LTE's backers vow to KILL OFF WI-FI and BLUETOOTH
I am made all things to all men
Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, weightless and Sigfox, not to mention GPS and TETRA: LTE’s proponents plan to make every one of them redundant, while also ensuring their own advanced wireless standard becomes the only one anyone, anywhere, will ever need. And all this by March 2016.
Long-Term Evolution's supporters have never hidden their aspirations to make it the globe’s dominant radio system, but the priority list for Release 13 reads like a battle plan, assaulting those niches where alternative technologies still dominate. Venturing into unlicensed spectrum, connecting embedded machines, locating and even sending jobs to the printer on your desk — each one will be part of the LTE standard within the next two years.
That particular LTE standard is being developed by the 3GPP (Third-Generation Partnership Project), and a new release of aims and developments is published every 18 months or so. It used to be numbered by year, but that got embarrassing as implementations lagged behind specification, so now it’s just numbered instead.
Release 12 should get signed off in March next year, and the work on Release 13 has already started. Last week, the 3GPP published the priorities for that standard, and it seems that connecting mobile phone calls is pretty low on the list.
LTE goes critical
Number One on the LTE hit list is TETRA, which, outside of the US, dominates public safety and the emergency services. Inside the US, that title is held by P25 (a suite of standards for digital radio communications), but maybe not for long.
The US FirstNet project is a $7bn national network being built to provide connectivity to first responders. The network has been commissioned by the federal government, which has donated 20MHz of national radio spectrum. FirstNet will be based on LTE, despite the standard lacking key capabilities, which have prevented it being used for critical communications.
The most obvious problem is group calling — TETRA networks are regularly used to connect large groups of people, while LTE has been a one-to-one communication standard. TETRA also supports push-to-talk, so responders can be alerted by a squawking radio without having to answer a call.
LTE's supporters reveal plan for GLOBAL RADIO DOMINANCE
These things are so important that last month the 3GPP set up a special working group, the WG SA6, to ensure that Release 13 has all the capabilities necessary to compete with TETRA, and eventually P25.
More impressive is TETRA's ability to operate without a network. Individual radios can switch to direct mode, working like walkie talkies in situations when the emergency is so bad that the mobile network disappears, as happened for a time during the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London.
TETRA can also use a radio as a relay, extending coverage into areas where it isn’t usually required. A good example of this is mountain rescue, when police can drive a TETRA-equipped Land Rover onto a hillside to provide backhaul for the officers involved in the search.
LTE can't do any of that, for the moment at least. Release 12 does include a Device-to-Device communication mode (D2D), also known as Proximity Services. However, that’s limited to setting up a P2P Wi-Fi connection, and is generally done by coordinating users over the LTE network. Reaching out and talking to another LTE handset, using LTE, is something still in development.
Who wants to be Weightless?
Next up is the Internet of Things, or M2M as anyone not riding the bubble calls it, or Machine-Type Communications (MTC) as it known in the weird world of the 3GPP. Telephone networks are already carrying out M2M deployments, squeezing the last revenue out of their 2G networks with an application for which they are almost-entirely unsuited.
Pushing a mobile phone into an electricity meter is like encoding a bitmap in XML — possible, but adds no value whilst increasing the size of the data disproportionately. The signalling involved in maintaining a cellular connection is far more than would be generated by any electricity meter, creating a solution which is inelegant to the point of obscenity, justified only by legacy infrastructure and a general lack of imagination.
Release 10 of LTE already allows machines to take a back seat when the network is congested, but Release 13 will enhance LTE’s MTC capabilities, so it can justly claim to be suitable for the Internet of Things.
That means a new class of device, capable of dropping off the network for extended periods, and super-sensitive reception at very low bandwidth. The 3GPP is aiming at a 15dB improvement in reception, so devices can pick up a paging message from the basement or under the stairs, essentially anywhere a meter might be located.
