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The Wi-Fi Alliance, mobile operators, and hardware makers have agreed on a standard for secure and greatly simplified cell-to-Wi-Fi handoffs and cross-networking roaming: The various parties have worked together to create a certifiable method of allowing handsets to access carrier Wi-Fi networks with much less fuss. The standard will also allow simple roaming across carrier networks without the current necessity of creating an account or entering account details. The whole thing is backed by WPA2 security for the Wi-Fi connection, obviating Firesheep, sidejacking, and other compromises on the wireless connection.
For carriers, this means avoiding re-inventing the wheel for every handset or platform. Carriers can buy and integrate gear from companies that have achieved this certification, and that should take them a long way towards allowing every device a carrier offers with Wi-Fi to be able to offload traffic from mobile broadband to Wi-Fi as efficiently as possible.
The Wi-Fi Alliance cites research group Informa as predicting 4.6 yottabytes (4.6 million terabytes) of data will be consumed on cellular networks in 2012 worldwide. The Wi-Fi Alliance predicts its current count of 750,000 hotspots worldwide (which must be measuring only paid and managed locations) will double by 2014. There are millions of less formal hotspots available which won't be affected by today's announcement.
One of the tidbits in the announcement, not particularly emphasized as a pair, is that certified devices will connect to appropriate networks "in many cases" using cellular credentials like SIM cards, and using WPA2 security. What that says to me in big flashing letters is WPA2 Enterprise with EAP-SIM. That's just how geeky I am about Wi-Fi.
WPA2 Enterprise is a Wi-Fi version of the 802.1X port-based access control that limits access to a network quite effectively until proper credentials are presented. In WPA2 Enterprise, only WPA2 (AES-CCMP) encryption is allowed. EAP is a simple communications language that's used by 802.1X to send messages back and forth. It's not secured by default, and must be, because the messages contain credentials. PEAP, EAP-FAST, and EAP-TLS are all popular corporate methods of securing the handshake for logging in.
EAP-SIM is one of the required methods for any approved Wi-Fi device for several years, and uses the SIM (or, I believe, similar modules on other networks) to provide the identity wrapped in a secure method.
Using EAP-SIM with WPA2 Enterprise would allow a feature phone, smartphone, or other cell-embedded device or modem to create a secure connection across the local Wi-Fi connection without a user being involved in any part of the login procedure.
The financial side of roaming across carrier networks wasn't discussed today. I confirmed with the Wi-Fi Alliance that that's a separate discussion as any kind of mobile and data roaming is today. I fear for that particular area. Cellular carriers outside of the same home country charge unjustifiably high rates for roaming: the carrier allowing a non-native customer to roam marks up its service enormously, and the roaming customer's provider adds on top of that. In the modern world, the cost is fairly tiny on the back-end to allow roaming. It's simply a high-margin profit center, and one that European Union regulators have slashed away at. Regulators in other countries lack the cross-border controls or the regulatory interest to get involved.
My fear therefore is that carriers will act like carriers do, and charge extremely high amounts of money for something that benefits from greater use rather than higher prices. Carriers should be encouraging the roaming use of Wi-Fi, a resource that's much cheaper to operate and has vastly more bandwidth in small areas than a cellular network can more expensively provide.
It will probably be more of the same, no matter how technically elegant.
If the AT&T acquisition of T-Mobile is approved, does this lead to fiercer regional competition? There are plenty of small regional cellular firms that provide islands of access in specific metropolitan markets, some of them in several. Those, too, have been bought up by the big four in the last few years, but there are still plucky upstarts remaining, like Cricket.
Cricket has incredibly cheap service in its markets; you only pay through the nose when you travel. While many people travel far from home on a regular basis, there's a hefty number that don't need nationwide roaming. There's also Leap, MetroPCS, and US Cellular, to name a few. An AT&T spokesperson wants this conversation to happen, pointing out that 18 of 20 metropolitan markets have five or more cellular options. These aren't MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) who resell network access, but rather competitive network operators who operate their own infrastructure or lease infrastructure from third parties.
The most significant difference between regional and national carriers lies in 3G networks and 4G plans. MetroPCS launched a 4G LTE service early, and the regional firms all have 3G data services and reasonable plans. Cricket's mobile broadband plan is $40, $50, and $60 per month for 2.5 GB, 5 GB, and 7.5 GB of usage, respectively. US Cellular includes 5 GB with its Data Plus offering for smartphones (including Android models). One calling plan is 450 minutes, unlimited texts, GPS navigation, and Data Plus for $70/mo. No national carrier has such a sweet deal.
