Bring Back the Radio Wars

iStock_000007457826SmallThe enthusiasm in Silicon Valley over the growth of mobile broadband and mobile applications is palpable these days, but there’s one thing missing: an understanding of how the underlying network affects both the physical hardware and the way applications run. What we need is the return of the Radio Wars, those loud and acrimonious battles over exactly how we’re going to get our gigabytes of mobile data from Point A to Point B.

In the mid-’90s the debate was over CDMA vs. GSM; 2G vs. 3G wireless arguments came later in the decade and then in the last few years, shifted to 3G vs. WiMAX. So why have the “Wars” gone away? Put simply, with WiMAX finding its niche and most of the world’s major wireless operators moving to LTE (see PDF), there’s no longer a conflict. But the relative silence in 2009 — the “Kumbaya” of LTE-solves-all — has led to a reduction in critical thinking around wireless network evolution.

Looking back, the Radio Wars served a serious commercial function: They identified the challenges inherent in increasingly complex, multistandard, multiband radio networks. At the same time, they made clear through public debate and white papers the depth of complexity faced by network operators and their vendors. And they were material to the wireless world, as the lines drawn surfaced the underlying reality that wireless broadband is different than wired broadband.

Today it seems that LTE as a foregone conclusion has convinced people that there’s no longer a need to have debates around radio link budgets and “bits per hertz,” as if by ignoring technical realities somehow makes those realities disappear. Worse, discussion about network design, latency, and consumer experience are often drowned out by companies — big and small — that, coming from a PC or “Web 2.0” perspective, have a blatant disregard for the complexity of making all this stuff work. Witness AT&T’s very public challenges when it comes to supporting iPhone traffic. As vendors increasingly speak about “one Internet,” whether wired or wireless, and companies big and small increasingly pitch high-bandwidth services such as streaming video to mobiles — and users increasingly adopt them — the issues around the iPhone may end up seeming like the canary in the coal mine.

And that’s the problem. Those that believe in “one Internet” aren’t paying attention to the fact that use cases for wireless broadband users hitting their 5GB-per-month limit over their cellular laptop card and home desktop PC users coming up against their cable modem’s newly imposed 250GB-per-month cap are not the same, that ever-richer media (including all manner of video) cannot continually be pumped onto mobile networks without consequence.

Expanding 3G coverage and adding more RF channels will help, as will the addition of WiMAX networks and LTE, but none will prove a panacea. Take LTE: There are more than 15 LTE spectrum bands globally; the mere thought of designing functional handsets that support even a subset of those bands (never mind legacy bands, plus Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth, DVB-H, FLO, etc.) makes my head hurt.

Jeff Belk Headshot Mar 08In order to realize true mobile broadband, over the next decade we will need networks that can support tens of gigabytes of traffic per user, per month. Multimode 3G and 4G networks won’t cut it. There will be more radios in our devices, enabling the offloading of traffic to other networks such as Wi-Fi, or the downloading of content via so-called unicast networks such as DVB-H or MediaFLO. New spectrum and network topologies, including femto/picocells, will help, as will better handset performance, new handset and base station antenna technologies, and new ways of structuring applications and shifting traffic.

But such changes will not come from those that are blissfully ignorant of the current network reality, and education is hard to come by absent a debate over radio technologies. Without such a debate, we are potentially setting ourselves up for another cycle of hype and disappointment when it comes to the evolution of networks, devices and services. In other words, it’s time to bring back the Radio Wars.

Jeffrey Belk is Managing Director of ICT168 Capital, which advises and invests in emerging and growing companies in the information, communications and technology space.