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Summary:

In 2014, carriers will tinker with some new network technologies. They’ll start broadcasting video, shrinking the size of their cells and moving voice calls onto LTE. They’ll even start connecting cars to the 4G network.

2013 was largely a year of entrenchment in the U.S. mobile industry. Carriers expanded their 4G footprints geographically and added new capacity to meet the demands of an increasing number of LTE devices. But in 2014, we’re going to see carriers get a bit more experimental with their networks and their services.

Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile all have varying projects in the works that will result will result in faster, better performing networks, change the way services like voice and video are delivered to the handset and bring vehicles into the 4G fold. Here’s a look at what’s in store for our mobile networks in 2014.

Verizon becomes a broadcaster for the Super Bowl

Verizon plans to make a big splash with a new technology called LTE Broadcast at the country’s biggest sporting event in February. At Super Bowl XLVIII in Newark, N.J., Verizon will convert some of its LTE systems from two-way to one-way streets.

football

I’ve explained how LTE-Broadcast works in other posts, but in a nutshell it lets carriers transmit the same data stream to multiple devices simultaneously, much like a TV or radio station blankets a city with a single signal. If there are multiple people in the same cell consuming the same content, a carrier using LTE-Broadcast just ships the same packets to every device rather than establish separate streaming sessions for each individual subscriber and eating up valuable capacity.

As you might imagine, a technology like this becomes more valuable when you have a lot of people in the same place consuming the same real-time content. That makes Super Bowl Sunday at Prudential Center and its surroundings the ideal time and place to prove out the technology. Verizon hasn’t revealed the specific details of what kind of broadcast services it would offer at the Super Bowl, but we can take a guess at some possibilities.

For instance, the network could continually transmit a highlight reel of all of the game’s big plays that anyone with a Verizon LTE smartphone could tap into. It could also datacast a constantly updated ticker of player and game stats. If the NFL and Verizon get really ambitious they could broadcast a video feeds from every single one of the event’s 70 TV cameras to everyone in the stadium, letting people watch the live action or replays from any angle they choose.

Revving up the 4G car

We’re going to see the first LTE-connected vehicles in 2014, and right now it seems like a race between Audi, General Motors and Tesla to see who can get an 4G car on U.S. roads first.

connected car logoCellular connectivity in cars is certainly nothing new. Automakers have been using mobile networks to power their in-car roadside assistance and telematics services for the better part of a decade. But those connections have primarily been pokey 2G links, ideal for transmitting itty-bitty chunks of data – such as GPS coordinates or an “unlock vehicle” command – across the country.

But by embedding LTE in cars automakers and carriers will be able to deliver the kinds of data services we’ve grown to expect on our smartphones and tablets. Those connections will power apps in the dashboard and redistribute mobile broadband throughout the car via Wi-Fi.

Consequently, network connectivity will cease being a behind-the-scenes technology and turn into a data services sold to drivers by a carrier. Unfortunately we won’t have much choice in which carriers connect our cars – in the U.S. automakers are locking down their vehicles to specific networks – but if the carrier connecting your phone and car happen to be the same, you could attach your car to a shared data or family plan.

The incredible shrinking network

Operators spent the last few years building LTE coverage, but with their initial 4G rollouts complete or near completion they’re now starting to focus on capacity. We’re already seeing all four nationwide operators soup up their LTE speeds and capacity with new spectrum, but in 2014, they’ll start using a different tool: the small cell.

Carriers can only get so far with new airwaves. At a certain point they have to start reusing the spectrum they already have, which means breaking their big wide-reaching umbrella networks into ever-smaller partitions. As these “cells” get smaller, the overall capacity of the network grows, meaning more customers get faster, more resilient connections, especially in high-traffic locations like malls, parks and other public areas.

small-cell-diagram

Of the major U.S. operators, AT&T is being the most aggressive, promising a 40,000-small cell network before the end of 2015. Sprint is also planning to make extensive use of the tiny base stations in its network. Verizon has been experimenting with small cells as well, though it’s much less enthusiastic about the technology.

VoLTE: Better late then never

Carriers have been promising for two years that VoIP services running over their LTE networks are just around the corner, but voice-over-LTE is hardly progressing. In fact, it seems to be regressing. MetroPCS launched the first U.S. VoLTE service last year, but T-Mobile has been quietly shutting it down as it transfers Metro customers onto its networks.

Both Verizon and AT&T have pushed back their planned VoLTE launches, but it looks like next year they’ll be finally ready to make their first moves toward all-IP communications. AT&T has said it would seed the network with the first VoLTE-capable handsets this year and launch an IP-phone service in 2014. News reports show Verizon’s VoLTE trials in the wild, and it too has promised to make it available to the public in 2014.