I wonder if the availability of small and often cheaper competitors will spark more an interest among customers as they find themselves navigating plans from what would be the three remaining national providers. I expect the iPhone, iPad, and specific models of Android and Windows phones drive the national market more than smaller carriers would like.
AT&T's acquisition of T-Mobile lets it build a truly national, robust network at the expense of competition: It's a little dirty but barely a secret in modern mobile cell world that AT&T doesn't really have national 2G coverage, much less 3G. AT&T leans on T-Mobile to roam customers in a large number of areas in which AT&T didn't spend money to build out service. This stems from an agreement years ago when AT&T Wireless consolidated on GSM service, and T-Mobile was building out its initial GSM service. In 2004, the companies dissolved a cooperative agreement (when Cingular bought what was then AT&T Wireless), but roaming never disappeared.
This lack of coverage is why AT&T didn't offer feature phone or smartphone service in large parts of the country outside urban areas. While these were mostly rural—such as Montana—you'd also find missing areas in adjacent cities in some markets. Because AT&T, like other carriers, only allows a fraction of one's usage to be on domestic roaming, you had a lot of peeved would-be customers who now own a Verizon iPhone
T-Mobile provided roaming 2G coverage in a lot of those areas, even though AT&T spent billions in 2009 to acquire licenses Verizon Wireless was obliged to sell to clear its deal for Alltel, the number five US carrier at the time. Still, AT&T will benefit from having consistent national service if the T-Mobile merger is approved by regulators. It's not a done deal.
AT&T also gets the depth of T-Mobile's spectrum portfolio in dense markets where AT&T clearly lacks the ability to deliver service to the level needed, such as New York City's boroughs and San Francisco. It won't be trivial to integrate the networks, but many carriers co-locate equipment with tower and building owners. And if they maintain the current deal and roaming is no longer a for-fee arrangement, AT&T can instantly get the benefit.
Both firms aligned across the same technology. Not just GSM, although they're the only two national GSM in the US. But they both chose to push short term on faster HSPA: HSPA 7.2, which challenges EVDO Rev. A by a factor of two or more, and HSPA+ in a 21 Mbps flavor, which can challenge the low-end of Verizon's 4G LTE rollout service—but nationally, not just in the one-third of the country to which Verizon expects to offer LTE by year's end.
However, T-Mobile's path was limited. While it extolled the virtues of HSPA+, which squeezes into 5 MHz channels, it had no real ability to acquire the additional spectrum needed for wider channels to exploit LTE. AT&T and Verizon collectively spent billions to lock down most of the sweet 700 MHz spectrum over which Verizon has already started its LTE deployment, and that AT&T will use starting mid-year for its own efforts.
On the Wi-Fi side, T-Mobile effectively exited the hotspot market in 2008, although most people didn't notice. The firm was able to sign a reciprocal five-year agreement with AT&T for access, which allows T-Mobile customers to use AT&T's network at no additional cost or fuss. That was more important when AT&T's network was largely paid or required hoops to get free service. AT&T's Wi-Fi network now comprises about 21,000 locations, of which about 20,000 are entirely free McDonald's and Starbucks stores. Barnes & Noble is in there somewhere, too. The rest are hotels and a few airports.
The convergence of AT&T and T-Mobile's interests are fairly obvious. Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile don't line up because Verizon already has thorough national coverage with 2G and 3G (provably the best 3G coverage), and uses an incompatible 2G/3G technology in CDMA. While Verizon has a path to GSM in its 4G flavor, it will be using CDMA for 2G and 3G for many years to come.
Sprint Nextel is engaged in pursuing three separate standards. iDEN, used by Nextel, is still in use, despite the firm's best efforts to migrate users to CDMA. Sprint's core 2G/3G network is CDMA. Its 4G plan was to get WiMax deployed early and extensively, which was furthered when it acquired Clearwire with its separate spectrum licenses and operations. That didn't pan out. WiMax needed a much faster deployment, and the money wasn't there to do it. WiMax is an also-ran technology cell mobile; it will have great niche uses and might be the most appropriate technology in some countries. But LTE will rule the Asian, European, and North American markets. Sprint Nextel has also not completed a multi-billion-dollar requirement to migrate public-safety networks to new frequencies in exchange for new spectrum. They are far overdue, and that ugly situation shows no sign of completion to my knowledge.
