T-Mobile is expanding its 4G reach by crowdsourcing its network

T-Mobile’s customers will soon start helping T-Mo build a better network in the U.S. – though they may not know it. The operator this week unveiled the 4G LTE CellSpot, which is basically a pint-sized cell tower any T-Mobile customer can install in their home or business to get better voice reception and stronger data connections.

Technically the CellSpot is what’s known as a femtocell, and operators have been giving them to customers for years to help address dead spots in homes or offices. Customers plug these femtocells in and all calls and data sessions get routed through their broadband connections back to the operators network. It’s like having a personal base station of your very own.

The Cellspot is a pint-sized base station that connects to T-Mobile through your broadband connection (Image Credit: T-Mobile)

The Cellspot is a pint-sized base station that connects to T-Mobile through your broadband connection (Image Credit: T-Mobile)

There is a key difference between the CellSpot and other femtos, however. The CellSpot isn’t a private base station accessible only to the customer who installs it. It’s a public access femtocell, meaning any T-Mobile customer can connect to a CellSpot just as they would to any of T-Mobile’s outdoor cell towers. As individual customers install these femtos, they’ll be expanding the coverage and capacity of T-Mobile’s voice and 4G networks for the benefit of their fellow T-Mo subscribers. It’s the same concept of crowdsourcing that OpenSignal uses to collect data, but instead of crowdsourcing network information, T-Mobile is crowdsourcing the network itself.

That may sound like a strange concept, but it’s one that has a precedent in the world of Wi-Fi. Fon has been building crowdsourced Wi-Fi networks for years, and operators like BT in the U.K. and Comcast in the U.S. have built extensive hotspot networks on the backs of its customers’ broadband connections.

The CellSpot also follows a trend we’re seeing in 4G: the move toward denser networks. As our hunger for mobile bandwidth grows, operators are deploying more and smaller cells, which in turn increase the overall data capacity of the network. Mostly operators are rolling out these small cells themselves, but T-Mobile US – known for its wily ways – is getting a leg up by enlisting its customers in that rollout. It’s offering a lot of incentive to help out as well. Any customer on one of T-Mo’s core Simple Choice plans can get a CellSpot for free if they put down a $25 deposit (though they’ll be charged $138 if they don’t return the device when they’re done).

The CellSpot could become a very powerful tool for T-Mobile in its ongoing battle against U.S. titans Verizon and AT&T. Imagine if every retail business got a CellSpot to boost T-Mo’s signals in their shops and restaurants. T-Mobile not only would get better coverage in hard-to-reach indoor locations, but all of those new small cells would mean gobs of new 4G capacity. That would translate into faster speeds and better performance for all of its customers in some of the most heavily trafficked places. We’ll see how T-Mobile’s experiment goes (Free Mobile is doing a similar thing in France), but if it proves popular we’ll likely see other operators join in. Crowdsourcing might be the way our future mobile networks get built.

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Will pCell revolutionize 4G networking? Nokia aims to find out

What if you could build a mobile network without cell towers? That’s exactly what startup Artemis Networks proposes to do with a new technology it calls pCell. It wants to replace today’s static grid of cells with a system of transmitters that dynamically shapes the network around its users — instead of moving through the network, the network moves with you, providing the strongest signal and the fastest possible speeds no matter where you are or how crowded the network may be.

Imagine a 4G service capable of supplying a consistent 50-100 Mbps to every user with no dead zones and no congestion to speak of – that’s a pretty lofty promise, and there are a lot of people skeptical that Artemis delivers. But Artemis plans to put its claims to the test thanks to a new deal with one of the world’s biggest mobile network builders. Nokia Networks has agreed to help Artemis prototype its technology and offer it up to operators for trial in 2016, the companies announced today.

