTE promises to energize both mobile operators and vendors," said Iain Gillott, president and founder of iGR. "Consumers will benefit from the many new multimedia products and services that mobile operators will be able to offer as they transition from legacy voice solutions to the new platform."

Ed Elkin, director of advanced communication solutions at Alcatel-Lucent, says that VoLTE gives the telcos a strong play in mobile voice because with it they can deliver simplicity (all you have to do is make the call, no download required), a solid connection (unlike OTT types, cellcos own and can control the network), existing operator billing, the ability to multitask while on a call, and a high-quality audio and video experience. That’s going to be important for the cellular companies, adds Elkin, considering that voice still accounts for more than half of their revenues on average.

“A neat thing about VoLTE is it’s more than voice,” Elkin says.

VoLTE is more spectrally efficient than the current method of handling cellular voice (for example, six times as efficient when compared to UMTS), so it allows cellular carriers to free up their networks to support more data services. And they can do some interesting new things with services as a result.

He adds that Alcatel-Lucent has VoLTE with APIs (both REST and JavaScript), so developers can build apps for VoLTE. That could potentially include new services leveraging WebRTC technology, and/or services that could help enterprises cut the cord on desk phones since cellular voice with VoLTE becomes so high quality that businesses will no longer need fixed voice services.

Mobile Network Intelligence

Wireless networks have come a way. Just consider the conversation above about the recent strides in LTE deployments; expectations for VoLTE; and the increased bandwidth, capacity, and potential to deliver new services. But for all the advancements the industry has made in terms of mobile devices and connectivity, the networks that underpin all of this are not as sophisticated in some aspects as you might think.

Steffen Paulus, director of product marketing for network management, network analytics and policy control at Alcatel-Lucent, paints the picture by explaining that about a year ago Facebook came out with a new version of its mobile app, and that app created an increase in signaling traffic on mobile networks of about 7 percent. That was bad for cellular network operators because signaling is a scarce resource, he says, it was bad for Facebook and its users because it created a battery drain on mobile phones, especially Android devices. This, he says, is an example of something you would not be able to identify using traditional tools like deep packet inspection and RAN probes, which can recognize an increase in signaling but don’t have visibility into the applications or devices causing that increase.

To address this gap in visibility, Alcatel-Lucent has come out with what it calls Motive Big Network Analytics. Motive brings together two existing Alcatel-Lucent solutions and a new offering. One of the existing solutions that comprises Motive is the Wireless Network Guardian, which is now in use by 35 service providers. It offers a real-time, in-context view of application, device, IP flows, network, signaling, and subscribers. That helps network operators optimize and troubleshoot apps, devices and networks, and to understand usage trends. The second existing solutions that comprises Motive is Alcatel-Lucent’s Kindsight Security Analytics, which analyzes network traffic patterns to detect malware on customer devices. And the third piece, which is new, is called Big Network Analytics Data Miner and combines WNG analytics with circuit-switched voice and SMS data sources and select IT/OSS/BSS data like billing information, profile, and subscriber data plans to provide analysis that can be leveraged to improve application and network performance, deliver usage information to market staff, and to enhance customer care.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi