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What kind of 4G can the UK afford?

Clive Tomlinson argues that the UK regulator is looking in the wrong direction and is neglecting the potential of ‘hetnets’ to shoulder growing traffi c loads

networks in the UK. T e consultation pro- poses to oblige those operators which buy 4G licences to provide near-universal UK 4G coverage. It’s an obligation which will be costly for the network operators, and it will tend to depress the market for 4G network services. In my opinion, it is based on two misconceptions. T e fi rst is that there is a pressing need for


the universal availability of the kind of servic- es that 4G wireless supports. T ere is indeed a real problem of ‘not-spots’, but that is essen- tially a mobile voice services problem. While there is still a problem of getting high speed data services in remote areas, that problem isn’t primarily one requiring the kind of full mobility that licensed-spectrum mobile net- works off er. Wired access, or nomadic access over Wi-Fi, would meet most of the demand. Ofcom’s second misconception is that ‘4G’

means either GSM LTE or WiMAX. Con- versations with network operators suggest that those technologies will remain for quite some time as infi ll technologies for high- value areas, but that the greater part of 4G coverage will be achieved by integrating Wi- Fi hotspots into heterogeneous telco networks.

Cost-effective A heterogeneous network, or hetnet, inte- grates more than one RAN technology under a single network operator. Usually the RAN

About the author

Clive Tomlinson is software architect at IPL, an IT services company specializing in business intelligence and information management

LAND mobile March 2012

fcom has published a second con- sultation on allocation of spec- trum for fourth-generation mobile

technologies are not deployed uniformly: the hetnet is a patchwork of technologies. Examples are the integration of small cells – picocells or femtocells – into a macrocellular network, and the integration of areas of next- generation coverage into a legacy network. T e hetnet approach is seen as a very cost-

eff ective way of providing enhanced mobile broadband coverage and capacity. Hetnets fi t well with the network operators’ desire to off load data traffi c from their core net- works. T ey work with existing smartphones. Most importantly, they don’t require the network operators to invest in either new radio access network (RAN) technology or licences from Ofcom. For a hetnet to work eff ectively, the hand-

set must support two or more network technologies, with some degree of handover capability. Hetnets can use a combination of large

base stations covering the less busy areas and smaller cells placed in areas where there are a lot of users. In the UK, it appears that the ideal infi ll unit will have a range rather larger than a picocell, yet smaller than many macro- cells. T ese are the areas that will benefi t from the enhanced coverage and capacity for sub- scribers which hetnets will bring. As RAN data rates increase, and as cell sizes

become smaller, mobile network operators may have to increase the capacity and number of their backhaul links, and ultimately to en- hance their core networks. To do this for low- unit-value data traffi c is unattractive and so any approach that avoids it has some appeal. Hetnets using femtocells or Wi-Fi, back- hauled over subscribers’ fi xed broadband, take the backhaul and core network out of the data path.

A proven solution UK mobile network operators have worked with hetnets since their fi rst piecemeal deployment of UMTS 3G into their GSM networks, and so the challenges of technol- ogy diversity are not new to them. Already

‘The UK’s 3G licence auction amounted to a tax of £833 on each household’

network operators are off ering their custom- ers ‘free’ access to Wi-Fi. For example, Voda- fone UK currently off ers mobile data pack- ages that combine 3G data on Vodafone’s network with Wi-Fi data on BT’s OpenZone network. T e challenges in doing this sort of thing

are mostly in the domains of network owner- ship, service quality and integration of charg- ing. T ey are mostly challenges which can be addressed centrally, without the cost of national-scale hardware deployments.

An avoidable expense T e UK 3G spectrum auctions in 2000 raised £22.5 billion for Her Majesty’s Government. T at staggering sum was paid by the network operators who bid for the spectrum. While the money was paid by those impersonal corporations, in the end it came mostly from the mobile service subscriptions of UK citizens: that’s where UK networks get their money from. It could therefore be viewed cynically as equivalent to a tax of about £833 per household. T e 4G auction may not take so much money, but however much it takes, it’s a cost that the nation could do without, at the moment. T e case for a hetnet approach to 4G

data services makes sense for the network operators and for the UK: in these strait- ened times, the last thing that we need is for the network operators to spend our citizens’ money on paper licences for LTE. Let our national resources go to fi xing

the broadband problem, and let the full-mobil- ity solution follow when times are easier.


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