Mobile sector reaches for last mile

Delivering rich media from the core to the edge of a network is information’s version of supply chain management. It’s the last mile that’s the killer. A package might take less time to travel thousands of miles to an airport than the extra distance to an office. Or it might be undeliverable, with the courier leaving a note and the recipient having to track it down.

But, as with any delivery service, excuses aren’t good enough. Whether at the core or the edge, things must move. Wes Hoffman, executive vice president of 2Wire, a provider of broadband products for telecom carriers, says there is enough bandwidth at the edge.

“Even if there is a trickle feed, video will load. You just have to wait for the buffer. We can offer a true experience at 1.5 to 2 megabits per second.” This works if the relationship with media is essentially passive – downloading for viewing at home or, perhaps, training content for an enterprise. However, it does not enable real-time video exchanges at the edge.

Passive triple play is relatively easy. And without the fourth component, mobility, it’s fairly straightforward to deploy the infrastructure at the edge for data, voice, and video. As a result, fixed delivery will remain a big part of the story for rich media content in the residential and SOHO market in the near term.

Allen Nogee, principal analyst at In-Stat, thinks triple-play services to hand-helds will get a boost from femtocells, the small cellular base stations designed to provide enhanced coverage at the edge of a wireless network.

“This allows operators to broadcast to phones without spending as much on cellular base stations. It is better and cheaper coverage for 3G. Providers don’t have to pay for the backhaul – they are essentially riding for free on networks that users are already paying for.”

The obvious appeal is in the residential and SMB space, though some enterprises still lack consistent coverage throughout their buildings, particularly in remote locations.

“We’ll be seeing these next year,” says Nogee. “Femtocells could be used to solidify customer retention. It costs money to get subscribers, and if $150 will keep four subscribers on account in one residence, it might be worth it for the carrier to eat the cost.”

Wi-Fi backhaul might still be an issue. Femtocells, which are essentially access point base stations, are Internet dependant.

“I don’t think the wire-line ISPs are going to want to toy with this,” says Nogee. “They’re not about to say, ‘You can use the Internet for this but not for that.’”

They may also want to hold back because femtocells represent one of the last links in fixed-mobile convergence, meaning they’re part of the continued push for more fibre at the edge. For Glenn Thurston, vice-president of marketing at BTI Photonics in Ottawa, the residential consumer is also an important part of the mix. In fact, enterprises may be unaware that consumer/residential adoption of rich media may transform expectations at the office.

“It doesn’t matter what your infrastructure is,” says Thurston, “the consumer is demanding an experience based on video.”

That last mile, whether it’s to a house or an office park, is going optical. “Our systems go up to 320 gigs, largely because fibre can give us multiple colours of light on the same strand of glass.”

It doesn’t matter if it is a cable company, a telco, or a utility, fibre is moving further out to the edge of the network simply because it is the cheapest and best way to deliver fixed lines. And upgrading older SONET networks from 2.5 to 10 gigs probably makes less sense than laying down more light channels.

“We’re seeing everything from carriers upgrading small parts of networks to RFPs looking to tender the entire edge of a network. It is triple play that’s driving this.”

The migration to the edge has been going on for almost 10 years. It started with long-haul wave division multiplexing (WDM) in 1998-1999, then since 2000 the focus has been metropolitan WDM. Now we are in the midst of a five-year spend cycle to upgrade the edge.

And by triple play we really mean video. The demand is varied: swapping clips on cell-phones, IP-TV, Web-casts, and HD. On the wireless side of things, Canada and the United States are behind Europe and Asia. Whereas other markets are rolling out at 2.1 gigahertz, Canada is trying to get from 800 to 1,900 megahertz. Here is where pico and femtocells can come in handy.

“If you are going broadband for wireless you need 3G, and that means a better signal than if you are just talking on the phone,” says Nogee. “These stations will cover 2,500 square feet.”

This covers off the technological market of triple play at the edge, but what of the channel? In-Stat claims that there will be 40.6 million femtocells in 2011 and 101.5 million end-users (based on the average number of people in a home with cell-phones). For carriers to subsidize the $200 to $250 cost would cut into profits. One option is to bundle a femtocell with broadband, the idea being to eat some of the costs so as to retain customers.

Serge Pequeux, president and chief executive officer of AirWalk, says the real story is when Long Term Evolution (LTE) comes into play in the next three to five years. Part of his reasoning comes from the fact that AirWalk is a CDMA shop (Pequeux was a Motorola executive in Canada for 10 years).

“All the technologies that are moving forward are based on CDMA,” says Pequeux. “It is the better technology for licensed spectrum. Better throughput, security, and far more reach.”

From Pequeux’s perspective, it’s all about spectrum availability and throughput. “With EV-DO we can have 3.1 megabits a second. At that data rate you can get true video on a portable unit.”

But you won’t get the quality of a television experience, and certainly nothing like big-screen HD-TV. For that you’ll need something like 2Wire’s hybrid set-top box, which essentially runs like a remote server, talking to a staging site in San Jose. About 60% of the installed base does use wireless, but this is for very short distances and by no means mobile. The box provides metadata, and aggregates for content provided by the likes of Akimbo and Movielink.

Pequeux doesn’t disagree. “People will not be sitting at home watching things off of femtocells,” he says, rounding out with an observation on perhaps the biggest Achilles heel for quad play, and something familiar to mobile workers everywhere: “You want triple play on a mobile device? The biggest issue is going to be battery life.”

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