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.
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
Cellular 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.
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.
Carriers 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.