Podcast: Impact of 3G Licensing Fees on Prices and Network Coverage

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about 3G licensing fees and their impact on end user prices and network deployments in different countries today. I got magnificent feedback on this story and this podcast with Peter Curwen, visiting professor for telecommunications strategy at Strathclyde University in the U.k. is a direct sequel. In the podcast we discuss:

  • Licensing fees were free in Finland compared to 50 billion Euros in Germany. Yet, end user prices in Germany and Finland for 3G are pretty similar. How is this possible?
  • Network Coverage is also very different from country to country. Which factors influence this?
  • Why is the French mobile market so uncompetitive?
  • Austria and Italy are far ahead in terms of network deployment and end user prices. What was done differently and by whom?
  • While WiMAX be a threat for 3G in the next 5 years?

The Podcast, 26 minutes, MP3, 25MB

Feature Request: Remote Phone Screen via 3G Video Call

Here’s a feature request for Nokia or the developers over at S60 (because they develop my favorite phones…): Have you ever been asked to help someone over the phone with the configuration of his or her phone or to explain a seemingly simple task such as writing and sending an SMS? If so, you probably know how difficult these seemingly simple things are to explain over the phone. Since we have 3G and video calls now how about extending the video call feature to alternatively send over what the other side sees on the screen!? Remote support would be dead simple then: You could see what the person on the other side sees on the screen and give directions what to do next. Remote keyboard support would be the cream on top but I know that this would be more difficult to do.

Evolved EDGE – The New Kid On the Block

I couple of years ago I thought EDGE (Enhanced Data Rate for GSM evolution) would not have a big chance on the market with new technologies like 3G and later on HSDPA entering the market. An yet, EDGE has made it into many networks around the world. In some countries, 3G hasn’t made it beyond big cities yet and I have come to value EDGE quite a lot in my frequent travels which often bring me to smaller towns or even the countryside. Interesting to see that work is underway in 3GPP to push EDGE forward once again.

Evolved EDGE

Today, EDGE for GPRS mainly increases user data rates by using new modulation and coding schemes which go far beyond the original GPRS specification. Effectively, EDGE increases GPRS speeds about four times. In practice, speeds of about 220 kbit/s can be reached under good radio conditions. Evolved EDGE sets out to increase the user data rate once again to a level around 1 MBit/s with the following enhancements:

Multiple Receiver Chains: Today, GSM mobile phones use once receiver chain. By adding a second one which analyzes the incoming signal (with a different polarization or different phase I am not sure) independently, chances to decode the data stream correctly increases. This means that higher modulation and coding schemes can be used in the same conditions as if the mobile phone only had one receiver chain. Note that this is a receive diversity scheme and not a MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) which will be used in 4G systems like LTE, WiMAX and also in the next generation of Wifi (802.11n).

Higher Order Modulation: EDGE uses 8PSK modulation which encodes 3 bits per transmission step. Evolved EDGE introduces 16QAM modulation which can encode 4 bits per transmission step and 32QAM modulation which encodes 5 bits per step. In practice, however, 32QAM is difficult to use for average transmission conditions on the air interface.

Two Simultaneous Radio Channels: Since 1992 the principle of GSM has been to use only a single carrier frequency to receive data. With E-EDGE, mobiles can now receive data on two frequencies. This could in effect double the data rate available to a single user.

Independent Transmission and Reception Chains: Another principle that E-EDGE is about to lift is the use of only a single transmission and reception chain which so far restricts mobiles to only sending or receiving at a time. By introducing independent transmission and reception chains, data rates are increased as the mobile phone does not have to switch between transmission and reception. This doesn’t only free up the timeslots used for the reverse direction but also frees up adjacent timeslots which are not usable with a combined transmitter and receiver which needs some time to switch between transmission and reception mode. While most EDGE mobiles on the market today are still restricted to four timeslots per carrier due to this phenomenon, having independent transmission and reception chains could allow mobiles to use all eight timeslots of a carrier.