The real question is whether the Justice Department, FCC, and FTC will allow a merger to take place. There's no benefit to consumers from this merger, reducing competitors from four to three. Sprint Nextel arguably has no good plan for long-term viability, and a deal for Verizon to acquire it might be allowed to avoid bankruptcy, which wouldn't benefit the market (although Sprint could shed massive debt, union contracts, and likely federal obligations which would prove what everyone said when the public-safety spectrum swap was allowed years ago under FCC chair Kevin Martin.)
T-Mobile's plucky upstart nature has gained it over 30m customers, and allowed it to nip at the heels of the big three, likely saving customers billions of dollars a year collectively. The FCC and Congress never intended initially for a few carriers to win. Anti-regulatory and pro-incumbent fervor has led to a situation where there may be only two viable national carriers: AT&T and Verizon Wireless.
The folks at iFixIt found a dual-standard GSM/CDMA chip in the Verizon model of the iPhone 4: In Step 17, the teardown experts note that the Qualcomm MDM6600, which can support GSM standards up to HSPA+ (14.4 Mbps flavor) as well as Qualcomm's traditional CDMA voice and data standards up to EVDO Rev. A (deployed in the US by Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel) as well as EVDO Rev. B. There are an enormous number of shared characteristics between the GSM and CDMA standards, and Qualcomm represents a significant minority percentage of all the patents in a pool that's used for UMTS/HSPA.
Apple is spending more to put this dual-mode chip in, of course, than it would for a single-standard chip. But it makes a bloody lot of sense. By having a single chip that can be switched to GSM or CDMA, Apple can switch to a single line of manufacture to supply phones worldwide. They'll save the cost in a higher price for the chip by not having two separate products to make and track. I wouldn't be surprised if we see iPhone 4 models sold for the GSM market that are identical with new antenna locations to the so-called CDMA model.
Does this mean that Apple will offer a world phone for CDMA and GSM markets? Note that the Verizon version of the phone has no SIM slot nor built-in SIM card, so it can't be used on a GSM network in its current form even with a firmware update. Will an iPhone 5 be switchable? It's hard to tell. I imagine Verizon Wireless would prefer the CDMA lock in, but Verizon Wireless is minority-owned by Vodafone, a worldwide GSM provider, which would almost certainly like to sell a single model worldwide that could be easily switched to work in the US or in any of its non-US markets. There's a Droid that does that already.
Wi-Fi requires cell data sign-up: Engadget has a Best Buy ad for the Motorola Xoom that states you can't use the built-in Wi-Fi without having at least a one-month mobile broadband subscription. Well, ain't that a kick in the pants. This is in addition to the $800 price for the feature-heavy Xoom, which comes with front and rear cameras, 1080p playback, 3G service (with a 4G LTE upgrade promise), and Adobe Flash support.
But, really: You have to activate Verizon Wireless service, even if you then cancel it, to unlock Wi-Fi? Big misstep. It's along the lines of that common scene in a car dealership when you're about to sign the papers, and the sales regretfully informs you that his manager won't sell the car without the underbody rust inhibitor treatment.
(That's from before the auto sales collapse, for you youngsters.)
Update: On 24 Feb, Verizon Wireless announced it would not require activation to use Wi-Fi on the 3G models.
AT&T starts offering portable hotspot feature 13 February: Joining other carriers, AT&T will let you turn your smartphone into a cellular router, sharing a mobile broadband connection with "multiple" devices. While this is likely to be added to the iPhone because Verizon Wireless is launching its version of that device with portable hotspot, the only phone mentioned at launch is the HTC Inspire 4G.
AT&T is folding this into the tethering plan it already offers, but with a twist. AT&T requires its higher-volume data plan, which includes 2 GB for $25/mo ($10/additional GB), to use tethering or its hotspot offering. Tethering and mobile hotspot adds $20 per month, but now brings another 2 GB of usage, for a total pooled 4 GB per month.
Before this added bandwidth, there was a general irritation that AT&T was charging $20/mo for no additional benefit except flipping a switch. Since service is already metered (for anyone signing up or changing a smartphone plan since June 2010), this was egregious profit taking.
The revision at least creates an association between usage and the added service, and puts the cost more in line with MiFi service plans from Virgin Mobile and Verizon Wireless.
