Heading for a Hollow Victory on Phone Unlocking

Photo of chained phoneThe news that the ranking Republican and Democratic members of the house Judiciary committee plan to introduce legislation to legalize the unlocking of mobile phones by consumers greatly increases the chances that Congress will reverse the refusal of the Library of Congress’ Copyright Office to approve the practice. But despite the excitement among tech activists, the victory is likely to be largely meaningless in practice. The only real beneficiaries will be owners of very new phones who are looking to use them on foreign networks without paying exorbitant roaming charges.

The problem is that while altering the software that ties a phone to a specific network removes artificially barriers to interoperability, formidable technical barriers remain in place. The convergence of fourth-generation networking technology on a standard called LTE was supposed to ease or eliminate the problem, but if anything, it has made matters worse. The problem is that U.S. carriers are all implementing LTE differently, specifically on different frequencies, and phone makes have not been able (or perhaps willing) to incorporate enough radios to make the phones interoperate. For example, Apple sells different LTE iPads for Verizon and AT&T and even though they are sold unlocked, they cannot be used on each other’s networks.

Verizon and AT&T are both rolling out LTE on spectrum in the 700 MHz band formerly used for analog television. But they are using different portions of the  band. And the Federal Communications Commission has not required AT&T and Verizon to act to make their networks or their phones compatible, although it would take no great technical effort to do so. Sprint is deploying LTE at the same 1900 MHz frequency it uses for existing 3G and voice services. T-Mobile will be offering services at 1700 MHz. This means that no two carriers are offering compatible services.

If you are willing to forgo LTE, you can get some partial compatibility. AT&T and T-Mobile phones will work on each other;s networks, though you can’t count on the fastest data performance. Those phones can change networks simply by swapping SIM cards. You should be able to get an unlocked Verizon phone registered on the Sprint network, and vice versa, but performance of a Sprint phone on Verizon may suffer if the phone does not support Verizon’s 800 MHz service. And giving up LTE means giving up a lot.

In other words, the hubbub over phone unlocking has been disproportional to what is likely to be achieved. Consumers may win a purely symbolic victory, but in practical terms, their phones will be as locked as ever. The time to have made a fuss was back in 2007, when the FCC was setting the rules for the 700 MHz auction. Everyone knew going in that AT&T and Verizon were going to emerge as the winners, and required interoperability of  their LTE services would have made a huge difference. But that ship has now sailed.

The carriers will make a big show of opposing any unlocking legislation. I think they do this partly because they simply do not like being told what to do and partly to keep their lobbyists in practice. In fact, the bill that is likely to emerge from the Judiciary leadership will require them to do things they are mostly or entirely already doing. It will be a feel-good victory for advocates, but it will change little or nothing.



The Spectrum Shortage That Isn’t

Photo of Dan Mead
Verizon CEO Dan Mead

If you listen to wireless operators, their industry is on the brink of a catastrophe caused by success. “Innovation is at risk today due to the spectrum shortage that we face,” Verizon Wireless President Daniel S. Mead said in a keynote at the CTIA Wireless 2012 show. “There is no doubt there is a looming spectrum crunch.” CTIA President Steve Largent says we are “on the brink of a major wireless traffic jam.”

Demand for wireless data is definitely growing quickly, though just how fast is subject to dispute (as in the glory days of wireline internet growth in the late 1990s, there’s a tendency to overstate current growth rates and then project them into the indefinite future.) But despite the claims that we will exhaust our wireless data capacity by 2014, or 2016, or 2020, the evidence that a shortage of capacity is crippling wireless now, or will anytime in  the near or medium term future is simply lacking.

And that’s a good thing, because notwithstanding the wailing of the wireless carriers and their trade association, the CTIA, the prospects for any major new allocation of spectrum are grim. Congress has authorized a complex scheme known as incentive auctions, in which television broadcasters will receive part of the proceeds if they allow the government to auction off spectrum they are not using.

It’s a fine idea, but it’s complicated by the fact that creating usable blocks of bandwidth will require some TV stations to move to new frequencies. Broadcasters are not flocking to offer spectrum. Bottom line,  it’s going to take a lot longer to free any bandwidth for wireless data and in the end, the amount of  new spectrum is likely to be substantially less than the 120 MHz that the Federal Communications Commission was hoping for. Wresting unused or underused spectrum from federal agencies (especially the military) is likely to prove even harder.

Promoting spectrum shortages serves carriers’ interest in several ways. AT&T used it as a major justification for its failed acquisition of T-Mobile and Verizon makes the argument to support its proposed purchase of unused spectrum from a group of cable operators. Considering bandwidth  a scarce resource  helps justify high prices and restrictive usage caps.

What carriers can do.

Speed LTE deployment. But there is a lot the carriers can  do–and in some cases are doing–to alleviate any crunch. The first is an accelerated move to LTE technology. The carriers have promoted LTE as being faster than existing technologies and, in general, it is, but its real importance is that it that it uses its bandwidth far more efficiently than the 3G EV-DO and HSPA technologies. Verizon, which had hit a speed wall in EV-DO has been the most aggressive in deploying LTE, but AT&T is catching up. Sprint,  which made a bad bet on alternative WiMAX technology, and T-Mobile are starting to move.

More Wi-Fi offload. Especially in the locations where demand is greatest, carriers can ease the pressure on their wireless networks by moving data traffic to Wi-Fi. The new Hotspot 2.0 (IEEE 802.11u) standard  should provide for seamless transfer  of sessions between wireless broadband and Wi-Fi. But the carriers have to support the hotspots and provide adequate backhaul capacity.

Small cells. Cellular communications is based on the concept that bandwidth can be reused by having each base station provide coverage to a relatively small  area whose size is governed by power levels and the height of the antenna. In rural areas, carriers use very tall towers to cover big, but lightly used, areas, while in dense city cores, antennas are mounted much lower. Carriers could provide for much greater reuse of spectrum by going to even smaller microcells, which would be more like Wi-Fi hotspots in coverage. The downside is that this required building, paying for, and siting many more base stations, but it could greatly increase capacity. Ericsson, Alcatel Lucent, and Cisco are all developing small-cell gear and AT&T plans to begin testing service later this year.

Agile radios. From the beginning of wireless communications, the basic approach has been to assign dedicated spectrum to each user, with hardware designed to operate at very specific frequencies. This guarantees am environment in which some assigned frequency bands are very crowded while others are underused. There may be plenty of spectrum in the aggregate, while specific slices of it are clogged. For years, the dream has been to move to the use of agile, or software-defined, radios that could operate on  any available spectrum. The technology is finally reaching the point where this sort of agility is technologically possible. But the transition will be very complex: We have a nearly century-old regulatory regime based on discrete spectrum slices. Licensees have valuable assets in their assigned spectrum, which also serves as a powerful barrier to new entrants. And billions of existing devices  would have to be replaced to take advantage of an agile system. Needsless to say, a move to a new system is going to take a very long time.

Wireless is clearly the future and a powerful driver of innovation and economic growth. More spectrum is always better. But there are good solutions to alleviate shortages in the short and medium term. The situation is nowhere near as dire as the carriers would have us believe.




Why the Next iPhone Should Skip LTE

Battery life will be the undoing of the next generation of smartphones, warns Farhad Manjoo at Pando Daily. He’s right, and that’s why for the next version of the iPhone, probably due out in the fall and probably not to be called the iPhone 5, Apple should pass on the opportunity to add fourth-generation LTE wireless.

At least with current radio technology and networks, LTE is a terrible battery drain, a situation not likely to change much over the next few months. In the history of wireless, most new radio technologies have initially hurt battery performance and LTE is worse than most. Apple was smart to put LTE into the new iPad and will be smart to leave it out of the iPhone. (Daring Fireball’s John Gruber also speculates that Apple might skip LTE.)

Why different treatment for the iPad and iPhone? Apple could satisfy the power demands of both LTE and the new high-resolution display by making the iPad a tad thicker and adding what iFixit calls “a hulk of a battery.” That’s a less attractive an option on  the iPhone. Any increase in thickness would be much more noticeable on a phone than on a tablet. If Apple enlarges the height and width of the iPhone to accommodate  a larger screen, it would gain some room for a bigger battery, but would also need more power for the display. In addition, an iPhone would probably spend far more time active on the LTE network than the more sedentary iPad, which can often do fine on Wi-Fi, which is much easier on the battery.

More significantly, the iPhone really doesn’t need LTE the way the iPad does. The iPad has a PC-like appetite for data. It takes a lot of bits to use all the pixels on that lovely screen to their maximum advantage and you want the screen to fill fast. There’s a big payoff for faster wireless. The iPhone is more of a data-sipper and does very well on a 3G connections, especially of the HSPA+ variety (which AT&T now confusingly calls 4G.)

The smaller the device, the greater the tradeoffs that have to be made in design. Personally, I’m not willing to sacrifice battery life for faster data on my iPhone, which can just get me through a long, busy day now. Nor do I want a bulkier phone to support a radio technology I don’t really need. The main pressure for LTE is coming from carriers, especially Verizon Wireless, that want to shift traffic to their newest network. Apple should resist, at least for one more generation.