A traditional cellular network (left) hosts multiple devices within in a single pre-defined cell. pCell (right) creates a dynamic cell for each device. (Image credit: Artemis Networks)

A traditional cellular network (left) hosts multiple devices within a single pre-defined cell. pCell (right) creates a dynamic cell for each device. (Image credit: Artemis Networks)

pCell turns the traditional notion of a cellular network on its head. Typically a network is made up of numerous adjacent cells, each covering a particular patch of turf but spaced far enough apart that their radio signals don’t interfere with one another. Artemis, however, sends its signals right at one another creating a miasma of interfering airwaves. But within that white noise, Artemis claims it can create tiny islands of pristine signal reception where users can access LTE’s maximum theoretical speed.

These so-called pCells would essentially be little bubbles of connectivity shaped by signals from dozens of nearby base stations. Each of those pCells would surround a single device and wherever that device goes the pCell follows. It’s a difficult concept to describe, but think of the network as a pond and each transmitter as a pebble. A single pebble dropped into the pond creates ripples that radiate outwards in increasingly larger concentric circles. If you drop several pebbles the ripples cross paths, forming seemingly random patterns. But if you knew what you were doing, you could drop those pebbles in precise locations at precise times to form controlled patterns – you theoretically could “paint” the Mona Lisa for a fleeting moment on the water’s surface. That’s what Artemis claims pCell can do: it is constantly painting and repainting the ideal network for your device onto the airwaves.

Artemis founder Steve Perlman (Image credit: Artemis Networks)

Artemis founder Steve Perlman (Image credit: Artemis Networks)

If Artemis’s technology is hard to grasp, it’s also controversial. When the startup first unveiled its technology in 2014, Artemis and its founder, WebTV creator Steve Perlman, were lionized by the tech media, but the mobile industry was much more dismissive. Operators and equipment makers had reason to be skeptical. Artemis wasn’t pulling back the curtain to show how its technology worked. As the CTO for a major global operator recently told me, “Artemis needs to show its math.”

In the last year, Artemis has been trying to establish more credibility with the engineering community. It’s in the process of rolling out a pCell network on 58 rooftops in San Francisco to prove its technology works on a large scale. But the agreement with Nokia will be a much bigger step in validating Artemis’s technology (or validating the skeptics). Nokia has a direct pipeline into a large number of the world’s LTE networks. Presumably Nokia’s operator customers will get their hands on actual network gear built from Artemis technology so they can see if it truly lives up to Perlman’s promises.

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Queue up Netflix: T-Mobile US may unleash the video beast

If a rumor from well-known tech tipster EVLeaks proves true, T-Mobile will soon start exempting mobile video from its data plans. That means customers on its Simple Choice smartphone plans would be able to stream Netflix, HBO Go and other bandwidth-intensive video apps without seeing any data deducted from their monthly allotments.

T-Mobile has already done something similar with audio, letting customers stream several dozen music and internet radio apps without eating into a single megabyte of their data plans (the practice is called zero rating). But video is a much more ravenous monster than audio when it comes to consuming data. According to a Cisco Systems study, video accounts for 55 percent of all mobile data traffic, and that number is only growing. What’s more, many consumers — myself included — have a tendency to limit their video consumption while on cellular networks, knowing that a few hours of video can drain all but the biggest data buckets.

If T-Mobile starts zero rating video it would not only give its customers a free pass on the biggest source of traffic on its networks, but in practice, it would also invite its customers to consume even more of it. Would T-Mobile be so bold? EVLeaks, which is essentially the Twitter feed of journalist Evan Blass, is generally a reliable source for these kinds of scoops, and I would guess that if any U.S. operator is going to throw open the gates to unfettered video, it would be T-Mobile.

T-Mobile is one of the few operators to still offer an unlimited data plan to customers (and those customers would be unaffected by this policy either way), but as with all unlimited plans out there, there are a few catches. T-Mobile has a “fair use” policy giving it the right to slow down its heaviest users’ connection speeds when the network is congested. It’s safe to assume those same restrictions would apply to unlimited video on its other plans.

“Unlimited” is really more a matter of perception than practice, but T-Mobile’s Un-carrier marketing is focused on the perception of breaking down barriers that other operators place in front of their customers. I’m sure the new program would be a hit among consumers and it would encourage a lot more video consumption on T-Mobile’s network.

There could be a dark lining to this cloud, though. Depending on how the policy is implemented, it could have some big implications for net neutrality. If T-Mobile allows unfettered video streaming to specific popular sites, like Netflix or YouTube, but continues to meter all data from other sites, it will create a big imbalance in the mobile internet. If you know you can watch Netflix to your heart’s content but will get hit with overage fees if you watch Hulu, which app are you going to use?

That puts T-Mobile in a position to pick winners and losers when it comes to mobile streaming, and it makes it much harder for a new video startup to get noticed by T-Mobile’s customers. Ideally T-Mobile would apply this unlimited policy to all video traffic. That would level the playing field, but it’s also technically much harder to pull off.

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Every developer should follow Facebook’s “2G Tuesday” example

Facebook’s Menlo Park, CA, campus may be blanketed in 4G signals and Wi-Fi connections, but the places where Facebook’s is growing the most don’t have access to such powerful networks. That’s why Facebook employees are engaging in an interesting experiment for an hour each week: 2G Tuesdays.

Photo Courtesy of Facebook

Photo Courtesy of Facebook

In order to close the “empathy gap” between Silicon Valley and the developing world, every Tuesday Facebook employees have the option to slow their connection down to 2G speeds, Business Insider reports. In short, Facebook wants its engineers and designers to see how the other half of the broadband divide experiences its services – except in this case, “half” would be an underestimation.

According to mobile network maker Ericsson’s most recent Mobility Report, there were 7.1 billion mobile subscribers in the world in 2014, but 4 billion of them had access only to 2G GSM/EDGE networks. As Facebook expands its reach into India, Southeast and Central Asia, Africa and Latin America, many of its new customers are tapping into dial-up or slower speeds. What’s more, they’re using feature phones – Ericsson estimates that there were 2.6 billion smartphone connections globally in 2014 – meaning they’re making use of Facebook’s more basic apps if not their mobile browsers for social networking. Newsfeeds that might appear near instantaneously on a 4G smartphone might take minutes to render over a 2G connection. Video wouldn’t play at all.

There’s a huge gap between the typical experience of a Facebook developer and Facebook’s newest users, and kudos to Facebook’s emerging markets team at attempting to understand that experience even in insulated Menlo Park. Facebook has long taken the optimization of its products for developing markets very seriously (it has to if it expects to keep growing). It’s introduced barebones versions of its website like Facebook Zero — which basically turns the Facebook interface into a text-only website – and it’s tweaked its mobile apps to consume much smaller amounts of data in broadband-scarce regions. Through Internet.org, Facebook has even tried to make the mobile phone (and Facebook’s apps) the first means of accessing the Internet for millions of previously unconnected people.

More mobile developers would do well to follow Facebook’s lead, and I’m not just talking about companies targeting emerging markets. In the U.S. and Europe there are plenty of places where the best connection speed available is over a pokey 2G network, yet so many apps seem designed with the assumption you’ll always have a decent Internet connection. Even apps with offline features often spend minutes trying to squeeze background data over through congested pipes before giving you access to their offline capabilities.

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Europe will ban roaming fees — though you’re in for a wait

The end of international roaming fees in Europe is in sight, though it’s still a bit off in the distance. The European Parliament voted to abolish roaming fees within its border, but we’ll have to wait until the June 15 of 2017 before the ban goes entirely into effect. On that date anyone moving between countries in the EU’s borders will pay the same rates for calls, SMS and mobile data he or she pays at home.

Before Europe sees that type of flat rate pricing, the EU and the mobile industry have to overhaul the complex system of roaming agreements between Europe’s operators. In the interim, though, Europe will require most operators to reduce their current roaming rates. Starting at the end of April, no operator will be able to charge more than €0.05 per outgoing voice minute or megabyte of date or €0.02 for SMS message over their regular domestic tariffs. The EU also plans to set a cap on charges for incoming calls before the April deadline.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Blondinrikard Fröberg

Photo Credit: Flickr user Blondinrikard Fröberg

The big question is whether pushing down roaming rates will cause price bumps to form in other parts of the market. To compensate for lost roaming revenue, will operators simply raise their domestic rates, or will they raise roaming rates for countries outside of the EU’s borders? The EU’s decision provided a few loopholes for operators that might make the ban on roaming fees far from absolute.

If an operator can prove that they cannot recover their roaming costs, regulators in individual European countries can authorize “minimal surcharges” for “exceptional circumstances”. Also, the legislation left the door open for the operators to charge frequent roamers fees based on clear “fair use” policies. The idea is to prevent customers from buying service in one country and using it entirely in another country.

There are some signs that operators readily are willing to sacrifice the sacred cow of roaming for the sake of attracting more customers. In the U.K. 3 has eliminated all roaming surcharges in 14 countries. Some of my London colleagues at OpenSignal have told me that roaming policy was the sole reason they selected 3 over the UK’s other operators. In the U.S., T-Mobile has similarly set itself apart by offering customers SMS and limited data services at no extra charge while overseas. Some operators may be dragged kicking and screaming into flat-mobile-rate Europe, but others are going far more willingly.

Roaming wasn’t the only controversial subject tackled in today’s new law. As part of the package, the European parliament approved new net neutrality regulations that many critics claim do more to threaten a neutral internet than protect it. At issue were several amendments that Members of European Parliament shot down that would have banned a so-called “two-speed” Internet.

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Is Intel ready to challenge Qualcomm’s LTE dominance?

Ever since the days of WiMAX, Intel has longed to be a major player in 4G. According to a report from VentureBeat, Intel may finally get its chance – with a little help from Apple.

VentureBeat’s Mark Sullivan reports that Intel has a team of 1,000 people working on a deal to stick Intel’s LTE modems inside the next generation of iPhone. Following Apple’s current naming conventions those devices should be called the iPhone 7 and 7 plus. The deal isn’t a lock, and even if Intel does win an Apple contract it might only supply technology for a subset of iPhones, according to the report.

Image Credit: Intel

Image Credit: Intel

VentureBeat didn’t name its sources, and the abundant rumors about Apple’s product plans have a tendency to fizzle out (the most recent gem, Apple’s plans to become a mobile operator, even produced an outright denial from Apple). But if this rumor proves true, it could mark a big shift in 4G’s halls of power.

Qualcomm has long dominated the market for LTE chips, and it supplies the cellular technology for all current versions of the iPhone. According to Strategy Analytics, Qualcomm has 61 percent of the market for LTE baseband chips with no other chipmaker capturing more than 18 percent market share. What’s more Qualcomm has used its LTE dominance to drive sales of its Snapdragon smartphone processors and other handset components. Meanwhile, Intel has barely left a mark in the LTE world, but a deal with Apple could change its fortunes considerably.

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Android’s fragmentation is creating a lot of security holes

This summer OpenSignal published its Android Fragmentation report, finding that there are more than 24,000 distinct types of Android devices by more than 1,000 distinct brands in the market today. That kind of differentiation was bound to produce problems in what was supposed to be a common OS ecosystem, and this week a University of Cambridge study gave us a very good example of just such a problem.

The paper (pdf), published by three Cambridge Computer Laboratory researchers, found that 87.7 percent of all Android devices have major security vulnerabilities. The reason for this is the lax approach Android device makers and carriers take in pushing out security patches.

