Don't let spectrum re-farming catch your enterprise flat-footed


You'll notice that there are two articles in this week's edition of FierceMobileIT that relate to spectrum changes being carried out by wireless carriers. In one story, AT&T announced that it was ending all 2G service by the beginning of 2017. In the other, a study by PwC found that a many wireless carriers have plans, or are developing plans, to end legacy services including 2G in the next five years. As we noted in an earlier story, Sprint (NYSE: S) has already announced that it was ending its 2G iDEN service next year.

As far as the carriers are concerned, this shouldn't be a big deal for customers. After all, almost no one keeps a mobile phone for five years, if only because they become obsolete and the build quality on many of them is such that they won't last five years anyway. But what few people think about is that there is more to mobile IT than just handheld devices. A lot more.

For example, many enterprises, especially large enterprises, depend on machine-to-machine communications. Those M2M devices can range from fleet management functions to aircraft engine maintenance to pipeline monitoring. Many of those M2M devices use 2G communications--they don't need much bandwidth so the speed doesn't matter, and 2G is usually available globally.

But these M2M communications devices aren't handsets. They're integrated with the systems for which they provide communications, so you're not talking about a hundred bucks for a new phone. You're talking about a couple of thousand for a GPS-enabled automated tracking system on a cargo container. Or you're talking about even more for the device-monitoring systems inside the jet engine that powers an airliner.

What's equally important is that these devices may be highly mobile. Cargo containers, trucks and jet engines don't just stay in one locality, after all, and some of them travel around the world. You need those M2M communications everywhere the device goes, not just in some places.

Adding to the complexity, many of the M2M devices are part of federally-regulated safety systems. You can't just unplug an aircraft engine monitoring system and plug in a new one. First, you have to put it through extensive testing, then you have to get it certified by the FAA, then you have to get it integrated by the manufacturer, and only then can it go into the jet engine that will power the airliner that takes you to Paris. This process is not fast and it's not cheap.

Typically, certification of safety-related systems for aircraft can take as long as a decade. Approval of other systems, such as pipeline monitoring systems, may be somewhat faster but again, it's not just a quick swap of radios.

The carriers involved say they'll help their customers make the switch. But will AT&T (NYSE: T) help GE, CFM or Pratt & Whitney develop and certify engine-monitoring systems before the company turns off its 2G network entirely? Probably not.

And that's the problem. While your mobile IT communications infrastructure may be critically important to your business, to the carriers you're a tiny, undefined presence. As far as they know, you're an occasional data user. The fact that your mobile IT requirements may help protect lives and property, and be regulated by the government, is beside the point. You're not a major customer, you have a minor impact on their bottom line and as a result you're going to get minimum effort.

In other words, it's not going to matter to the carrier whether your 2G data business is there or not. They're still going to shut down the network.

So what can you do? First, contact the carrier and find out the timeline as it affects you. The carriers do have some discretion as to when they shut down certain parts of their network, and if you have a critical need, they may delay shutting down portions of the network that are important to you.

However, you will still need to do two other things. First, accept the inevitable. Legacy networks are going away eventually. Make the leap to the newest possible technology for your mobile IT requirements and find ways to change your monitoring systems so they support LTE with a 3G fallback. But be aware that LTE is by no means a global standard. If you need to operate globally, then you probably need HSPA and satellite communications where feasible.

The second thing, especially if you need to operate globally, is to find a carrier that's not planning to shut off 2G in the near future. In the U.S., that's T-Mobile, which will be reducing the amount of spectrum available for GSM and its 2G data services, but not eliminating it. This is because T-Mobile is pushing international use in the U.S. and Europe with special roaming plans, and to make this work, a 2G capability is required. If you don't need to operate outside the U.S., there's also Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ), which has given no indication that it's planning to turn off 2G communications in the near future. Fortunately, switching your device radios from one carrier to another usually isn't impacted by the certification process.

But regardless of the paths you choose, you still need to hold those discussions with your current or prospective carrier. You can't afford to be caught by surprise by spectrum re-farming. -Wayne

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