Apple reported to put GSM/CDMA chip from Qualcomm into next iPhone: It's hard to take rumors too seriously months ahead of the typical June introduction of the next iPhone model, but this is a credible notion. Qualcomm has offered a GSM/CDMA hybrid chip to allow worldwide (and intra-country) roaming for some time. There are few world phones with both GSM and CDMA. Apple could have a big hit by using a combined offering, even as it reduces its costs of maintaining two separate production lines.
Apple's first CDMA will be out 3 February to existing Verizon Wireless customers who signed up to pre-order. Customers new to the carrier can get phones starting 10 February. While worldwide CDMA subscriptions are below a billion, and a relatively modest percentage have 3G access, it's not a market to ignore. Other phone platforms, like Android with Verizon, will fill those niches.
It was too good to last: Virgin Mobile's remarkable $40 MiFi plan with unlimited service will no longer be so remarkable. That $40 bought you unlimited data on Sprint's core (non-roaming) 3G network. Service lasted 30 days, an neither a contract nor cancellation fees were involved. The revised terms, for new plans activated starting 15 February, will throttle your usage after you pass 5 GB within the 30-day period. (The MiFi is a portable cellular router that shares a mobile broadband connection with up to five devices via Wi-Fi. The plan requires separate purchase of a MiFi from Virgin Mobile for $150.)
Just as T-Mobile implemented with their 5 GB, no overage charge plan several months ago, Virgin Mobile will restrict throughput to a low level (probably 50 to 100 Kbps, based on other carriers' actions worldwide) for the remainder of the period. You can immediately purchase another $40 plan, however, to reset the clock.
I assume Virgin Mobile came to the same conclusion that other carriers did. It's likely that up to the 97th percentile of users consumes under 5 GB, that two percent eat 5 to 20 GB per month, and 1 percent consumes tens or even hundreds of GBs. While Virgin Mobile could cancel such accounts, it's not a reliable way of restricting usage and causes hard feelings. Virgin Mobile also certainly did not want to put in overage charges because it's a fully prepaid plan.
Because Virgin Mobile was the lowest cost, I'm also assuming heavy-data users, being mauled with overage fees from Verizon Wireless or Sprint/Clearwire (on the 3G side of the 3G/4G hybrids they offer now), migrated to Virgin Mobile.
Virgin could change the plan's name to "5 GB or 30 days, whichever comes first," which would be like AT&T's iPad plans. But it's perhaps a little kinder than that, offering the throttled rate so you're not suddenly cut off or having to pay the meter right away.
So Verizon has an iPhone: Empires (of technology) have risen and fallen since Apple introduced its iPhone in 2007, and the question constantly on everyone's lips: When will Verizon get a model that works on its network? The answer: 3 February for existing customers and 10 February for new ones.
The CDMA-based iPhone has piles of tradeoffs, but these aren't necessarily worse than using a GSM iPhone on AT&T or other networks around the world.
The ViPhone doesn't have LTE. No phone has LTE. We're not going to see LTE-based phones with decent battery life and size for several months, and the early ones will be monsters of compromise. There is no agreed-upon voice standard for LTE networks yet, which means Verizon will make compromises in whatever voice option it picks (initially) before later upgrading to something more universally supported. I don't expect an LTE iPhone until 2012, because coverage and other tradeoffs won't make it desirable until then.
You can't talk and use 3G data at the same time. Verizon opted for EVDO (Evolution Data Only), which tells a story with its name. Voice is handled separately and can't be used simultaneously. Wi-Fi and voice can be used at the same time.
It's Verizon Wireless, for cripe's sake. Verizon has a history of offering less-than-forthcoming information about its service plans, and is in the middle of settling a dispute in which it denied for years charging people $1.99 and other fees for inadvertent usage of mobile data without a plan (when pressing a conveniently located button that's on every featurephone). People don't like any carrier, but Verizon didn't make itself any friends with this.
We don't know pricing plans yet. Verizon's 3G service plans aren't bad, but they aren't enormously better than AT&T's unless you use a ton of data each month.
Worldwide roaming isn't an option. Despite being 45-percent owned by GSM carrier Vodafone, the ViPhone won't work on most networks worldwide because it's CDMA only. It's odd that with Vodafone selling many millions of iPhones into other markets, Verizon Wireless, Vodafone, and Apple wouldn't have teamed up to offer both. There are chips, from Qualcomm notably, that allow GSM/CDMA switchover.
