How do you get anything done in the mobile industry? Usually, progress involves an elegant dance between market forces, regulation and standards bodies. Sometimes, the dance isn’t quite so elegant and one partner decides to take a lead – forcefully.
Take the shift to LTE, otherwise known as 4G networks, which is well into its stride at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week.
On Monday, industry association GSMA said it expected its members to invest $800bn – yes, $800bn – over the next three years to update their networks. Vittorio Colao, CEO of Vodafone, Franco Bernabe, CEO of Telecom Italia, and Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of AT&T Mobility, all called for the regulators to be nicer to them so they could make more profits and reinvest them in their networks.
On Tuesday, Li Yue, president of 650 million-susbcriber China Mobile, brought the $800bn figure into focus by saying that he wanted to have 200,000 TDD-LTE basestations in place on his network by the end of next year. If a macrocell basestation costs around $100,000, to pick a popular estimate out of the air, China Mobile’s basestation spend next year could amount to $20 billion. If Li plans to upgrade his whole 900,000-strong basestation estate, that could account for $100bn – although he’ll probably get a discount for bulk.
At the other end of the communications chain, the chip makers are making valiant efforts to develop LTE chipsets which support the whole standard, including the various approaches to voice on LTE, have the right balance of applications and graphics performance, and won’t flatten a battery in half a day.
One of their bugbears is the sheer number of radio bands they need to support in order to build a truly global handset or tablet. The Next Generation Mobile Network Alliance (NGMN), which represents operators’ needs to the device and network equipment makers, has identified 22 legacy and LTE bands that its members want supported in a true global roaming terminal.
This is a problem because the design of RF power amplifiers tends to be a trade-off between efficiency and convenience – a PA will work efficiently when tuned to a particular operating band, or can cover more bands with less efficiency. Baseband chips also have limitations in terms of the number of PAs with which they can work, so a true global handset might need to multiplex the control of the PAs.
The operators are not moved by these issues. According to Huang Yuhong, director of the wireless department of China Mobile Research Institute, who leads an NGMN project to define multiband and multimode requirements for user equipment: “We hope in LTE we can have one terminal to roam everywhere.”
ST-Ericsson used MWC to announce its NovaThor L8540 LTE chip, which integrates a dual-core ARM Cortex A9 processor, an Imagination Technologies graphics engine and an LTE/HSPA+/TD-HSPA modem on one 28nm die. The chip can support up to eight bands.
Qualcomm’s Serge Willenegger, vice president of technology and head of cellular technology portfolio management, said that world phones would probably need to support 11 bands, and that the company is trying to combat the proliferation of RF PAs this implies using a ‘divide and conquer’ approach, working with PA module and filter makers to reduce the number of parts involved and to enable customers to address the global market with a single part.
The NGMN project that Huang leads is trying to define a roadmap of feasible technologies for a global LTE terminal. She is not troubled by today’s multiband issues: “Some vendors have tunable antennas to cover 700MHz to 2.7GHz. The amplifier vendors are working on 700MHz to 2.7GHz parts, and we hope to have prototypes to assess soon.
“If the operators jointly promote a wideband solution then the technology is not a challenge,” she said, “especially if the operators jointly put the requirements to the chipset vendors.”
So there you have the essence of market forces at work. Forget the technical issues – apparently, if the opportunity is large enough, the market will overcome them.
It’ll be interesting to see if it works.