Man with two mobile phones smartphonesCarriers already have perfectly good 2G voice networks so they’re not in much of a hurry to move their core communications service over to LTE. And at least initially consumers probably wouldn’t notice if they did – their calls would just run over a different network.

The real promise of VoLTE is its ability to integrate easily with other IP communications services. We’ll see VoLTE phones linked to enterprise PBX systems first, and then we’ll see it make its way to consumers in the form of richer communications apps, supporting features like HD voice, one-touch group conferencing, messaging and video chat all within the same communications session.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user valdis torms; Man-with-phones photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Stanislav Komogorov

  1. Fredrick Warren Haynes Friday, December 27, 2013

    Please, someone, develop Tesla-tower powered cars. I KNOW it can be done and all would reap the benefits of no range restrictions and best of all, it would ELIMINATE ALL EMISSIONS. The most immediate concern would be China’s emission/air quality problem. This is serious and CAN be done!

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  2. What’s missing from this is the inclusion of carrier Wi-Fi into the mobile operator service portfolio – and I mean Wi-Fi offload and other seamless services. This is more likely to happen than small cells. Small cells have been around for years and we’ve not really seen it take off at all – mostly because of Wi-Fi.

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    1. Michael Elling Monday, January 6, 2014

      In the US there has been more subscriber initiated offload due to teledensity, mobility, traffic/commuting, and protocol/modulation (layer 2) differences, as well as less wireline competition/resale, etc…. This is not changing anytime soon. For carriers it has been a free ride. That’s why they are reticent to implement VoLTE, even though it would improve every subscriber’s experience overnight it would drive further offload beyond the 70% at present. Imagine if you could offload those voice calls in poor coverage areas called homes, offices, schools, etc…. You would be looking for wifi all the time. Even then carriers don’t even know what is best for them as that is the way to get the other 50% of the market onto 4G networks. A good example is the iPhone in 2007. If Steve Jobs hadn’t forced equal access for iOS to wifi on AT&T the smartphone boom likely wouldn’t have happened. The carriers would have remain stuck in their 3G silos with no demand scale to justify 4G investments.

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  3. Kevin, I would not be very optimistic on outdoor small cells happening in 2014. We have recently surveyed operators worldwide and they are not ready. Another market research firm came with the same conclusion. Operators realized that carrier deployed 3G small cells provide little benefit and the same for LTE Release 8 small cells. Operators need to upgrade to LTE Release 10 and later for coordination between macro cell layer and small cell layer. By that time, new technologies are taking shape such as Cloud RAN which provides much better coordination between the two layers than compact base station small cells would. However, indoor small cells can start earlier.

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  4. The sad news is that this is what the broadcasters should be doing with LTE Release 10 or later. Eight broadcasters (using the White Spaces) would be 102 MHz. With advanced LTE, that would be peak 1.2 Gbps down, 900 Mbps up per EnodeB (similar to a cell, but better). Sadly, broadcasters are serving only 18% of the population OTA. They are quickly becoming just another cable programmer (see the swift reaction over Aereo/FilmOn services as a threat to retransmission, i.e., cable programming fees).

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  5. The 4G car? Should we throw our smart phones away before starting to drive the car? No, I am not questioning the technology and instead wondering what the operators and customers can benefit from the car. I believe that the 4G car can hardly be sold until there are new mobile network services built on the 4G connectivity for the cars. To use the services, we need the in-vehicle wireless LAN attached to the 4G connection to serve passenger’s computers, smart data devices, and video streamers.

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  6. Emmanuel Moses Sunday, December 29, 2013

    they can make the best technology next year

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  7. My money is on Sprint T Mobile. The two combined will be stronger than AT&T and Verizon. I think they will come up with something innovative this new year and leave competition behind

    http://bit.ly/SprintTmobileDeal

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  8. Michael Elling Monday, January 6, 2014

    We need much more fiber and lower last mile costs for DAS/small cell to become ubiquitous. Until then, carriers will continue to push/support customer led wifi and actually NOT introduce VoLTE (as then voice becomes another app to offload and the subscriber is conditioned more to avoid high mobile charges). Hopefully the FCC and stakeholders begin to realize the inherent linkage between wired and wireless networks and policy. Open access needs to be uniformly applied to all last mile providers (wired and wireless) for the US to achieve a high-capacity, gigabit future.

    Question, why didn’t (or doesn’t) Google amortize its fiber model with enterprise, wireless backhaul and wholesale (3rd party app and managed service–wired and wireless–providers) solutions???? Perhaps it will sometime in 2014-15 as it realizes its own siloed last mile roll-out is not working.

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