You won't be able to use your ViPhone in Canada or Mexico, notably, and you can't swap out a SIM in GSM markets for another carrier, something that carriers allow or make easy in some markets, or that you can jailbreak to allow. (Update: Canada and Mexico do have CDMA operators, and Verizon supports roaming. Coverage in Mexico is quite limited for voice and data; in Canada, there's broader availability, but 3G data isn't everywhere.)
AT&T has a path to faster service, with HSPA+ (21 Mbps) overlaying HSPA 7.2 (7.2 Mpbs) as the year goes on. Verizon is stuck at 3.1 Mbps EVDO Rev. A until it has a sufficient LTE footprint to jump its customers to that. (AT&T and Verizon will both require new hardware for faster networks, though. An iPhone 4 will not, to my knowledge, be firmware upgradable to HSPA+.)
If you live in an area with poor AT&T coverage and great Verizon coverage, which likely amounts to tens of millions of people's homes and workplaces around the US, then you are suddenly able to own an iPhone of your very own. AT&T's coverage can be sketchy in many parts of the country, notably exurbs and large parts of New England.
Verizon and Apple are offering a mobile hotspot feature (pricing not yet known), which lets the iPhone be used as a Wi-Fi hotspot, just like a MiFi, or Android 2.2 phone, or several other smartphones. This lets up to five devices connect. GSM networks and the GSM iPhone could support this feature, too. Apple has been keeping this in its back pocket, perhaps to save for Verizon. (I don't believe AT&T, unique among the carriers, has any phone with a mobile hotspot feature enabled
, nor does it offer a MiFi or similar router to the general public. Correction: AT&T reminded me via email that they had added a MiFi to their product line last November.)
Heavy data users will have an unlimited plan restored to them if Verizon offers its $30/mo unlimited data plan to new iPhone users. AT&T removed that plan for new subscribers in June, and has a 2 GB/mo plan for $25, with $10/GB overage fees (charged by the whole GB for any fraction).
Verizon will sell many millions of its CDMA iPhone to existing customers (upgrading from featurephones and sidegrading from other smartphones) and new customers (who have never owned a smartphone or are fleeing AT&T, cancellation fees be damned).
Verizon has the best and most solid 3G network in the US, proven time and again by independent third parties. AT&T has continually improved its network coverage and speed, and has great plans for 2011.
Can we have some competition now, please?
Apple is letting Verizon Wireless sell the iPad: The trick? Verizon will only offer through its 2,000-plus stores the Wi-Fi iPad, not the 3G model. The 3G iPad works only over GSM networks (up to HSPA 7.2). Instead, Verizon will sell you a plain Wi-Fi iPad ($500, $600, and $700 for 16, 32, and 64 GB); or, for an extra $130, it'll throw in a MiFi router. That $130 is the same price difference Apple and its partners collect for a 3G iPad over its Wi-Fi–only brethren.
Verizon pairs the iPad and MiFi with plans nothing like what the carrier has offered before. These are fixed-price, moderate-use offers with no termination penalty; the terms are just like AT&T's offer for the 3G iPad, but Verizon's prices are better. Verizon will charge $20 for 1 GB ($20 per GB over that) and $35 and $50 for 3 GB and 5 GB (with $10 per GB overage fees).
AT&T charges $15 for 250 MB and $25 for 2 GB for its 3G iPad plans. Additional units of each can be purchased at the same price after the 30-day period expires or you use up all the data. Virgin Mobile offers unlimited Sprint Nextel 3G broadband with a USB modem or MiFi for $40 for a 30-day period.
Because the MiFi can handle up to five devices over Wi-Fi, one could argue that if you don't need an iPad and do need a MiFi, this is a slick deal. Buy the package and sell the iPad without even opening its box. You'll probably get a few dollars under list for it.
In truth, it never left them: New Android-based phones from T-Mobile will include unlicensed mobile access (UMA) calling that allows talking over Wi-Fi or cellular networks without using special apps or VoIP as such. This is a change in tactics for the firm, which deprecated UMA for the last year or more. The service isn't yet available, nor was pricing discussed in the press release.
T-Mobile introduced converged Wi-Fi/cell calling using UMA four years ago; I wrote one of the first articles about this for The New York Times as it was launched in the Seattle area. The service slowly rolled out nationally, and, as far as I could tell, was a hit among the sweet spot of the audience. That was people who had poor coverage in the home, rather than those exceeding their cellular data pool.