Google will devise security updates for Android, which it generally publishes on a monthly schedule. But the vast majority of Android devices are built by other manufacturers. Samsung and Xiaomi and hundreds of other smartphone makers aren’t on Google’s patch schedule. They have to test and optimize the security update for their own customized versions of Android, and in many cases operators will go through the same process for devices they specifically authorize for their networks. That produces huge delays before these patches get pushed to the actual smartphones in our hands – if they get pushed at all.

Graphic by Cambridge University AndroidVulnerabilities.org

Graphic by Cambridge University AndroidVulnerabilities.org

For their study, the Cambridge researchers developed an app called Device Analyzer, which they have offered in the Play store since 2011. The app has many similarities to OpenSignal’s own crowdsourced measurement app, collecting data anonymously on how and where consumers use their phones. The researchers compiled data on the Android versions and build numbers of more than 20,000 devices and compared them against 11 known critical vulnerabilities. They found that 88.7 percent of those devices remained exposed to at least one of those threats.

The research group has also set up a site called AndroidVulnerabilities.org, where it ranks different device makers on how secure their devices are. None of them did well, not even Google. Despite Google’s monthly patch regime there are apparently a lot of Nexus devices out there running vulnerable versions of Android.


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Wi-Fi is coming to a mobile network near you

More than half of all wireless operators plan to make Wi-Fi a critical part of their mobile services, according to a new survey from the Wireless Broadband Alliance. A lot of operators already make plenty of use of Wi-Fi today, but the type of integration between cellular and Wi-Fi networks the WBA is referring to goes much deeper.

Today most operator Wi-Fi is what’s known as “best effort.” Operators either deploy their own hotspots or tap into the networks of partners to deliver a Wi-Fi option to their customers. To get on those networks you typically have to log in to specific access points or use a special Wi-Fi finder app. More often than not, that connection will be unsecured, and then, depending on how congested the hotspot is, there’s no guarantee that you’ll even be able to get any kind of decent bandwidth off your Wi-Fi link.

But according to the survey, which Maravedis conducted on behalf of the WBA, 57 percent of operators now have plans to deploy “carrier grade” Wi-Fi networks. What makes them carrier grade? They make use of new technologies with fancy names like Hotspot 2.0 and Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) that make Wi-Fi networks behave more like cellular networks.

Many of you already have Hotspot 2.0 compliant phones (those that have the Passpoint certification from the Wi-Fi Alliance). Hotspot 2.0 acts as kind of virtual credential that will automatically link to your operator’s Wi-Fi access points with an encrypted connection. NGH takes that managed network idea one step further, allowing an operator to control an access point much like it would a mobile cell. An operator, for instance, could detect if a hotspot is overloaded and choose to keep your phone on the cellular network. NGH would make services like voice-over-Wi-Fi more effective, by more precisely controlling handoff between the two networks. It’s even possible that your phone could make use of both networks simultaneously, sending data upstream through the mobile network while tapping Wi-Fi for downloads.

Graphic by WBA-Maravedis

Source: WBA-Maravedis

According to the WBA-Maravedis poll, about 25 percent of all operator hotspots will have these new carrier-grade features by the end of the year. But it might take till the end of the decade before the smartphone Wi-Fi and mobile experiences become nearly seamless.

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AT&T to customers: Just keep your suggestions to yourselves

As a former journalist I can tell that legal departments don’t always see eye to eye to with editorial, and I imagine that same kind of friction exists between a big corporation’s lawyers and its public relations staff. If you don’t believe me, ask AT&T, which just told a customer to get lost after he made some helpful suggestions

The LA Times reports that AT&T customer Alfred Valrie sent an email to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson offering up two tips: that AT&T offer unlimited data over DSL lines and that its Mobility unit offer a greater variety of SMS plans. Valrie didn’t get a response from Stephenson. Nor did he get a response from some cheerful customer care agent. Instead he got a letter from AT&T lawyer Thomas Restaino who, after politely thanking Valrie for being an AT&T customer, not so politely told him it was AT&T’s policy not to consider any unsolicited suggestions from customers.

