The growing crisis in mobile telephony in London could be avoided with a £600m investment in advanced multi-mode wireless base stations that exploit high-speed 3G and Wi-Fi and leave space for 4G, claims an industry expert.
Doug Pulley, CTO of Picochip, a Bath-based electronics firm that makes the chips that go into cellular base stations, said London needed 70,000 “small cells” to relieve existing congestion in airwaves and provide consumers with good service once next generation services, expected from 2013 onwards, are available.
Operators could now start installing the latest generation of small cell base stations because they come with support for 3G HSPA, 4G LTE and Wi-Fi built-in. This means operators could switch on LTE (or fit the LTE radio components) as soon as they have won their 4G licences, he said.
Pulley predicted London would have two LTE network operators, and the rest of the UK one. These would wholesale capacity to the LTE licence holders who would then resell capacity to their retail operations as well as a host of mobile virtual network operators, he said.
Network sharing would have to be the norm because the five LTE licence holders expected to emerge from the delayed auction, now set for Q2 2012, could not each afford to build national networks. This was even though the cost of a small cell base station was around €10,000, one-tenth of the cost of a traditional cellular base station, he said.
London mayor Boris Johnson and others have warned that London will run out of mobile capacity within a year, and that the influx of visitors to the 2012 Olympics was likely to cause congestion on existing networks. Other, the networks among them, think Johnson is being alarmist and that there is enough capacity to cope.
Nonetheless, mobile network capacity is under pressure due to the increasing use of smartphones, tablets and other connected devices. Smartphones are expected to represent at least 60% of new handset purchases in the next year.
Tablet sales have rocketed from zero to 3.6 million in less than two years and are expected to double in the next 12 months, said Dominic Sunnebo, consumer insight director at market researcher Kantar Worldpanel, which has just published a study on tablets.
Sunnebo said most tablet users rely on a Wi-Fi connection, but 40% also use them on the road. The availability of high-speed access could tempt more to take them out.
According to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index, a tablet has 122 times the impact on network traffic of a basic feature phone, and six times the impact of a smartphone.
This will drive up the 67% increase in mobile data traffic that communications regulator Ofcom recorded in Q1 2011, which rose 3,800% in the three years to the end of 2010.
Ofcom believes that network operators are keeping pace with traffic growth, but noted that revenues were not. In its 2011 report on the market, Ofcom reported that users’ average mobile download speed at the end of 2010 was 1.5Mbps, compared with 6.2Mbps for fixed lines.
Ofcom said the average off-peak speed was 1.9Mbps, compared with 1.4Mbps in peak periods. Average download speeds for operators on their 3G networks were between 16% and 50% lower in peak periods than in off-peak periods, it said.
More recent figures from Broadband Genie, which runs public speed tests, found that O2’s downloads averaged around 1.95Mbps, and Three’s 1.45Mbps.
‘In the last few months, O2 has actually averaged closer to 2.5Mbps and Three around 1.9Mbps, but we’d like to see that held over a longer time before taking it as gospel,’ said Chris Marling, who edits the site.
Without access to more frequencies, the mobile networks are ever more congested. This means users have difficulty getting on the network, and once on, endure slow speeds. The network operators are relieving some congestion by offloading traffic to Wi-Fi networks.
Ofcom said Wi-Fi offered ‘some potential’ for offloading traffic, but claimed the 4G auction, which has been delayed by the threat of legal action by the network operators, and subsequent introduction of LTE would prove a ‘step change’ in network capacity.
Rupert Baines, a spokesman for Picochip, thinks Ofcom is misstating the situation. ‘Wi-Fi and LTE are complementary technologies, and cable is crucial to both, which means network owners have to deal with a portfolio of technologies,’ he told Mobile.
Baines warned against being seduced by the headline speeds promised by LTE. He said the theoretical top of 150Mbps would drop to 100Mbps once the network was built, with probably 50Mbps delivered due to local radio conditions. ‘And that 50 meg will be shared by around 200 people per cell,’ he said.
This means most users could expect reliable, non-congested traffic and uncontested access at between 3Mbps and 5Mbps, Baines said.
This would be enough for normal streaming video, voice, email and social network updates, but it won’t be available for the Olympics, which will add hugely to the number of concurrent users.
Lack of fibre
Baines said the ability to leverage Wi-Fi and LTE would largely depend on the availability of fibre networks for backhaul. He said analysts at a recent Next Generation Network Conference had lengthened their predictions by a year as to when LTE would rollout. They blamed the lack of fibre between exchanges and premises.
Fortunately, London already had extensive fibre networks owned by BT, Virgin Media, Colt, Geo and others, Baines said. But most of it was underground, and the mobile industry needs fibre above ground. Rectifying this would slow LTE rollouts, he said.
Baines refused to be drawn on who should do what about the looming crisis, but Broadband Genie’s Marling was more critical. He said London Boroughs’ individual efforts to acquire Wi-Fi networks quickly ‘did not inspire confidence’, and it was time Ofcom and the network operators ‘stopped playing boardroom games’.
‘While everyone from America to Australia, including most of Europe, is getting on with auctions or even deploying the technology now, we’re still playing politics,’ he said.
That sounds like a cue for ministers Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to speed things up.