Unlimited cell plans started percolating out a couple of years ago, and T-Mobile's offer there trumped any advantage from the flat-rate, unmetered Wi-Fi calling service. (UMA's other advantage is seamless handoff between Wi-Fi and cell during a call, also not an issue with unlimited calling.)
At some point in the last year, the company's UMA details started to disappear, and new phones weren't featuring UMA. As far as I recollect, only a few BlackBerry models could be purchased new with UMA, although existing converged calling customers could use the service without a change. And T-Mobile pushed the service for businesses, where UMA could integrate right into the enterprise's Wi-Fi network, providing better pricing and call quality than use of a plain cell plan.
Today's announcement puts UMA back front and center, although I have a hard time understanding why it's important to the company. It gives them a slight advantage in very narrow areas, especially for budget callers.
The general tech media is covering this as an innovation and something spectacular and new. It's the problem with short memories.
Virgin Mobile has upped the ante on cellular data: Despite being owned by Sprint Nextel, Virgin Mobile is challenging all four major US carriers with an as-you-need-it, no-contract $40 unlimited 3G data plan. The plan lasts for 30 days. Virgin previously had four levels of service topping out at 5 GB for $60 used within 30 days. The new tiers are $10 for 100 MB over 10 days or $40 for unlimited data during a 30-day period.
Because Virgin Mobile also offers the MiFi cellular router for a low price ($150, no commitment), it now has a killer offering. Use a MiFi with an unlimited plan and avoid the overage fees or throttling from every other competitor.
This also guts tethering plans. I'm an AT&T customer with an iPhone 4, and I also own a 3G iPad (with no current active service plan). I typically now travel with the iPad and activate a plan on the road. I had figured on my next trip in which I needed a laptop, I would switch to tethering on my iPhone 4 (from a $15/200 MB plan to a required $25/2 GB plan plus $20 for tethering). That now seems unappealing.
Instead, I should pay the $150 for the Virgin Mobile MiFi, and pay $40 whenever I'm traveling. Then my iPhone and laptop can both use Wi-Fi to access Sprint's 3G network, and if I'm traveling with colleagues, I can share access with them as well.
Sprint recently dropped its MiFi offering (so far as I can tell) in favor of the Overdrive 3G/4G, which works on its Clearwire division's 4G WiMax network (no limits on use) and the 3G CDMA network with a 5 GB cap. (It's $350 upfront or $100 with a two-year contract at $60/mo.) You can also go to Clearwire and buy a similar product (the Spot 4G+) with a $55/mo service plan for the same terms.
Sprint puts 3G in femtocells at last: Sprint had the first entry in the femtocell market, those tiny cell base station that a subscriber installs in the home and plugs into his or her own broadband connection. But Sprint and later Verizon's femtos were 2G (1xRTT) only. For calls, that was no problem, but the data side would run at 2G, or a phone would make a weak 3G connection and reduce the macro cell base station's spectrum efficiency. If you had a CDMA phone with Wi-Fi, of course, your phone would simply use your local network for data.
Sprint's new 3G EV-DO device won't be sold or available for sale. Qualifying customers who have reception problems indoors will be offered the device. Sprint's cover is about 75 percent of the US population versus Verizon's over 95 percent. Sprint leans on Verizon's network and pays roaming fees--and cancels customers who roam too much.
A 3G femtocell could preserve Sprint customers who normally have good service except at home or in an office.
Fierce Wireless reports that there's no special plan or fee for the 3G femtocell. The 2G cell that Sprint offers for sale comes with a $5 monthly usage fee, and an optional $10 unlimited US calling plan for a single line or $20 for a family plan.
AT&T released its 3G MicroCell in limited markets for its GSM network earlier in the year. It's $150 upfront and no monthly fee for coverage improvement, or $50 with a rebate if you sign up for a pricey $20-per-line unlimited calling plan. The calling plan is so spendy, that it likely makes more sense to get a better overall plan than the femtocell.
At Ars Technica, I explain femtocells: In a long article at Ars Technica, I explain what makes femtocells tick, and whether they wind up as a good deal or not for consumers. I've been skeptical for years about femtocells because they are a tricky value proposition for carriers to explain.
"Our network is great, but because it's not, pay us extra money for this thing that we've advertised we can already do."