“AT&T has a policy of not entertaining unsolicited offers to adopt, analyze, develop, license or purchase third-party intellectual property … from members of the general public,” read Restaino’s response. “Therefore, we respectfully decline to consider your suggestion.”


In AT&T’s defense, America is the land of the lawsuit. An AT&T spokesperson told the LA Times that in the past AT&T has been sued after receiving unsolicited ideas from customers who later claimed AT&T stole them. If AT&T’s response sounds overly legalistic and curt, it’s because AT&T is protecting itself, she said.

Still these kind of dealings aren’t winning AT&T any points in the customer relations department, and it’s not doing much for public relations either. T-Mobile’s media-savvy CEO John Legere is having a field day with the story. Legere announced today that he would not only listen to ideas from customers about how T-Mobile could improve, but he would also accept suggestions on behalf of Randall Stephenson about how AT&T could improve. You can email those suggestions to IdeasForRandall@t-mobile.com.

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VoLTE: What is it and will it spell the end of 2G networks?

Last month 3 debuted a fancy sounding new service called 4G Super Voice in the U.K. What’s so super about this new voice plan you ask? Super Voice uses a technology that’s emerging globally, called voice over LTE or VoLTE. In short, it’s a way of taking a data-only 4G network and turning it into a network that supports all of an operator’s core services: voice, SMS and data.

Photo Credit: 3

Photo Credit: 3

There are some big implications for operators in VoLTE, namely if they can migrate all their services onto LTE, they can start tearing down 2G and 3G networks and repurpose their spectrum for 4G. But there are a lot of consumer benefits as well, first and foremost better voice services.

Operators are using VoLTE not only as a means to turn circuit-switched phone calls into IP data calls, but as a launch pad for high-definition voice services. HD voice provides a better quality call by gathering a greater amount and range of information from a two-way phone conversation. Your typical mobile phone call today collects 8000 audio samples per second within an acoustic range spanning 300 Hz to 2.4 kHz. HD voice doubles the amount of samples per second, creating a higher resolution audio stream, and it broadens the acoustic range to 50 Hz to 7 KHz, capturing extremely low-and high-pitched sounds.

What this all means is that on an HD voice call you’ll be able to much more easily distinguish a caller’s voice from background noise, and phonetically similar sounds that often get garbled in a phone call, such as “b” and “v” or “s” and “f”, will become clearer.

But the biggest impact of VoLTE could be felt beyond the actual phone call. Since VoLTE and its cousin voice over Wi-Fi are essentially VoIP services, operators can attach features like chat, content and location sharing – all within a voice or video conversation. Plus, VoIP will untether the phone number from a specific phone. With VoLTE you could move your phone number to your office handset, your home phone and even your car as you go about your day.

Of course, before these kind of services become widely available, more operators will need to support VoLTE. Even if you have a VoLTE-capable phone and are connected to a VoLTE-capable network, if the person at the other end of the line doesn’t, then your conversation defaults to a plain old phone call. Right now 3 is the only operator in the U.K. with the technology, though we’re starting to see it pop up in other countries in Asia, Europe and North America.

As operators move more voice traffic on to their 4G networks and expand their LTE footprints to cover remoter areas, they’ll start sunsetting their 2G networks. It will take a long time, however, for 2G to follow analog mobile into the history books. Though countries like South Korea have achieved some very impressive 4G coverage, most of the world hasn’t built LTE networks to cover the vast geographic expanses spanned by 2G networks today. Operators will need some amount of 2G capacity to provide voice services where LTE signals can’t reach. In addition, 2G forms the backbone of a global machine-to-machine to communications network. GSM radios are embedded in everything from farm equipment to cargo containers, and operators have commitments to keep those connections going for years to come.

Don’t expect your operator’s 2G network to find its way to the scrap heap any time soon, but there’s a good chance that you’ll find yourself connecting to the 2G less and less as everything we do on our phones migrates to 4G.

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