Taking out Bluetooth
The attack on Bluetooth, meanwhile, has already begun. LTE Direct is already part of Release 12 and offering the kind of discovery service central to Bluetooth LTE, and the iBeacon, concept. Detecting an LTE transmission isn’t very difficult, so Qualcomm (who own a good number of LTE patents, but surprisingly few Bluetooth ones) is promoting the use of LTE to detect passing shoppers, nearby friends, or relevant services.
Qualcomm and friends argue that LTE Direct has better range (around 500m) and without cloud-based tracking (a la FourSquare et al) privacy is less of an issue. The problem is the interoperability required — picking up the signal from a phone on a competitor’s network is easy; identifying the owner is much harder. Qualcomm accepts this is a huge issue, but points out that SMS interoperability proves it can be done, if operators really want to do it.
Putting the boot into Wi-Fi
Wireless ethernet is an even tougher nut to crack. The popularity of the protocol is indisputable, as is the fact that Qualcomm’s patent holdings in Wi-Fi are quite minimal. Hence, a two-pronged approach is needed.
First up is functionality. With LTE Release 12 comes “Local IP Access”, or LIPA, which provides an LGW in the eNB, and we all know where that leads.
Just in case we don’t: LIPA is aimed at femtocells or similar — LTE base stations (or eNBs) provided by the network operator and plugged into one’s home broadband to ensure coverage. Normally data flowing into a femtocell goes to the network operator, for passing onto the internet, but if the femtocell has a Local Gateway (LGW) then it can ask permission to distribute data onto the local area network instead.
So, that lets an LTE device access the printer beside it, without routing traffic to the network operator and back (as would be required with cloud printing).
The second prong is to get some of that unlicensed radio spectrum that Wi-Fi uses so effectively. The plan here is called LAA (Licensed-Assisted Access) and involves setting up a second, parallel, LTE connection in an unlicensed band where Wi-Fi usually lives, and offloading data traffic onto it.
The 3GPP is aware that interference with existing Wi-Fi won’t be tolerated, so careful steps must be taken — for as long as people insist on using such an outdated technology.
The FCC wants to know where you are, and LTE is here to help
Location tracking is an area where satellite systems would seem to have gained an unassailable lead. When E911 was introduced — requiring US operators to locate any handset making an emergency call — various triangulation techniques were proposed, but the decreasing cost of GPS led to it being embedded in every phone.
These days, a clear view of the sky is all that’s necessary to know where one is. However, a clear sky isn’t always available, particularly indoors where an increasing number of “mobile” 911 calls are originating. The FCC wants to be able to locate a mobile, even when it’s indoors, and the 3GPP is seemingly happy to help.
With LTE Release 13 an operator will be able to locate any phone within 50 meters horizontally, and three meters vertically. That second parameter is important when the caller is in an apartment block, and something that GPS won’t ever be able to provide.
One standard to rule them all?
So, will every other radio standard bow down to the inevitable dominance of the LTE? Probably not. The 3GPP creates standards to let mobile operators sell location services, compete with TETRA networks, replace WLANs, and compete with Bluetooth, but having the standards is the easy part.
A decade ago the network operators had Wireless Village, a messaging platform which promised interoperability and enhanced functionality, but they failed to back it. Five years ago the operators had Joyn, but even Telefonica, one of Joyn's most adamant backers, deployed a competing (and incompatible) technology in the UK. The fact is, network alliances are eminently fissiparous; working together goes against the grain.
SMS was made interoperable because customers asked for it, but there is no clarion call for LTE printing, no-one demanding that LTE tell them when passing a Starbucks. Mobile operators are happy to talk about the Internet of Things, but only to fill their legacy networks. Sigfox, for its part, is innovating, by building national Internet of Things networks on proprietary standards, and it’s hard to imagine mobile network operators being sufficiently agile to compete.
LTE could indeed be the standard to do it all, but there's an enormous gulf between the documented specification and the commercial service, and operators will need a leap of faith to cross it. ®