Not a great sale. Verizon, with the best network for voice in the US, sells its femto for $250, and it's just intended for improving reception. I don't hear complaints about it. People who live in places with poor coverage know that they get great coverage elsewhere, I suppose, and suck it up.
Sprint splits the difference, selling it ($100) for both unlimited calling (with a monthly fee of $10-$20/mo) and pure coverage ($5/mo). Its deal is best.
AT&T charges a relatively low price ($150), but because of complaints about its network coverage and quality in some urban areas, gets the most criticism as it's not precisely what people want. If AT&T coupled the femto with a decent calling plan, it would be more of a sell. AT&T wants $20/mo for unlimited North American family plan calling, which is only slightly cheaper than unlimited calling without being tethered to a femto.
Matt Richtel at the New York Times nails the ire of AT&T customers about the 3G MicroCell: From a technology standpoint, AT&T 3G MicroCell, a small cellular base station that plugs into home or office broadband, seems to be a winner. From the marketing side, not so much. Richtel captures the tone of irritation among AT&T customers who have poor cellular service who have heard that for a mere $150 of their own money, they can improve AT&T's network.
I suspect we'll see far better deals from AT&T that make the femtocell palatable, though, but the firm might be making an error in billing it as something you can do for yourself, when it's clearly for the company's benefit in keeping you as a customer. AT&T should bleed a little more for you to make it work.
As I wrote several days ago, the femtocell is $150, but there's $100 rebate if you purchase a monthly $20 unlimited calling plan (same price for a single account or a family plan). The problem is that the $20/mo rate is pretty poor compared to AT&T's only slightly higher unlimited everywhere plan, and with Internet telephony services.
Given that most home callers are already covered under evening and weekends plans that are unmetered, AT&T should have gone lower, to $10/mo, to make this seem like a better deal. It would be used heavily by home businesses, but the company should prefer customer loyalty and less margin than having that customer switch to T-Mobile (unlimited home calling at $10/mo, faster 3G already deployed) or Verizon (more 3G coverage and more robust indoor phone service).
What I've read in the days since the MicroCell was finally announced is that AT&T will likely try to bundle femtocells into home routers, eating some or all of the cost there in favor of customer retention and satisfaction.
I disagree with one part of Richtel's logic, though, where he notes, "Even though it expects the towers to improve signal quality and take pressure off its network, they could displace landline telephones because wireless consumers will not need a second phone number." That's only true outside of AT&T's home markets. In those markets, if it can compete with cable, then AT&T spends less money servicing regulated voice lines, and makes more money from quadruple-play broadband plus wireless. Outside its competitive wireline territory, AT&T gets to eat Verizon and other firms' landline revenue if the wireless experience is better.
Where AT&T has the greatest risk is in markets in which cable operators provide a better triple-play offer, and customers have no AT&T wire coming into the house, but use AT&T wireless alongside cable service. This gives AT&T the least profit from that customer in its market, and the MicroCell is an incentive to not have traditional landline service.
The Wi-Fi Alliance noted that 10 mobile phones have certified 802.11n built in: I've been waiting a long, long time for 802.11n to appear in mobile phones, and the time has finally come. What the Wi-Fi Alliance didn't mention is that six of the 10 phones are made by Samsung and the other four by LG (you can search by protocol and device type on the alliance's site). It's not a problem; rather, this isn't a sudden industry movement (10 major phone makers each with an 802.11n phone), but it's part of an ongoing trend to make mobile devices faster and more efficient on Wi-Fi networks.
The Wi-Fi Alliance also noted that over 500 handsets have some form of Wi-Fi certification, 141m of which were shipped in 2009 (out of 580m Wi-Fi devices shipped that year). The alliance quotes ABI Research's prediction that 90 percent of smartphones will include Wi-Fi by 2014, as well as a total of 500m handsets with Wi-Fi shipping in 2014.
That's too conservative, is my take. ABI Research knows of what it speaks, but I recall several years ago when predictions were that 75 to 90 percent of laptops would have Wi-Fi built in by some year (2007? 2008?). In fact, the number was well over 95 percent; only a few bizarre outlying devices lacked Wi-Fi. The 90-percent figure for smartphones will likely be hit sooner in the U.S., Europe, and parts of Asia; if inclusion lags, it will be because China won't allow it in smartphones, not because manufacturers and carriers aren't keen to have it built in.
