Slow connections can’t come fast enough as industry eyes low bandwidth

LTE-NB has been designed with much lower power use in mind

Snail photo Jurgen Schoner CC wikimedia
Jurgen Schoner (wikimedia)

Huawei GMBF There’s a general acceptance within the mobile industry that the more advanced forms of 4G and 5G will eventually conjure up connections of 1Gb/s. But for many speakers at Huawei’s Global Mobile Broadband Forum 2015, 10kb/s is every bit as exciting.

At the Hong Kong event, speakers were positively effusive about LTE-NB, or Narrow Band, an optimised variant of the widely deployed 4G LTE technology, designed for the remote control of things, with better range, and a much, much lower power use.

It would be a service running at tens of kbps, or early eighties dial up speeds, and so slow that the number generally doesn’t get talked about. The initial spec of 4G was a theoretical 150Mb/s. Since then we’ve seen carrier aggregation offering double that, and Monaco Telecom already has a commercial 450Mb/s service. So what’s next?

Huawei CEO Ken Hu led the charge for slower 4G, and it's something that has got lots of people very excited as it will let devices such as temperature sensors and meters have a ten-year battery life. We'll also see connected fire alarms, bins that ask when they need to be emptied, and lost luggage saying where it is.

In this connectivity everywhere brave new world, the vast number of devices which are connected will have a much lower cost, and Hu wants to see a cellular materials bill, and 4G cellular at that, down in the region of $1 a unit.

It's Bluetooth money which makes the idea a lot less ridiculous than it might first sound, but also opens up the can of worms labelled “intellectual property”.

You might see how Huawei, which claims to own a quarter of the IP on 4G, would think it’s fine to give away the tech on devices and then make money on selling infrastructure to operators, but companies with a prime interest in devices might not agree.

One such vendor, Gordon Aspin of pioneering module maker U-Blox, told The Register he thought the price is fantastically optimistic. A GSM module sells in quantity for just under $5.

To get LTE down there with its significantly higher requirements for processing power will be a challenge. He argued that IP accounts for around 15 per cent of the cost in GSM, but beyond the bill of materials there are significant design challenges if you want to get the ten-year battery life promised for the technology, not least of which is antenna design.

It will be in the hands of non-mobile industry designers to incorporate (often into existing products), and is one part of the technology which will have a massive effect on the efficiency of the radio operation.

Someone for whom the narrow band can’t come soon enough is Vodafone’s group R&D director Luke Ibbetson, who says he’s been banging on for ages about the need for a Low Power Wide Area cellular technology to take on Bluetooth, RF mesh and Zigbee.

Ibbetson claims that the current technologies can only serve 15 per cent of the market: “We don’t have a solution that is the right space; we are having to turn away customers”. He’s got a good idea of what he wants from narrowband, and it’s very much in line with the Huawei's, in terms of low-power devices at least.

Battery life needs to be over 10 years, the module price less than $5 a pop, and you need to be able to have 100,000 units per cell, with an extended range over GSM (which is up to 30km per cell).

“Low power need to be holistic end to end," said Ibbetson, and if "the price isn’t just $5, but $4, or $3 we will have failed to address the market; we are not looking at fine engineering here."

That fine engineering might be a reference to a dispute in the standards body which is discussing protocols. The quick and dirty solution would be to use GPRS-style software stacks. This is the route preferred by Huawei, while Ericsson is looking for something more powerful, flexible and expensive in term of processing power, namely LTE stacks.

The very significant new standard, known as Release 13, should be frozen next month and ratified in March. That’s close enough for manufacturers to start building kit today for sale next year.

Whatever the reason for the delay, Ibbetson said he is “on the verge of losing patience with the process [as we] have some of the enabling technologies built but not standardised”. The company is already conducting trials.

But before any rollout the industry will need to nail the frequencies on which these devices operate. Ibbetson gave a very Vodafone view of the world; he wants 900MHz, which Vodafone has in all the major territories where the network operates.

He also wants 1800MHz ... and that’s about it. The higher frequencies don’t have the coverage. There might be some value at 800MHz but that’s to come. He might however find that other networks, with other chunks of spectrum, take a different view.

But, radio specifications and spectrum are not the only things keeping customers waiting. One area not discussed at the conference was the need for soft-SIMs.

If the Internet of Things cellular devices are to be both cheap and small they can’t have the physical size and cost of a card which needs to be inserted, and even the embedded version is too big and expensive.

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