The key to a faster network: A smaller network

We’re accustomed to seeing the cellular networks looming above us – big antennas mounted on towers, masts and the rooftops, beaming down their signals from up on high. But the mobile network soon will start taking on a more human scale.

The mobile industry is miniaturizing the basic building block of mobile networks: the cell. These so-called small cells work the same way as big macrocells. They offer the same speeds, carry the same capacity and host the same phone calls as their tower-mounted counterparts. The difference is they cover a lot less ground.

That’s important because the mobile network is ultimately a shared network. Just because that LTE tower in the distance can support 100 Mbps, it doesn’t mean you’re ever going to see anything close to that speed on your smartphone or tablet. That capacity is sliced and diced up among all of the devices connecting to the tower at any given moment. However, once you start shrinking down the radius of each cell, then far fewer devices are linking to it. There are fewer resources to share, and everyone enjoys faster speeds. Any single small cell isn’t going to add much capacity to the network, but when you start deploying them in dense clusters, those capacity gains are substantial.

As an example, let’s say a macrocell with a one square-mile radius offers up to 100 Mbps in LTE capacity. A cluster of 20 small cells covering roughly the same area would support – theoretically at least – 20 times this capacity.

Consequently, mobile operators are eyeing small cells as a means of layering immense quantities of 4G capacity in areas where data demand is highest: urban corridors, high-traffic indoor areas and commercial districts. For example, Verizon has begun a small cell rollout in the main tech company corridors of downtown San Francisco, mounting them on utility poles on a block-by-block basis.

The macro network isn’t going away. Those big towers provide the coverage necessary to make our devices truly mobile. But in dense cities, those macrocells eventually will act more like big umbrellas. They’ll ensure we can get signals in our cars and in our less dense residential neighborhoods. They’ll provide network glue as we move between clusters of small cells. That coverage continuity will be crucial, but small cells will do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to data traffic.

There are still some technical obstacles the industry must overcome before we get that multi-layered network. When you start sticking small cells under that macro-network umbrella you inevitably get interference. One of the biggest problems the mobile industry has to sort out with small cells is ensuring that they play nice with their larger counterparts. But new standards developed for 3G and 4G networks are promising to keep that interference in check.

The small cell transformation won’t happen overnight, but many global operators are already deploying these tiny base stations in the urban fabric of our cities. Vodafone is sticking small cells on billboards and street furniture in Amsterdam. AT&T is installing them in malls, stadiums and pedestrian areas in major U.S. cities (it’s even putting them in Disney World).

So if you happen to see some strange box pop up on a neighborhood utility pole, you may want to check your phone. You might find you’re getting a much stronger signal.

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Kevin Fitchard who is a journalist covering the mobile industry and wireless technology. He most recently wrote for Gigaom.

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State of LTE June 2015

Today we release our most recent version of the OpenSignal State of LTE report. We are now releasing this report every three months, as a way of keeping a close eye on the development and improvement of LTE around the world.

The world’s fastest country for LTE is Singapore, which averages 24Mbps. TDC, Denmark is the fastest overall single network with its users experiencing speeds of 28Mbps. For LTE coverage the South Korean networks still rank as the best in the world, averaging 95% time on LTE, with LG U+ the best performing of all of them averaging almost total effective coverage at 99% time on LTE.

The US networks rank around in the slower half of global networks, with a country-wide average of 7Mbps (T-Mobile are again the fastest US network, averaging 10 Mbps) but are the 7th best country for effective coverage, with Verizon users experiencing 87% time on LTE.

To see where other countries and networks rank read the full report.

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Stingrays: The new mobile tool of the surveillance state

If you thought the ocean was the only place you should be wary of stingrays, then think again. Stingray is the term first coined by Harris Corporation for a surveillance device it developed to intercept mobile phone signals. It was first used by intelligence agencies and militaries to combat terrorism, but in the U.S. the technology is increasingly being used by the FBI and law enforcement agencies to track any person of interest. Understandably, it has civil libertarians and privacy advocates angry.

Unlike a wiretap targeting a specific phone number, Stingrays and similar devices are being used in dragnet style operations, pulling information from any nearby phone – regardless of whether it belongs to an intended surveillance target – out of the airwaves. Stingrays do this by simulating a cell site, forcing a phone to connect to it instead of a legitimate operator’s network. From there it extracts each phone’s unique International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) numbers, which can be used to track a specific device no matter where it roams.

It’s hard to know exactly what additional information Stingrays collect. The manufacturers of these IMSI catchers are not only super-secretive about their exact capabilities, but they have also forced agencies using them to sign non-disclosure agreements preventing them from revealing any details about how they operate. In fact, an investigation by The Guardian and the American Civil Liberties Union found that prosecutors have dropped criminal charges in many cases in order to avoid spilling the beans about Stingrays in court.

