Sometimes, proposed services or platforms in the communications business are right, just too early. In the mid-1990s “application service providers” tried to make a business out of what we now know as “cloud applications.” The ASP business did not make it. But cloud-based apps were the right idea, and now is commonplace. Bandwidth on demand was among the goals of most next generation telco networks for decades. Now network functions virtualization might make it a widespread reality, at least for business customers. MulteFire and other new platforms for mobile service might soon provide another example.
Back in the 1990s, for example, at a time when mobile service was not used by most people, and was expensive, it was thought there was a market opportunity for a new type of service that would be half way between cordless indoor telephone service and fully-mobile outdoor service.
NTT, in fact, marketed Handyphone service in which a handset functioned both as a cordless phone in the home and as a mobile phone outside the home. As it turned out, rapid price declines for full mobile service eroded the potential market.
For a short period of time, when mobile charges were usage based and high, it might have made sense to rely on fixed network access for inbound calls, for example, in markets where calling party pays was the charging rule.
But in calling party pays markets where outbound long distance on a mobile phone was relatively affordable, it might also have made sense to use mobile for outbound “long distance” calls, and fixed networks for local or other calls with an “unlimited” usage bucket.
Today that is sort of nonsensical. Mobile calling is so affordable, and long distance charges are so low (when users rely on internet-based over-the-top services), that the mobile is a direct replacement for the home phone, especially since everyone has their own phone, number and identity.
The market niche for PCS and Handyphone never was sustainable, once mobile became affordable for the mass market.
So even where new spectrum was made available for “Personal Communications Service (PCS),” it mostly lead to the entry of new firms into the mobile business. In the U.S. market, Sprint and what became T-Mobile US into the U.S. mobile market, using 2-GHz “PCS” spectrum. The original thought was that PCS would be a pedestrian speed network, supporting cell tower handoff at pedestrian speeds.
Later, Cablevision Systems Corp., which studied and then shelved the idea, eventually did launch a similar service, essentially mobile phone service using unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum exclusively. Much as did PCS, it never took off.
In a sense, MulteFire is a second coming of the older PCS idea. PCS was conceived as a communications service used by people moving at pedestrian speeds, with session handoff. The CableVision implementation did not feature session handoff, but could be used anywhere Wi-Fi access was available (indoor at the subscriber’s home or at public Wi-Fi locations).
It is not clear how MulteFire might develop, or which use cases prove to be sustainable. Some larger cable operators, such as Comcast, have huge deployed networks of Wi-Fi homespots that could provide a foundation for MulteFire networks spanning rather extensive geographies, even if call handoff might be a limitation.
But that is why most believe hybrid networks that can default to mobile networks are important. Google Fi, for example, uses a mobile-first model where users are connected first to Wi-Fi, then to either the Sprint or T-Mobile US network, depending on which network has the better signal at a specific location.
Even if we all know 4G as a mobile network standard, supporting mobile phone service, other new protocols, such as MulteFire, create the potential, for the first time, of 4G networks operated much as Wi-Fi networks are, using unlicensed spectrum and operating in indoor settings or as small cells.
MulteFire is suitable for any spectrum band that requires over-the-air contention for fair sharing, such as the global 5 GHz unlicensed spectrum band or shared spectrum in the upcoming 3.5 GHz CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service) band in the U.S. market.
Business models for networks running 4G LTE protocols in a private LTE mode might be likened to similar use of venue Wi-Fi. An enterprise might consider creating its own enterprise 4G network. There will be business model differences based on which spectrum is used. In the CBRS band, for example, a venue owner deploying MulteFire would have proprietary rights of a sort, being able to block other temporary MulteFire networks from being created by a user hotspot, for example.
Wholesale models, such as neutral host networks open for use by third parties, represent another new business model.
In some ways, MulteFire takes the old debate about whether Wi-Fi can replace licensed mobile networks to a new level. In the future, it will be possible to create 4G networks that operate exclusively using unlicensed spectrum, or in forms that bond licensed mobile spectrum with unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum or other spectrum.
MulteFire also is, in many ways, the latest iteration of any idea decades old, that there is room in the market for services that are someplace between full mobile and cordless telephone service.