Speed Calculation

When putting it all together, speed can be increased as follow: Higher order modulation can increase transmission speed by 1/4, so 220 kbit/s become 293 kbit/s. Use of twice the number of timeslots per carrier increases the top speed to 2 * 293 kbit/s = 586 kbit/s. Using two carriers could again double the speed to about 1.173 kbit/s. Not bad for a 15 year old technology that was originally intended for a transmission speed of 12 kbit/s for voice communication.

While this all sounds quite fascinating, there will be a number of downsides in practice as well:


E-EDGE will not be around for quite some time. Taking past developments as a reference, I expect that it will take at least another two to three years before networks are upgraded and for mobiles to be available (if such a decision is made).

Spectrum Efficiency

E-EDGE, in contrast to EDGE, only modestly increases spectrum efficiency. Thus, the total available bandwidth per sector per cell will still be in the range of "only" 1.5 MBit/s for a typical base station which uses three carriers per sector. In addition, the base station is also used for voice communication which further limits transmission speeds. Compare this to a full blown UMTS 3.5G HSDPA base station which uses 2 carriers per sector to reach a total bandwidth beyond 20 MBit/s and the difference becomes quite obvious. Thus, to say that E-EDGE drives data rates up to HSDPA levels is true as far as per user speeds are concerned but certainly not as far as the overall base station capacity is concerned. In addition, data rates of HSDPA in two to three years from now will have certainly moved on to beyond 3.5 MBit/s per user. Therefore, statements saying that E-EDGE is en par with HSDPA is pure marketing nonsense… Additionally, the number of E-1 links (2 MBit/s each) which connects the base station to the network also has to be increased to support the new modulation and additional timeslots which will be usable for voice.

Terminal Support

Most of the enhancements of E-EDGE will have a strong impact on current GSM terminal design. Independent receiver and transmitter chains have been standardized already since the first days of GPRS (GPRS class A). However, up to this date there are no such mobiles on the market. This seems to be a hard nut to crack. I am not sure if this is for technology reasons or simply due to the price or increased packaging requirements.

Other radio systems

Today, one of the main issues that keeps many operators from deploying 3G in rural areas is the use of the 2100 MHz spectrum which requires a higher number of base stations due to the smaller range compared to what can be achieved in the 900/850 MHz band used currently used by many GSM operators. At least in North America it looks, though, as if UMTS 3G will also be used in the 850 MHz band in the near future thus leveling this advantage of GSM/EDGE today. Furthermore, UMTS has now also been standardized for the 900 MHz band but it remains to be seen if regulators in Europe will allow deployments in that band in the near future. Also, other technologies such as WiMAX should also not be underestimated as a competition in the rural area in three or four years from now. With data rates over ten times higher per base station site then what an E-EDGE cell could deliver it seems doubtful to me that the technology would compete very well.


So will this technology get deployed and will it be successful? With this one, my crystal ball remains clouded. E-EDGE has many good ideas and will certainly increase data rates somewhat but it will not compete very well with other 3.5G and 4G technologies, which are also evolving to higher data rates. The best I therefore expect is that todays gap between 2.5G on the one hand and 3.5G and 4G networks on the other hand does not further increase.

Recently, Peter Rysavy has also written a good column about this subject. Take a look here, his articles on wireless network technologies are among the best to be found on the web!

For the details take a look at the 500 pages of the 3GPP Technical Report TR 45.912.

Opportunities for Wirless Operators with ADSL Assets

Some wireless operators like Vodafone and O2 are now getting into selling  DSL access besides their wireless core business. I wonder if this might open up opportunities for devices like the Nokia N-series phones with Wifi capabilities (N80, N93 and N95)!?

With such devices, operators could offer data services for mobile devices that use the 3G network while away and the DSL line over Wifi while at home. Such applications could be eMail, web browsing, and social media applications like picture sharing and video services such as  YouTube adapted for mobile. A crucial factor for such an offer from the technical side is that the phone automatically uses the Wifi AP at home instead of the 3G connection. Nokia has done a first step in this direction with the Wifi configuration client that shows Wifi networks on the idle screen. The next step to automatically select a preconfigured Wifi Access Point instead of a 3G connection is simple.

Operators who can combine fixed+mobile access could also use their assets to offer advanced convergence services like access to the home network which is connected to the net via the DSL connection from a mobile phone or a notebook with a 3G card while the user is away from home. There is a huge potential here. The mobile could be used to access files, pictures and videos and to monitor and control appliances at home while underway. All these services require both the fixed and the mobile network plus an operator that is willing to integrate the service, i.e. to offer monitoring and control boxes like network connected power switches, household appliances, web cameras, video recorders, etc. as part of the fixed/mobile Internet package.

I think that such offers could be an ideal way for fix+wireless operators to distinguish themselves from fixed only or wireless only operators. At the same time they could sell services, which is their dream scenario anyway, and thus increase their (average) revenue per user (ARPU). BUT: this requires partnerships with external content and services providers such as YouTube for example. Internally developed applications just don’t stand much of a chance with the speed applications are developed by the larger Internet community.

So seen from a different perspective DSL helps to promote 3G and 3G helps to sell DSL. Sounds like a great combination to me. And while we are at it: Don’t forget to offer attractive 3G data roaming as part of such a package!

Image Recognition Instead of 2G Bar Codes?

This month’s Mobile Monday in Paris was quite a fruitful evening again. Ignacio Mondine of Daem Interactive gave an impressive presentation of a new technology they have developed which uses image recognition for mobile advertising and mobile commerce.

Instead of scanning a 2D bar code with a specialized application which leads to a web page via the phone’s browser, their technology is based on image recognition. Getting to the content behind an image is simple: The user takes a picture and sends it via MMS to the an image recognition server. The server then returns an SMS with a URL which can be accessed from the phone’s browser.

The main advantage of this approach compared to 2D bar codes is that no special software has to be installed on the phone. In addition, it looks like there are a number of different companies out there working on 2D bar code solutions and their bar codes are not compatible with each other. If several of them get themselves established, several bar code readers on the phone might be required. I can hardly imagine that this will be accepted by users. So from this point of view, image recognition might even be the natural next step after 2D bar code solutions and the market (except for Japan I guess) might even jump completely over 2D bar codes right into image recognition solutions which do not require extra software on the handset.

A disadvantage of the image recognition approach might be that images can not be recognized because of the image quality. Especially in low light situations, pictures tend to be grainy and blurry. When taking pictures from magazine ads, users also tend to position the phone too close to the image and the picture will not be sharp. A possible solution to this is also already in sight. Instead of taking a picture which is then sent via MMS, Deam Interactive is already taking the next step and are developing a system which uses 3G video calls connected to an image recognition server in the network. Lots of possibilities here, including augmented reality applications about which I have written before.

While still being a small startup company, they’ve already managed to get a couple of operators behind them for some trials. This is crucial for any kind of mobile marketing as the user can only receive content free of charge if the operator bills the advertiser and also for mobile commerce as micro payment is also very difficult to do without the mobile operator in the middle.

EU To Take A Close Look On Data Roaming Fees As Well

A very early morning post today but this one is close to my heart. While sitting in the metro on the way to the airport I read an interview on my Nokia N70 with Viviane Reding, Commissioner for Information Society and Media on her quest to lower wireless carrier roaming charges in the EU. In the interview, the reporter of "Der Spiegel" asked her if the EU is also looking on roaming charges for data as the current tariffs are in no relation to the prices asked for mobile Internet access in the national markets. To my delight, Mrs. Reding said that she is quite aware of this and said that also more and more voices are heard from members of the European parliament who demand that this is looked into as well. At the moment, she said, the matter is with the EU council of ministers and the EU parliament who have to decide if the current investigation on voice roaming is extended to mobile Internet access while roaming as well. A good step in the right direction for international travelers like me who see their prices for wireless Internet access skyrocket as soon as they leave their home country.

Listening to Music and Podcasts in Noisy Environments

Phil over at S60 has written a post on recent software updates of some S60 3rd edition mobiles which reduces the volume of the device and how this affects the listening experience in noisy environments. I don’t have one of those devices but have had the same problems, especially in the metro or the airplane, where even a volume level that splits my ears when I am at home is not enough to overcome the noise level. However, there’s a solution:

Frustrated with the situation, I bought a set of noise cancellation headsets from Philips. Here’s a link to a similar pair. Mine cost about 40 euros. I was skeptical at first but after trying them out in the airplane and out on the street I am absolutely fascinated. When the noise cancellation is switched on, I can listen to podcasts on the airplane and on the street with the same volume level as at home. Incredible! In addition, the overall volume level required now is much lower which means it’s better for my ears anyway.

The headset has a standard 3.5" jack so I had to buy an adapter to make it compatible with my Nokia N70 phone. The adapter was 2 euros on eBay so it’s not really an investment.

Nokia starts to push 2G barcodes in Paris

When returning to Paris on Sunday I immediately noticed the new Nokia advertisements plastered all over the city for the Nokia 6280 (3G, Series 40 phone). At the bottom of the ads, a 2D barcode is shown (see picture) and instructions on what to do with it.

What to do with it:

The order of the instructions on the ad are a somewhat confusing but I figured out that the first step is to download the 2D bar code reader application by sending the word "tag" via SMS to a French number. A couple of seconds later, an SMS is returned which contains a link to a WAP page.When the link is selected my N70 automatically opens up the browser and accesses the page. There, the phone manufacturer and phone model can be selected from a list. This step is somewhat unnecessary as it is possible to automatically detect the phone model detection via the HTTP user agent string. Anyway, the list is impressive and quite a number of manufacturers and models are supported. The 2D bar code reader application is a Java applet called "MobileTag" by Abaxia. Not sure if it’s a coincidence, but the company seems to be headquartered in Paris as well. After downloading the bar code reader application while walking in the streets I stopped at the next add and scanned the 2D bar code with the phone’s camera. Scanning the bar code is very quick, just one or two seconds and the bar code is recognized. The bar code on the add then leads to a web page which automatically pushes a video file to the phone which triggered my N70 to automatically launch the built in video application. The application also allows to save the received file in the gallery so you can watch it again later and push it to other people’s phones via Bluetooth.

No Operators Involved

I wonder how many people are going to download the application (120kb) and the video file (about 500k) as this campaign is done by Nokia on its own and is not supported by French network operators. This means that most people have no idea how much their curiosity will cost them, especially if they don’t have a reasonable GPRS subscription. After all, what the user gets in the end is a 20 second video file which continues the advertisement story of the ad banner. Why should anyone want to pay for this?

Mobile 2D Bar Code Advertising needs the Operator

In the end I think this campaign is nice as a technology demonstration but will not reach a mass audience this way. For such a form of advertising to be interesting for the end user, it must be free to them. The advertiser needs to agree with the local wireless operators on a fee they pay for each download of the content behind a bar code. The operator in turn then allows the content (music file, video, java game, etc.) to be downloaded for free. After all, the advertiser also pays money for the banners to be distributed all over the city so it should be normal for them to do this step as well.

2D bar codes could as well be used to sell music, games and other things to users. Again, this requires operators in the boat as the price must be per download and not depend on the data volume. So for this application, there is no way around them.

Tunisia: GSM on a Camel

After having been on Djerba for a couple of days, I couldn’t help myself but notice how locals use the countries two GSM networks. Yesterday evening, I strolled down a busy road and noted once more the influence France had and has on the country. One sign of this is not only the use of French as academic language but also the fact that about eight out of ten cars are French made. Many people working in one of the many hotels here seem to have their own cars to come and go to work. Others are taking the bus and one can observe that writing SMS messages is just about as common place here as in any European country. Many locals also use their phone to make and receive phone calls. So it seems that the price per minute for a phone call and the price for an SMS is in a reasonable balance with their income. Working in the tourist industry, however, probably means making more money than with a traditional job. Therefore its likely that these observations can not be applied to the country as a whole.

Mobile phones strangely enough are mostly from Nokia and not from French companies. In general, people use simple and somewhat older models without built in camera.

For once I didn’t have my camera phone ready when I saw a man riding on a camel and using his mobile phone. It would have made a good picture for this blog entry.