T-Mobile is trying to seize its HSPA+ momentum: The fourth-ranked carrier by subscribers in the US, T-Mobile is trying to establish an advantage through its fast deployment of 7.2 Mbps HSPA followed this year by 21 Mbps HSPA+. But you need the proper hardware to go with that faster network, and today's announcement of the webConnect Rocket USB Laptop Stick (no pricing yet) is signaling more to come.
The modem won't ship until March, and HSPA+ is available only in Philadelphia so far. T-Mobile said it will focus on bringing HSPA+ to the coasts first, and then move inland. In an interview, T-Mobile said it would have the "majority" of its footprint upgraded to HSPA+ in 2010.
The company also stressed its work on backhaul improvements, a bane of the mobile broadband industry. You can have as much bandwidth as you want on the local link between devices and the tower, but then you have to offload that to a core network. Many cell sites had paltry backhaul and it was difficult to bring in more. T-Mobile promised me more details soon, but the company recognizes that you can't advertise a raw rate of 21 Mbps--probably 5 to 7 Mbps to individual users--without having invested on the backside, as AT&T has learned to its high discomfort.
T-Mobile would like bragging rights for having the fastest network, although even with the latest market rollouts, it's still covering just over 200m people in approaching 300 cities. AT&T, by contrast, even with its smaller-than-Verizon 3G footprint has 350 metro areas (not just cities) with 3G service, although AT&T doesn't seem to discuss people passed with service.
I keep pressing T-Mobile on its 5 GB monthly bandwidth limit included with all its 3G plans as it discusses HSPA+ plans. The 5 GB limit was a quiet or explicit limit before 3G networks could routinely deliver over 1 Mbps (back in the EVDO Rev. 0 and GPRS/UMTS days), and now it seems quaint even for EVDO Rev. A and regular HSPA.
Why give people HSPA+ when, at full speed, they could use up their entire monthly allotment in just over two hours (assuming 5 Mbps average speed)?
So far, T-Mobile just repeats that most of its 3G users consume just a fraction of the 5 GB to which they are entitled each month.
The SIMFi takes a little bit of effort to wrap one's head around: This offering from Sagem Orga and Telefonica, announced at the Barcenola Mobile World Congress this week, puts a Wi-Fi radio into a standard SIM (Subscriber Identity Module), which is used in all GSM devices to authenticate to the network and associate billing information. This allows a 3G feature phone without Wi-Fi built in to become a hotspot, sharing mobile broadband with netbooks, smartphones, and other devices. It's fiendishly ingenious, as it obviates putting a 3G modem into multiple devices while offering "tethering" without a cable.
The new Palm Pre Plus and Pixi Plus can be turned into a 3G phone hotspot: While you can purchase third-party software on a limited number of phones to make them into 3G-to-Wi-Fi gateways, it's not a standard option on any major smartphone platform in the US. Palm and Verizon are offering this new feature--via a free downloadable program--for $40/mo (5 GB limit with metered overage fees) above the rest of your voice, texting, and data plan.
Talk of the Nation looks at whether the distractions of in-car Internet will add to driving's dangers: They aren't even looking at whether or not you are manipulating devices while driving; rather, whether the increased distraction even with voice recognition software for handling tasks is a danger on the order of talking on the mobile or texting.
It's an ugly truth proved repeatedly and extensively in the lab that hands-free devices don't reduce the dangers of talking on a cell phone. The act of talking with a remote person is what causes your brain to work differently; it's not motor functions, but higher functions, that add to the risk.
A researcher in this field, Nicholas Ashford at MIT, said on the program, "...interactive communication technology, which is the kind that's being put in the automobiles now, is even more demanding of higher-level visual and audio functioning, and so it doesn't take a brain surgeon to realize the brain is compromised." He also said, "There's two freedoms to be balanced: the freedom to do anything in your automobile, which I would argue should be less clear than doing whatever you want in your home. But there's also a freedom from harm for your passengers, for the pedestrians, and these freedoms have to be balanced."
Ashford also noted on the issue of talking on the phone at all, "The evidence shows very clearly that whether it's hands-free or it isn't hands-free, there is a significant, a four-fold increase in accident potential."
A caller notes that he's a much safer driver using Ford's system because it lets him focus on the road, but Ashford differentiates between anecdote and statistics.
Multi-tasking is a myth that our brain does a great job to foster.
(Graphic above from the NPR show Car Talk, the hosts of which have been far out in front of the issue of talking while driving. I've seen the less polite bumpersticker, too: "Shut Up and Drive.")