It’s possible, though, that Stingrays can collect far more than unique phone identifiers. There are reports of Stingrays being used to turn off the phone’s normal call encryption or gathering data stored inside the phone. In addition, a Stingray feasibly could be used to relay a call or data stream between a legitimate phone and a legitimate cell tower. In such a case it would be acting as a “man in the middle” hack, monitoring every conversation or bit transmitted to the network.

Just how widespread Stingrays are used is also not certain because of the secrecy surrounding them. So far most cases have been reported in the U.S. – the ACLU has identified 52 agencies in 22 states – but that doesn’t mean they’re not being used by other governments for surveillance. After all, these devices are most useful when the public isn’t aware of their existence.

So if you don’t want to be the unwitting target of mass mobile phone surveillance what can you do? To be honest, not much. So long as you have a phone that connects to the cellular network, it appears a Stingray can intercept your connection and identify your device. Let’s face it: our phones have always been big beacons advertising our locations to anyone with the proper equipment. It’s why in action thriller movies you always see everyone taking out their phone batteries and removing SIM cards. Only when a phone’s dead is it not revealing any information on its location.

But there may be some measures you can take against some of the other purported surveillance capabilities of Stingrays. Instead of relying on your carrier’s standard voice and messaging services, you can download apps that use alternate encryption to make calls and send texts. Open Whisper Systems, a non-profit group developing secure communications software, has several apps in that vein, including RedPhone, Signal and TextSecure.

If you’re willing to go even further, you can invest in one of the new ultra-secure smartphones in the market, like Silent Circle’s Blackphone or GSMK’s CryptoPhone. Even these highly secure gadgets won’t let you avoid Stingrays entirely, but GSMK has developed firewall software that detects if its phone is connecting to a fake cell site.

Probably the best thing you can do to stop Stingrays’ growing use, though, is tell your Congressman or MP, your police representatives or elected county sheriff that the public won’t tolerate a mass surveillance state.

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Kevin Fitchard who is a journalist covering the mobile industry and wireless technology. He most recently wrote for Gigaom.

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Updated Data Collection Format

One of the great things about the OpenSignal Android app is that you, our users, have access to the data that you are sharing with us about your network. So, if you want to do your own data analysis on the signal in your area, practice your mapping skills, or have raw records to show your network about poor service, you can. This post will be about explaining all of the columns in the dataset (and is an updated version of this original data format post). To export your data, click “Settings” on the menu, then scroll down until you see “Export Data”. After you click “Save Data to SD card”, you’ll find the exported csv file in the “opensignalmaps” folder in your phone’s file system.

Here’s what you’ll see in the exported file:

Column Index Field Definition
1 _id Row identifier, used internally in the app. In each exported file the number will be unique to each row. So it could be useful to you if you need a key, or to search for rows.
2 network_type Network signal type – HSPA, LTE, EDGE, GPRS etc. Note it doesn’t report WiMAX – the app considers this as non-voice data. If you’re interested in checking this see ‘network_connection_type’.
3 network_type_int Number reported through the Android API that corresponds to one of the above network types.
4 network_name Name of network sending signal data (as seen by the hardware of the phone – this field will only have MNOs, not MVNOs).
5 network_name_sim Network name registered on the phone’s SIM card (this is the ‘home’ network and will include MVNOs).
6 roaming 1 – Roaming; 0 – Not roaming; -1 – unknown.
7 psc For UMTS phones this is the Primary Scrambling Code in 9 bits (UMTS format). For CDMA phones this will be the System ID (SID). -1 for unknown or error.
8 network_id Usually 6 digits with the first three being MCC (mobile country code) and the last 3 being MNC (mobile network code). An ID unique to each network. (MNOs only)
9 network_id_sim The Network ID of the SIM card. Usually 6 digits with the first three being MCC (mobile country code) and the last 3 being MNC (mobile network code). An ID unique to each network. (MNOs and MVNOs)
10 my_lat Last known latitude of the phone when signal was detected. 0 for unknown.
11 my_lon Last known longitude of the phone when signal was detected. 0 for unknown.
12 my_altitude Last known altitude of the phone when signal was detected. 0 for unknown. -9999 for error or unknown.
13 loc_source_gps_one_net_zero Indicates whether the location was provided via the GPS (1) or by using network information such as wifi or cell triangulation (0). -1 if not known.
14 location_inaccuracy Accuracy of the location, in meters, at the time of the location fix (according to the location provider). 0 for not known.
15 location_age The ‘age’ of the location fix in milliseconds – the time between the location fix and the tower being seen.
16 location_speed The speed of the phone when the location fix was taken, in metres per second. -1 or 0 for unknown.
17 include_alt_loc Indicates if a value for altitude is available.
18 my_lat_net If no GPS fix is available, the above fields (my_lat, my_lon etc.) will use the network values (location based on wifi or cell tower triangulation). If a GPS fix is available we also ask for the last network location – and report it here if one is available.
19 my_lon_net  See above
20 my_altitude_net  See above
21 location_inaccuracy_net  See above
22 location_age_net  See above
23 location_speed_net  See above
24 current_cell This is 1 if the tower corresponding to this row was actively connected – i.e. if it was dealing with your telephonic data. It is 0 if the tower was seen by your phone, but your phone was not using it actively for voice data – probably because another stronger signal source was available.
25 bit_error_rate Values range from 0-7. -1 or 99 for error or unknown. This is only available for GSM networks, see the 3GPP Standard TS 27.007 8.5.
26 rssi Received Signal Strength Indicator. On a scale from 0 – 31. To convert to dBm use dBm = (RSSI*2 – 113).
27 timing_advance LTE timing advance
28 cell_type The cell tower type (LTE, GSM, CDMA). Note: a device can be connected to an LTE and GSM/CDMA tower simultaneously
29 CID For GSM phones, this is the cell tower ID. For CDMA, this is the BSID or base station ID.
30 LAC Location Area Code for GSM phones. For CDMA it is the CDMA network identification number.
31 cell_id_3 The PCI for LTE cell towers, otherwise left blank.
32 cell_lat Latitude of the cell tower (according to OpenSignal’s tower database, and may not be fully accurate).
33 cell_lon Longitude of the cell tower (according to OpenSignal’s tower database, and may not be fully accurate).
34 bg_scan This column value is 1 if this reading was taken with the app running in the background, otherwise it is 0.
35 timestamp Timestamp of a signal reading as a UTC timestamp (milliseconds since 1970-01-01).
36 timezone_offset Offset from UTC in milliseconds due to time zone differences.
37 dst_offset Offset from UTC in milliseconds due to daylight savings time.
38 connection_type The network data connection type: 0 for mobile/none, 1 for wifi, 6 for WiMAX.
39 run_speed OpenSignal settings indicator for the frequency to collect data. Matches data collection settings in Settings page. Values from 0 to 4.
40 battle Legacy field – whether or not phone was in turbo (or ‘battle’) mode.
41 evdo_snr This is specifically for EVDO (a type of CDMA 3G) connection. SNR is the signal-to-noise ratio.
42 cell_lat_cdma If the tower detected is a CDMA tower, this is the broadcast latitude.
43 cell_lon_cdma If the tower detected is a CDMA tower, this is the broadcast longitude.
44 measurement_id Field that allows grouping of rows such that the current cell and neighbouring cells at the point of an observation are given the same measurement ID.
45 time_at_value Experimental field – how long have you been connected to a cell tower.
46 exact_time Legacy field.
47 apv App Version
48 ssid Wifi Network SSID
49 bssid Wifi Network BSSID
50 rsrp Value for LTE Reference Signal Received Power.
51 rsrq Value for LTE Reference Signal Received Quality.
52 rssnr Value for LTE Reference Signal Signal-to-Noise Ratio.
53 cqi Value for LTE Channel Quality Indicator (in dBm).
54 call_state Whether or not there is an active call.
55 scrn_state Screen state
56 data_enabled Whether or not Mobile data is enabled or has been disabled by the user.

Hope this helps! We’d love to know what kinds of projects you use the data for – share here or in the OpenSignal Forums. Thanks!

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Summer 2015 iPad Translation Challenge

It’s summer! Or at least it feels like that today in London, as it is predicted to be the hottest day of the year so far. (However, as it is London, we might get a few more seasons too…)

Four Seasons in One Day Cartoon

What a perfect time to start our next translation challenge!

For those of you who are new to OpenSignal’s translation challenges, we are asking you, our users and supporters, to help us translate our mobile apps into your language (please!). You know that our apps are based on crowdsourcing to get the best and most objective data. Similarly, we are crowdsourcing our translations because this ensures quality, eliminates minimum contribution requirements, and helps us support more languages. Translation challenges run every three months, and at the end we have a lottery for an iPad Mini* – for every 500 words that you translate, you get a ticket in the lottery! We also offer an OpenSignal T-shirt to all translators who have completed more than 1500 words.

The translation challenges are also supposed to be fun, …

Photo of a Post-It with "Remember to Have Fun"

Photo courtesy of Katie Glass

… so there is always a theme to each one, and the challenge goals are based on some real-world facts and figures. Here we go:

THE THEME: OpenSignal’s iOS Apps

Finally, the full text of our OpenSignal iOS app is in the translation system! Our other iOS apps, WeatherSignal and WifiMapper, also feature, but we only have the App Store introduction text for these two.

THE GOAL: 64,793 words

The goal for the translation challenge is calculated by multiplying:

  • 3083 (the number of words that you can translate for the iOS apps), by
  • the smartphone penetration rate, per country, for 47 countries. (Stats from 2013)

Sum all of these up and you get the total goal! This also creates individual goals for specific languages. These are (in alphabetical order):

Language Goal (Words) Language Goal (Words)
Arabic 2275 Italian 1273
Chinese (Hong Kong) 1936 Japanese 762
Chinese (Mainland China) 1446 Korean 2251
Chinese (Taiwan) 1566 Norwegian 2081
Czech 1283 Polish 1079
Danish 1819 Portuguese (Brazil) 811
Dutch 1603 Portuguese (Portugal) 990
Finnish 1403 Romanian 860
French 1739 Russian 1116
French 1304 Slovak 1415
German 1665 Spanish 1708
Greek 1002 Swedish 1939
Hebrew 1745 Tagalog 1193
Hindi 518 Thai 956
Hungarian 1061 Turkish 913
Indonesian 432 Ukrainian 444
Irish Gaelic 1757 Vietnamese 607

Note: Not all languages that we currently translate into are represented here. Also, these are by no means meant to be ceilings – if you’re on a translation roll, keep going please!

Okay, ready now?! The challenge runs until September 5th. Here are the links to the translation system:

You’ll need to register in order to have a username associated with your translations – this process literally takes 10 seconds.

Thank you so much!

———————————–

*Terms and Conditions: We will purchase an iPad Mini, or equivalent tablet, for the Translation Challenge winner conditional on acceptance of on-line payment by the Apple Store or another supplier in that country.

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2 technologies that will boost your phone’s battery life

Our smartphones are getting bigger, the applications we use on them are becoming more powerful and our appetite for mobile data is only growing. Those trends are taking a big toll on our batteries. You’ve probably noticed that the move from 3G to 4G marked the end of the phone that can go three days without a charge, despite the fact that our batteries have grown in size along with our displays.

Will we ever again see a day when we’re not on a constant hunt for a power outlet to juice up? Likely not, but we’ve seen a lot of recent innovations that have helped mitigate the power drain in our pockets and purses: organic LED displays that require no screen backlight or new multi-core processors that can switch cores on and off when needed. The screen and the processor are two of the biggest battery hogs in the device, but there’s a third: the radio connection to the network.

Our phones are in continuous communication with the mobile network and internet. That constant radio chatter is the second biggest source of power drain on our phones, but there are some new networking technologies emerging that will help keep the radio’s impact on your battery in check.

Envelope Tracking

One of the big reasons LTE is so power hungry is because it has what’s known as a high peak-to-average ratio. You can think of LTE waveform like classical music: long moments of quiet punctuated by crescendos. And just like classical music it needs a high-powered amplifier to capture those peaks and valleys – otherwise the signal is distorted.

Our phones typically create a broad power envelope to match the extremes of LTE waveform, but most of the time the LTE signal only needs a fraction of that power. Companies like Nujira, Quantance and Qualcomm have developed a technology called envelope tracking that matches the amplified power of the device to the power needed by the LTE signal at any given moment. The result is a much more energy-efficient 4G connection, resulting in a power savings of as much of 25 percent.

Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 1.10.43 PM

Diagram courtesy of Nujira

Envelope trackers are starting to make their way into newer smartphones, such as the most recent generations of the Samsung Galaxy, iPhone and Google Nexus lines. It’s not really a feature device makers advertise much (it’s not an easy thing to explain), but envelope tracking is going to have a big impact.

Small Cells

Radios drain battery power primarily when they’re transmitting, sending their signals back to the tower. That means if you’re further away from the tower, your phone must boost its signal to be heard. If you want to build a more power efficient network, the ideal setup would be one where every phone is no more than a stone’s throw away from a tower.

In a world of big cells mounted on building tops and high masts, that’s really not possible, but mobile operators are starting to build a new, denser form of network using small cells. Small cells are just like their big macrocell counterparts – they transmit the same signals and carry the same capacity – they just cover much smaller areas. The idea is that dense clusters of small cells can layer enormous amounts of new capacity onto the network.

A side benefit of small cells, though, is that they shorten the distance phone signals need to travel. If there is a small cell on every city block, then our phones are only transmitting a few hundred feet, instead of reaching for towers half a mile away.

It will be a while before small cells proliferate throughout our cities. Today operators mainly are deploying them surgically to add capacity to high-traffic areas like shopping malls and urban plazas. But we’re starting to see large-scale rollouts of the technology. For instance, Verizon is building a network of 400 pint-sized cells in the tech corridors of San Francisco, where you can imagine 4G demand is quite high. As the most basic building block of the cellular network shrinks, our battery life will grow.

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Kevin Fitchard who is a journalist covering the mobile industry and wireless technology. He most recently wrote for Gigaom.

Posted in LTE, Mobile Trends, Understanding signal | Tagged | Leave a comment

No Signal?! Top Things to Try

No signal? Chances are, there have been occasions when you needed to make a call or use mobile data, but there just wasn’t enough signal. Did you discover that your network’s coverage where you live isn’t that great? Or maybe you’ve found that signal is great outside, just bad inside – but you can’t stand out there every time you need to make a call!

Whatever your case may be, in these situations you are probably wondering what you can do to get better signal. At OpenSignal, we work with you to identify areas of good and bad signal, and our app is a toolkit for testing and finding signal. But depending on your situation, you might need something else. Here are several ways of improving your signal, ranging from portable solutions to more permanent ones.

OpenSignal Tower Map from App1) OpenSignal
The OpenSignal app has a compass that points in the direction of the nearest cell tower, and if you have no signal, it points in the direction of the last known tower location, so start walking. You might also want to keep a screenshot handy of the tower map on your phone (offline mode for OpenSignal is coming further down the line).

2) Restarting phone / Airplane Mode
While your phone normally receives signals from the closest tower, and as you move away your phone gets handed off to the next closest tower, sometimes the hand off is delayed or doesn’t occur, which means that there’s a tower that’s closer but your phone isn’t getting signal from it. Turning your phone on and off, or switching to airplane mode and back, tries to reconnect you to a closer tower.

3) Manual settings on the phone for network type or band
Many phones give you the option to manually select your network type, so in cases where 4G is slower than 3G (maybe too many people are on the 4G network, or there aren’t many 4G towers in the area), you can choose to switch off your 4G connection. Start with your phone’s Settings menu, and then look for any sections related to networks (on Samsung Galaxy phones, for example, switching network types will be under More Networks > Mobile Networks > Network Mode).

Sometimes, you can even switch to specific frequency bands by entering a phone’s Service Mode menu. Look for a Service Mode code for your phone’s model and instructions on switching frequencies (I won’t put any references here because these are very phone-specific and change quickly).

Note: If you switch to a specific frequency band when you don’t have signal, you will need to switch your phone back to automatic band selection. Otherwise, you’ll need to switch the band for new locations and network types (such as LTE).

Samsung External Plug-in Antenna4) Direct external antenna
If you’re in the mood for experimentation, now’s the time! Ports for external antennas are becoming more and more rare. Plugging an external antenna into your phone may improve the signal received by your phone. However, there have also been some reports of external antennas damaging your phone’s internal antenna. In this case, you wouldn’t be able to use your phone again without the external antenna (and they can be rather bulky!).

5) New phone that picks up different bands
As network technology changes and as more and more people get connected, telecommunications companies are going to purchase new frequency bands to expand the network. If your phone isn’t programmed to recognise signals from this frequency band, you won’t be able to take advantage of the new coverage and better speeds provided by this new band. Project Fi is an example of this – whether you are calling or browsing, your phone chooses the best available network, from WiFi and two cellular networks, but only if you have a Nexus 6 with its special cellular radio.

Different countries and regions also use different frequency bands. To counter this, you can buy multi-band phones, which will increase the signal and roaming capabilities of your phone and improve your coverage as well as allow you to have a working phone when travelling internationally.

6) Femtocells
Femtocells generate cellular signal using an existing broadband connection, so they are effectively very small cell towers – a femtocell’s range has a radius of 10 metres. Femtocells are great in that the input signal is very strong, but they only work with one network. To get one, you can purchase them from your mobile operator directly, for either a monthly fee or a one-time cost. You would then register your phone with the femtocell to clarify which phones are allowed to use the femtocell – in residential settings a femtocell supports two to four mobile phones. Femtocells are often legal where signal boosters are not (see below).

Signal repeater setup with internal and external antennas

1: External Antenna, 2: Signal Booster or Amplifier, 3: Internal Antenna. Source: https://www.repeaterstore.com/

7) Signal repeater
A more universal alternative to femtocells are signal repeaters (aka signal boosters) – they boost all networks (providing you buy one which covers your frequencies), improve voice/3G/LTE connections, and support any device in range (no need to register the device). A signal repeater works by picking up marginal signal via an external antenna and re-broadcasting this signal, in your building, via an internal antenna. The installation can be quite involved (usually putting antennas on your roof and running cable through the house, as in the diagram).

Note: By increasing the power behind signal transmission, signal repeaters can drown out signals from nearby towers to the point that these towers can no longer receive other calls. This can cause significant problems for your community’s cellular reception. For this reason, in some countries, signal repeaters are prohibited (UK, Australia), and where they are allowed (USA), you need to inform your mobile provider that you have one.

8) Switching networks
If all of the above fail, you always have the option of switching networks – some networks may have placed more towers in your area or be broadcasting signal on more frequencies that are compatible with your phone. You can check if there is a better network in your area with OpenSignal coverage maps (based on data from users of the OpenSignal app), maps provided by your telecommunications regulator, or from the networks themselves (network maps are often generated by a combination of drive testing data and algorithms, so may not accurately reflect actual signal on the ground).

I hope this helps! Please comment below, or in our Forums, with your experience of poor signal and the solution you picked. Was it easy or difficult? Was it worth the effort? Let’s identify the best signal-improving solutions together!

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Waiting for the 5G revolution

We’re now a good half-decade into the 4G age, which means that the mobile industry’s attention is now gravitating toward the next generation of wireless technology, 5G. The shift from 3G to 4G could be summed up in one word: “speed.” The move to 4G brought a big boost in bandwidth to our devices, bringing near broadband connectivity to our mobile phones, tablets and laptops. It’s tempting to think that the jump to 5G will mean yet another big leap in mobile performance.

That’s not necessarily the case. Certainly increased speed will be a component of 5G (and it’s the Wow! factor marketing departments like to focus on), but 5G may very well wind up meaning a lot of different things to different people. 5G could be the network technology that connects a good chunk of the internet of things, providing low latency, low power connections to billions of sensors, gadgets and appliances. 5G could also be a tool of providing affordable connectivity to a good many people who don’t have internet access.

If I sound a bit vague about what 5G is, there’s a reason. There is no definition of 5G yet. We’re at the stage where mobile industry and communications regulators are still figuring out what we want from our future mobile networks. While many companies have put out press releases claiming such-and-such 5G milestone, they’re really talking up technologies that could potentially become part of larger, final 5G standard.

We may not have a lock on 5G’s definition yet, but a lot of important research and development is in the works. Specifically, academics and network makers are looking into vast untapped bands of spectrum in far higher frequencies than are used for cellular networks today. These so-called millimeter waves don’t propagate far at low power so they’ve been useless for mobile communications historically, but new multi-antenna techniques could open those airwaves up to mobile operators. And we’re not talking petty bandwidth gains here. We’re talking multiple-gigabits of capacity.

Whether that technology can actually be crammed into a smartphone remains to be seen though. Millimeter wave networks may wind up replacing the wired broadband connections in our homes, or it could very well become a means of backhauling our existing 4G networks. As operators build much denser networks they’ll need to find cheap and easy ways to connect them to their network cores and the internet. A millimeter wave network might just be the ticket, allowing carriers to throw up clusters of small cells, blanketing our cities in bandwidth. That concept is known as super-dense networking and it’s another likely candidate for a future 5G standard.

There’s also a trend in 5G research to go the opposite direction. Instead of focusing all of our efforts into creating networks that can support single super-fast connections, why not build a network that can support thousands of low-speed connections? There are few applications that require gigabit speeds or extremely low latencies – augmented reality, for instance – but a highly efficient, low power network could provide connectivity to an endless amount of “things.” And cheaper, more accessible connections could help bridge the digital divide.

5G won’t necessarily encompass all of these concepts, but there’s a good chance it will cover a lot of them. We’ll likely have to wait a few years to find out. But we should be encouraged that the industry is embracing a more holistic view of what our future networks could be.

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Kevin Fitchard who is a journalist covering the mobile industry and wireless technology. He most recently wrote for Gigaom.

Posted in Mobile Trends | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Wi-Fi Alphabet

WifiMapper launched two weeks ago, and the excitement still hasn’t rubbed off. So, to continue the theme blazed by OpenSignal’s latest app, I’d like to take a look at Wi-Fi, and particularly, at the way the word “Wi-Fi” really is its own brand and has inspired a generation of *-Fi names. Here’s the “Alphabet Soup” of Wi-Fi, presenting the products and projects that have donned the *-Fi suffix (some more closely related to Wi-Fi, sensors, or telecommunications than others).

Letter Name Description
A aiFi aiFis are stackable Bluetooth speakers, so each speaker can join other aiFis in playing your favourite music. Also, join the competition to break the record number of units stacked or create your own innovative stack.
B Bi-Fi This one is fascinating! Two Stanford researchers have created a biological mechanism to send genetic messages from cell to cell. How? They took the virus M13 and harnessed its key attributes — its non-lethality and its ability to package and broadcast arbitrary DNA strands — to create what might be termed the biological Internet, or “Bi-Fi.”
C CiFi CiFi stands for Cellular with Wifi, and is most commonly found in Cisco’s 812 CiFi Integrated Services Router. The router is available in 3.7G or 3G/3.7G with dual 802.11n radio Wi-Fi. I’d love to know where and how these routers are used – are they part of network deployments?
D D-Fi D-Fi cables and connectors (made by Vertere Acoustics) improve the output sound quality from headphone jacks and other ports on your computer and mobile devices. So rather than use your charging cable to play music from your iPad, use a D-Fi cable or connector.
E Eyefi Mobi (a product made by the company Eyefi) works like a regular SDHC but unlike ordinary SDHC cards, Mobi includes built-in WiFi that connects your camera to your smartphone, tablet, PC or Mac wirelessly. Just click the shutter and watch your photos appear on your favorite device.
F Project Fi Using a Nexus 6-only SIM card that supports multiple cellular networks, Project Fi puts you on the best available network between Wi-Fi and two 4G LTE networks. This means you get access to more cell towers and 4G LTE in more places.
G Gi-Fi Also known as gigabit wireless or WiGig, Gi-Fi refers to a wireless data communications rate of more than 1 gigabit per second. These rates are currently being achieved by creating specialised 60GHz radios or by reducing interference caused by devices on other channels.
H Hi-Fi Back to audio! Hi-Fi, or high-fidelity (sound), refers to digitally recorded and generated sound that is as close to the original as possible, so that if you were to close your eyes, you can imagine that you are hearing the real thing.
I IFI Moving away from audio, IFI is the International Flood Initiative, which focuses on research, information networking, education and training, empowering communities and providing technical assistance and guidance. Sounds like something for CrisisSignal!
J Ji-Fi Ji-Fi is Joint Impedance and Facies Inversion, which is a Bayesian inversion system used to extract geologically meaningful rock properties (Porosity, Saturation, Vshale, etc.) from seismic data. This is often used for mining complex oil and gas reservoirs. Could it also be used in earthquake prediction?
K Kifi

Kifi is a new way to discover information based on your interests, friends, and the Kifi knowledge community. One could probably think about it as an extended version of Pinterest, albeit with a larger recommendation engine. #organizetheinternet
 L Li-Fi Li-Fi refers to visible light communications (VLC) technology that delivers a high-speed, bidirectional networked, mobile communications in a similar manner as Wi-Fi. Data is transmitted by modulating the intensity of the light, which is then received by a photo-sensitive detector, and the light signal is demodulated into electronic form. Really cool!
 M Mi-Fi Mi-Fis are compact, wireless devices that enable multiple users to share a single mobile broadband connection while they are on the go. A MiFi taps into 3G or 4G mobile phone networks and uses this connection to create a mini wireless broadband cloud.
 N NiFi Apache NiFi is a dataflow system that is currently under incubation at the Apache Software Foundation. NiFi is based on the concepts of flow-based programming and is highly configurable. NiFi also has a rich web-based interface for designing, controlling, and monitoring a dataflow.
 O Oui-Fi This is how to say Wi-Fi with a French accent!
 P PiFi PiFi – a Raspberry Pi enabled Wi-Fi radio – is the personal project of a self-taught electronics buff. The main link is his blog post where he describes the steps for creating a “smart radio” that can play files from a thumbdrive, stream internet radio, and play songs from your iOS device via Airplay. To top it off, it can be controlled by a smartphone or web browser.
 Q QiFi QiFi is a browser-based, client-side QR code generator for your Wi-Fi password. The QR code can be read by any Android barcode scanner based on the ZXing library, and a few more.
 R Ri-Fi To continue with the audio theme, Ri-Fi was an Italian record company, founded by Giovanni Battista Ansoldi in 1959, that was active until the early 1980s.
 S SCIFI SCIFI is an acronym in Portuguese for an intelligent control system for wireless networks. SCIFI is open source, and uses off-the shelf, low-cost SOHO routers compatible with OpenWRT or any other Linux-like OS to build medium and large scale wireless networks. Okay okay. “Sci-Fi” is also science fiction. Here’s a list of the sci-fi books to watch out for in 2015, by iO9.
 T None
 U None
 V Vi-Fi I think that this is how we would spell Wi-Fi if Count Dracula had said it. More on Dracula, author Bram Stoker, and other discussions on the page of Dr. Elizabeth Miller, Dracula expert.
 W Wi-Fi Wi-Fi? What was that again? (j/k) There’s a great article by the Economist on how regulation changes in 1985 created an environment where Wi-Fi could flourish. The main link leads to the IEEE Wi-Fi standards page (if you’re in for some techie reads).
 X XIFI XIFI is a project of the European Public-Private-Partnership on Future Internet (FI-PPP) programme. XIFI works towards establishing a common European market for large-scale trials for Future Internet and Smart Cities by creating a sustainable pan-European federation of Future Internet test infrastructures.
 Y Y-fi The Y-Fi laser is an ultrafast laser based on rare earth-doped optical fiber – in this case Ytterbium Fiber. The laser enables new applications in ultrafast microscopy, micro-machining, mid-IR conversion in conjunction with an OPO, supercontinuum generation, laser surgery, and ophthalmology.
 Z Z-fi  Z-Fi is a technology developed by Zivix that is designed to enhance performance and maintain a strong wireless connection with MIDI devices and Zivix apps and drivers. Zivix is a hardware, software, and technology company focused on making musical instruments more accessible for everyone.

