U.S. carriers disagree on cutting-edge networks

Technology chiefs gave outlooks on spectrum-sharing, lightweight radios and mobile videoconferencing

The network chiefs of the three biggest U.S. mobile operators disagreed about some emerging network technologies during a Tuesday afternoon panel discussion at CTIA Wireless but agreed that the wireless industry is in a period of major change.

"I've never seen a point in time where it's so open for innovation everywhere," AT&T Chief Technology Officer John Donovan said. The rapid growth of data traffic is forcing carriers to rethink the fundamental designs of their networks, and new technologies are emerging to help solve that traffic problem, he said. Wi-Fi, cloud-based network management and policy-based controls are among those new tools, he said.

Donovan and network heads from Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel disagreed about the practical value of specific technologies, but all cited the eventual need for more spectrum and current requirements to make more efficient use of current networks. Expanding capacity was one of AT&T's main motivations in making a deal to buy T-Mobile USA for US$39 billion.

Yet, two mobile network concepts that have drawn close attention recently received a generally cool reception from the big-carrier technology executives.

The "lightweight radio" concept, highlighted last month with announcements by Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent, is overhyped, according to Sprint Senior Vice President Bob Azzi and Verizon Communications Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Tony Melone.

Lightweight radios, such as the Ericsson Air (antenna integrated radio) and Alcatel's lightRadio concept, are designed to be much smaller and less power-hungry than current cellular base stations. The vendors hope to achieve this by centralizing some parts of the base-station gear and having the lightweight radios configure themselves. Proponents say the new radios ultimately could make cell towers unnecessary.

"It will evolve, but I don't see it as transformational. I see it as evolutionary," Verizon's Melone said.

AT&T's Donovan was more bullish on lightweight radios, saying the concept of a centralized, cloud-based infrastructure is a good one. However, he said the technology isn't here yet. "I don't have any of them in my plan for this year. I'm not retiring cell towers," Donovan said.

Verizon's Melone was even more blunt about sharing of spectrum or network equipment, another idea that some have promoted for cost savings and efficiency.

"Over my dead body," he said. "The ability to share spectrum is easier said than done." Managing such an arrangement would be too complex, and too much is riding on the quality of Verizon's network to justify the effort, he said. AT&T's Donovan agreed.

Azzi, whose company shares a huge pool of spectrum licenses with Clearwire and resells that carrier's WiMax services, backed the idea and restated Sprint's support for its joint network-building strategy with Clearwire. "It works for us," he said.

All three executives agreed on the goal of interoperability for mobile videoconferencing among the carriers. Verizon's Melone said being able to hold video calls with friends and colleagues regardless of service provider could make videoconferencing take off the way SMS (Short Message Service) did after U.S. carriers made it work across their networks. He said Verizon is working with Alcatel on this technology and should have it available in the second half of 2012.

"We'll have it the day before Tony does," Donovan quipped.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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