While the CTIA may like to bill its annual spring show as "The Most Important Technology Event of the Year", the relatively thin floor traffic at this week's CTIA Wireless 2005 show in New Orleans may cause them to rethink that title. The aisles were generally easy to navigate and the biggest draws were the free wireless access throughout the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and the computerized waterfall in front of Samsung's booth.
(click on image to view AVI movie - 2.8M)
Fear and Loathing in the Big Easy
If I were to judge the state of the broadband cellular industry by what was on display at CTIA Wireless 2005, I'd say there's a good news / bad news story developing. The good is that deployment of 3G cellular networks based on technologies such as 1x EV-DO will continue - expanding the number of places where you'll be able to get data service with speeds in the hundreds of kbps.
The bad is that those wider pipes may be quickly clogged by all the video, music and gaming content that network owners and MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) will be pushing us to buy. This is likely to leave anyone with real work to do on those networks frustrated and wondering where all the hyped bandwidth went.
So why is the cellular industry gearing up to use their shiny new high-bandwidth networks to push multimedia junk food? A key reason is the same thing that is moving wired telcos to compete with the cable folks - rapidly declining voice revenue. What is happening now with wired VoIP will inevitably happen for cellular voice. The only questions are when and what the rate of change will be.
Cellular and Wi-Fi
If there were a lot of combination cellular / WiFi products at CTIA, they sure were keeping a low profile. The handset manufacturers were focusing their cute little toys more on video, music and games and touting new models for 3G standards such as HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Data) that have yet to start U.S. rollout.
Some of the activity in this area is focused around UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access). UMA is a recent standard developed by Philps, Motorola, Ericsson and others to enable subscribers to roam and handover between GSM / GPRS cellular and unlicensed wireless networks using dual-mode mobile handsets.
Kineto Wireless didn't have any announcements at CTIA, having done most of them last month for the 3GSM show. But it was demonstrating its INC back-end controller and EMS software for UMA networks and UCP-100 UMA reference design phone (made by Chi Mei). Other UMA-enabled phones include BenQ's P50 Pocket PC phone, and HP's H6315 that is currently available from T-Mobile.
UMA isn't the only cellular / Wi-Fi game in town, however. Kyocera and Boingo Wireless announced that they would be producing a combination CDMA / Wi-Fi handset, but provided no important details such as when, where or how much.
This story will be interesting to watch to see how successful the cellular industry is in keeping the forces of voice revenue erosion at bay. Change isn't entirely within their control, however, since consumer networking companies are attacking using a combination of VoIP and wireless handsets, which bypass cellular networks entirely.
Consumer Cellular Repeaters
Turning to more mundane matters, ever wonder why you can get a good cell signal deep inside shopping malls, parking lots and other places where there is plenty of steel and concrete between you and the nearest cell tower? The answer is two words - cellular repeaters.
These devices typically consist of a "donor" antenna, which ususally mounts outside and an indoor unit that contains the repeater electronics and panel antenna. The two are connected by a cable and powered by a wall-wart power supply and - unlike their WLAN cousins - require no configuration as part of the setup. The repeaters simply receive a weak cell signal, regenerate and rebroadcast it so that it's clean and strong. They also automatically adjust their amplification so that they don't provide too much of a good thing.
I saw a few of these devices at last year's CTIA, but this year they seemed to be more abundant. And the big change were pitches that contained the magic word SOHO in them, even though the prices still have a way to go before they can really earn that name.
Spotwave was spotlighting the new packaging of its SpotCell Home (shown below) and Enterprise "indoor coverage solutions". A key part of Spotwave's pitch is that its products are carrier-approved. Booth reps also said that cell providers are actually some of Spotwave's largest customers and use the products for signal enhancement in cellular retail stores.
Spotwave's SpotCell Home
The Home product is already available through some carriers, including Cingular Wireless, which also resells the Enterprise model to corporate customers. You'll have to want one really badly, though, since pricing is a hefty $895.
Shyam Telecom was showing its line of repeaters that included its SOHO / Home Booster. They have two models to cover different cell standards and said retail pricing will be around $800 when they hit retail shelves later this year.
Other repeater vendors I saw included Wilson Electronics (popular with the long-haul trucker set) and Advanced RF Technologies. The latter told me they have been trying to get their SOHO product carried by a US electronics retailer, but so far, no sale.
Mobile Broadband Routers and Modems
Carriers seem mostly interested in sucking up the 3G bandwidth they are rolling out with entertainment content. But it looks like someone is thinking about more mundane - or perhaps business-focused - applications for those wireless broadband bits.
Kyocera showed its KR1 router, which can use either its Passport KPC650 card or a 1xEV-DO phone connected via USB. The router supports multiple wired and wireless clients via its four 10/100 Ethernet ports and 802.11g access point.
Routing features include what you'd expect for a consumer router - port forwarding and filtering, VPN pass-through and even domain blocking. The wireless half supports both WEP and WPA and MAC address filtering for security. The booth rep I spoke with said Kyocera was in discussions with U.S. carriers, but had nothing to announce in terms of pricing or availability.
I was surprised to see Motorola showcasing its 1xEV-DO router in the show's Wireless Home display. But when I went to the Moto booth to check it out, I got the feeling that the router with built-in radio and single Ethernet LAN port was more of a trial balloon.