Have fun checking all of these out! Share your favourite “-Fi” in the WifiMapper forums, or suggest something for a letter that doesn’t have an entry!  Remember, the rule for a -Fi is [A-Z]i-Fi (small exceptions permitted).

Finally, don’t forget to download WifiMapper – in the App Store on iOS and available in beta on Android. Thanks!

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How “advanced” is your LTE network?

As the mobile industry gears up for the next big technological shift in mobile communications, 5G, an interim technology has been emerging to help fill in the generational gap. That technology is called LTE-Advanced, and while it’s not a term the general public is familiar with, if you’ve been paying attention to mobile carriers in Europe and Asia, you’ve likely noticed them bragging about these new “Advanced” 4G capabilities.

EE calls it 4G+, while Vodafone is describing it as 4.5G, but no matter what moniker carriers apply to LTE-Advanced, they’re all promising it will herald a big boost in network performance. But what is LTE-Advanced exactly, and how will it improve your mobile experience?

Defining LTE-A is a bit difficult because it’s not a single technology. It’s really more a grab bag of different techniques and upgrades designed to improve coverage, capacity and resiliency on mobile networks. The LTE-A standard includes new advanced antenna technologies designed to send more signals to your phone; interference mitigation techniques, allowing carriers to pile new small cells into their networks; and higher orders of modulation that can boost the efficiency of your connection. But the big-ticket item in LTE-Advanced is a technology called carrier aggregation, which provides an advantage that’s much easier to market to their customers: faster speeds.

Carrier aggregation essentially lets a mobile operator combine two or more downlink transmissions (each known as a carrier) into a single super-connection. Operators are deploying LTE all over the spectrum map, but in most cases those frequencies aren’t contiguous. With carrier aggregation, an operator like EE is taking the 20 MHz of 1.8 GHz spectrum from its original LTE network and combining it with 20 MHz it owns way up in the 2.6 GHz band. The result is a connection that will support up to 300 Mbps, double that of what each individual carrier could support on its own.

That’s a tremendous benefit to consumers, especially those with a craving for speed, but keep in mind some LTE-Advanced networks are more advanced than others. Operators can only bond together the 4G spectrum they have at their disposal. For instance, Vodafone is combining a 10 MHz carrier with 20 MHz carrier, creating a network with a theoretical limit of 225 Mbps. Depending on their spectrum situation, some operators are gluing together two 10 MHz carriers or a 10 MHz and a 5 MHz carrier. The result is a lot of different LTE-Advanced network with different top speeds.

Regardless, any LTE-Advanced network is going to provide an improvement over its predecessor, so if your service provider has performed the upgrade, it’s worth your while to take advantage of it. To do that you’ll need a newer smartphone, tablet or modem. There are a number of devices that can support carrier aggregation today, but only a handful that can handle the high speeds of the more powerful LTE-A networks coming out this year. Among them are the Samsung Galaxy S6, S6 Edge and Note 4; the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus; the HTC One M9; the LG G Flex 2; and Huawei Ascend Mate 7 and Honor 6. Multiple smartphone chipsets with LTE-A support are now in the market, and in the coming year, we’ll see a lot more devices boasting 300 Mbps speeds out of the box.

And don’t forget those other items on the LTE-Advanced menu. It will be much harder for operators to explain the benefits of a technology like enhanced inter-cell interference coordination (eICIC) to their customers, but it will benefit those customers just the same. SK Telecom is using eICIC to deploy dense clusters of small cells in the places where data demand is highest, ensuring customers can get a connection even when the network is most congested. Deutsche Telekom is testing an antenna technology called 4×4 MIMO, which will double the number of data streams sent from the tower to the device. That feature not only will boost speeds even further (DT is boasting speeds up to 580 Mbps), but an additional benefit of multiple antennas will be improved performance at the edges of cells — those areas of the network where calls drop and our data speeds suffer the most.

So, yes, we’re seeing the first LTE-Advanced networks today, but it’s safe to say they’re going to advance much further in the future.

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Kevin Fitchard who is a journalist covering the mobile industry and wireless technology. He most recently wrote for Gigaom.

Posted in LTE, Mobile Trends | 1 Comment