The way the Federal Communications Commission is conducting its upcoming auction of portions of the 700MHz radio spectrum is not unlike the Wild West: Its wide open and anything could happen.
With talk of Google entering the bidding, wireless network equipment providers are salivating at the prospect of a potential nationwide buildout of a brand-new network. But what form that network would take, how widespread it would be and which company Google would choose to partner with to build it are far from clear.
"The idea behind auctioning off the spectrum is, Lets get creative," said Craig Mathias, principal at wireless consulting company Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass. "Someone is going to make a lot of money on equipment, but we dont know who that is."
Most observers agree that Google would most likely look to build out a broadband wireless infrastructure, which better fits its business model and is an area that remains underserved in the United States.
"Why is Google doing it? Because they are frustrated," said Frank Dzubeck, president of consulting firm Communication Network Architects. "One of the things impeding their growth is a lack of mobile broadband capacity. The technology is available, but they dont see fast-enough buildout by carriers to meet the demand. It all boils down to broadband access," he said.
Another motivation for Googles interest could be to spur wireless network operators to open access to their networks from multiple devices, said Michael Disabato, vice president and service director for network and telecom strategies at Burton Group.
"Googles proving a point. They want to open the networks and allow any device to attach to them. They want to break the locked handset model and show that the business model can work," he said.
Click here to read more about the potential for a Google wireless network.
Or, Google could be protecting its existing business model from changes that network operators might make in the future that could hurt it. "They might be doing it for cheap insurance. If things come to pass where net neutrality goes out the window—say after a two-year period AT&T and Verizon want to charge access to their customers—then Google having their own network operator gives them an alternative," explained Dave Passmore, research director at the Burton Group. "That way they are less dependent on the whims of other network operators. It may be a cover-your-bets move on Googles part," he said.
Each of these motivations would influence how Google might approach building out a new network should it bid and win the 700MHz spectrum.
In terms of the technologies it might pursue, mobile broadband technologies such as WiMax or LTE (Long-Term Evolution) are a better fit with Googles business model than narrowband GSM or CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), said John Hoadley, vice president of 4G and ecosystem business development for Nortel Networks, in Richardson, Texas.
"The architecture of these is similar to what they use today—flat IP networks. Thats what WiMax and LTE promise. Our expectation is that theyd be drawn to these technologies because of the general way these networks are sold," he said.
Should Google win the bidding and choose to build out a new network, one thing that would make it easier and less costly to do so is the nature of the 700MHz spectrum. Compared with higher bands such as 2GHz, the 700MHz band requires fewer cell towers to achieve the same geographic coverage, according to Mikael Halen, director of government and industry relations at Ericsson, in Stockholm, Sweden.
"You need almost four times as many base stations for 2GHz. That makes deployment a lot simpler," Halen said.
That, Halen said, is the primary issue in building out a nationwide network. "The number of cell sites are the main cost drivers for [capital and operating expenditures]. The lower band is better when it comes to radio propagation. You can cover more land," he said.
But the 700MHz spectrum and the way the FCC has structured it pose some serious challenges in adapting WiMax or LTE to those frequencies.
"To get to the real kind of model Google wants, the size of the spectrum doesnt really support it," said Alan Pritchard, vice president of account development at Nortel. "When you want speeds similar to what you get at your house, you need a 20MHz channel up and down, but 12MHz up and down is whats in this auction. The FCC talks about wanting 4G [fourth-generation] services in this auction, but in terms of absolute size of the spectrum, we still have to wait for a while for that to get sorted out."
At the same time, the FCC is requiring that a 12MHz portion of the spectrum be made available on an as-needed basis for public safety traffic, pre-empting commercial subscribers.
"There will be a relationship that would have to be developed between the public safety licensee and the commercial D block," Nortels Hoadley said.
There are also concerns about interference with neighboring frequencies in the lower bands of the spectrum.
Would a Google wireless network mean freedom for cell phone users? Click here to read more.
Beyond such issues, the challenges posed by building out a new network also include finding the cell sites, building the towers and the rest of the network, and tuning the network to ensure good quality, Ericssons Halen said.
To do that requires "a lot of know-how and competence," he said.
Such issues aside, the field of wireless equipment vendors that Google could choose to work with is fairly wide. Most observers agree that among the large equipment providers, the most obvious of the larger vendors that could step up include Nortel, Alcatel-Lucent, Siemens and Ericsson, "The same folks supplying GSM- or CDMA-based mobile operator networks. None of them has an in," Passmore said. Another large player, Motorola, also has more experience in the 700MHz spectrum.
But Google could also choose to go with smaller and more innovative startups. One such startup, Vanu, markets a low-cost, software-defined radio that can run GSM or CDMA on the same antenna and runs on off-the-shelf hardware.
Whats intriguing about Vanus technology is its flexibility. It allows seamless roaming, regardless of the handset type, according to Disabato. "If Google knows about this, theyd look at this, go talk to people whove been putting this in and find out how good it is, and not go with the big boys," Disabato asserted. "Somebody at Google is going read this and say, How did they know what we were doing? or Wow, thats a great idea and go investigate."
Google could also choose to partner with an existing wireless network operator, exploit existing cell sites and towers, and build an overlay network on that infrastructure. That would lower the cost of the network buildout, according to Halen.
Whichever vendor Google chooses, that company has to be good at partnering, said Godfrey Chua, IDC research manager for wireless and mobile infrastructure.
"That vendor will play a huge role in how to build the wireless network. It is extremely complex and fraught with difficulties," Chua said. But most of the major vendors, including Nortel, Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson, are increasing their emphasis on professional services and running networks for their service provider customers.
"Thats a model you can expect coming out of Google trying to build a network. Google gives you the check and you do the planning and building and then run it, while Google focuses on marketing and building the applications for the network," he said.
Ericssons Halen said he believes his company has an edge when it comes to partnering to build out such a network. He touted the companys 27,000 service professionals and its experience building out other lower-band networks from scratch.
"We built out a [High-Speed Downlink Packet Access] network in the 850MHz band for Telstra in Australia in less than 10 months and covered 98 percent of the population. You have the tools, processes and methods. These three things are key. To be able to differentiate and be really competitive and lower operational costs while making a good margin for yourself, you need excellence in these three areas," Halen said.
However it plays out, its certain that the vendors are working hard to get in Googles good graces.
"Now is the time to start cozying up with them. Let the lunches and dinners begin," Chua quipped.
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