I was told that first availability was likely to be outside the U.S., but could not get further details. Note the cabled antenna in the photo, which can be stuck on a window to improve reception.
Although not present at CTIA, Vodaphone was over at CeBit showing a router to be used with their At Home Talk and Web service scheduled to be rolled out in Germany next quarter. The box connects to UMTS networks (maximum data rate of 384 kbps) and is intended to handle voice, data and fax traffic.
Vodafone UMTS At Home Talk and Web router
(photo courtesy of Digital-Lifestyles.info)
I found a few interesting things in AnyData's booth, including another 1xEV-DO router. Similar to Motorola's design, it had a built-in radio, single LAN port and built-in 802.11g WLAN. But since AnyData is an OEM / ODM, I couldn't get pricing or availability. The company also makes the guts of Proxicast's LAN-Cell routers for use on older (and slower) CDMA 1X and GPRS networks.
While voice and entertainment are the sexy part of cellular services, CTIA devoted a special area to Machine-to-Machine (M2M) cellular vendors. Multitech's booth had a display of its entire line of cellular modems in its booth, including the recently-annouced EDGE models and the new packaging shown in the photo below.
MultiTech EDGE modem
There are over a dozen models in the MultiModem line for CDMA, GPRS and now EDGE networks with RS232, Ethernet, USB and even Bluetooth device connections. MultiTech also introduced a line of modems with integrated GPS receivers.
Another market that hasn't been on my radar is the burgeoning fixed cellular business. These devices come in phone and "terminal" forms and provide phone, fax and data service for users who can't get or don't want a normal telco wired line.
Telular told me that a large part of their business comes from Latin America, where their fixed cellular phones and terminals are used instead of conventional wired phones. In areas with inadequate or no existing wired phone infrastructure, it's a lot easier to throw up a couple of cell towers and deploy fixed cellular phones than it is to string cable.
Telular SX6P-300G Fixed Cellular Phone
An alternative approach to Telular's dedicated terminals is provided by AdvanceTec's AdvanceCommunicator. Coming in an array of models to match popular phones, the AdvanceCommunicator combines a charging stand, speakerphone and corded handset. All you have to do is to remember to drop your phone into its cradle when you come home. You can't buy direct from AdvanceTec, but their products are resold by cellular carriers at prices around $250.
The AdvanceCommunicator, however, doesn't connect up your normal phones so that they can use a "docked" cell phone to make and receive calls. For that, you'll need a product like PhoneLabs' Dock-N-Talk, which seems like a better deal at about $150 for the unit and $20 for a cable to match your phone.
Competition for EV-DO & Other stuff
Lest you think that EV-DO is the only cellular broadband game in town, cellular infrastructure and handset providers were busy demoing products for yet another entry into the cellular acronym hall of fame. HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) is being pushed to market in the U.S. even before its predecessor - UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) has gained much of a footprint.
The push is in response to the expected rollout later this year of EV-DO by the newly-merged Sprint / Nextel. Verizon is already aggresively expanding its EV-DO footprint and gaining good reviews for the 300-400kbps throughput experienced by most users. The first iteration of HSDPA is expected to deliver throughput between 400 - 700kbps when it is installed as an upgrade to Cingular's current six-city UMTS installed base by the end of 2005.
Note that HSDPA provides such speeds in the downlink direction only. A separate standard - HSUPA (High-Speed Uplink Packet Access) - is needed to support "broadband" speeds in the other direction. While Nokia announced its High Speed Packet Access
(I-HSPA) solution at CTIA that supports both HSDPA and HSUPA, most of the buzz was on HSDPA. Both Samsung and LG showed compact HSDPA handsets and Lucent and Ericsson were demoing HSDPA-fueled high-speed downloads.
Turning to a few other odds and ends, I saw Samsung's OfficeServ SOHO VoIP tucked into a corner of their expansive booth.
Samsung OfficeServ SOHO VoIP and
WIP-5000M VoWLAN phone
It didn't have anything to do with cellular broadband or dual-mode phones, but it sure looked pretty. The booth rep didn't really want to talk about it much, saying that it was currently out in Europe, but that Samsung had no U.S. pricing or availability to share.
Finally, I got ParkerVision's pitch for its new power amplifier business at one of the press events. The story is that the company wants to share some of the "D2D" technology that gives its 802.11b SignalMax products range that rivals products based on Airgo's True MIMO chipset [see Do Extended-range WLAN technologies deliver? for more info]
ParkerVision is working on two approaches to sharing its power amplifier wealth. The Digital Power Amp (DPA) is intended to be a drop-in replacement for existing competitive products so that vendors can easily boost the range of existing products without major redesign.
The Vector Power Amp (VPA) actually replaces the power amp and transmit section of a radio, so it requires much more redesign. But it can provide an even more efficient transmitter design and lower power drain or boost range over competitive designs.
The initial designs handle up to 3GHz, which covers 802.11b, 11g, and most cellular standards. The company expects to have a 6GHz design later this year, which will extend coverage to 802.11a products.
What I really wanted to know, however, is when ParkerVision would have an 11g version of its RangeMax products out. But that answer, my friends, was left still unanswered.