Las Vegas lures technology gambles

RCR Wireless News
Las Vegas – no matter how you slice it – has a one-of-a-kind allure. The city screams fantasy from every direction. The road to riches is within grasp, but only for a lucky few.

As the city grows by leaps and bounds, more and more wireless companies are placing bets on the random oasis in the desert that is Las Vegas. Except their bets are not up against the house, they want to blanket the house with wireless technology operating up in the ether.

Where Motorola first met CDMA

For years, Las Vegas has been a favorite test bed for companies looking to trial and demonstrate new cellular technologies.

Looking back to the second-generation technologies that were launched more than a decade ago, Las Vegas played host to Motorola Inc.’s first CDMA market in the United States. In 1996, the company took financial analysts, brokers and press out on a bus to demonstrate wireless calls being made on its first trial CDMA network.

Technology trials

“It’s a great test bed for the various technologies,” said Roy Berger, executive VP of corporate marketing at NextWave Wireless Inc.

The city’s never-ending flow of industry events, a wide demographic mix and a large transient population are all extremely useful, Berger said. There’s also the dense urban, suburban and rural communities that make up the city and surrounding area.

“I think everybody kind of recognizes the positive things that Las Vegas brings as a market to trial these new technologies,” he said.

“We’ve had a long presence in Las Vegas where we have trialed and implemented lots of technologies … and we continue to do so,” Berger added.

“For us, we have significant infrastructure capabilities there already,” he said. “We can implement a trial very quickly.”

And it has. Berger said the company has trialed “virtually all of the major wireless technologies that have become available over the course of the last several years.” Those trials included using the 1.9 GHz spectrum the company’s previous incarnation, NextWave Wireless L.L.C., received during the PCS auctions of the 1990s and eventually was able to sell following years of court battles with the Federal Communications Commission.

Now, NextWave is moving into LTE and other OFDM-based technologies. “We are very focused on OFDM technologies such as WiMAX and LTE,” Berger said, adding that WiMAX trials and pre-LTE trials are already underway.

“These are trials really to test the technology,” Berger said. “These are not commercial trials, these are more technology trials.”

NextWave’s team of several hundred engineers located in the San Diego area makes it easier from a geographical perspective as well. “It’s an easy market to get in and out of,” he said.

For NextWave, it’s simply an ideal locale to show off (and push the limit on) what their technologies can do, he said, adding that the company has no plans to go public with a commercial network in the city.

Its trial network in Las Vegas is currently operating TD-CDMA technology, Berger said.

Mobile TV

Last year, Las Vegas became a de facto mobile broadcast TV test market of sorts with MediaFLO USA Inc. and the now-defunct HiWire L.L.C. deploying their first trial networks there. Clearwire Corp. and ICO Global Communications Ltd. also have plans to trial a mobile TV network that will use satellites to broadcast directly to mobile devices.

“Las Vegas is as extreme a town as possible for in-building coverage,” HiWire President and COO Scott Wills said. “We didn’t plan on getting the pervasive in-building coverage that we got.”

In fact, Wills was most pleased with the service on the strip, because its second tower, which was positioned on the roof of the Rio Hotel and Casino, was at a significant disadvantage of only 5,000 watts of power. MediaFLO’s nearby tower powers at 50,000 watts. HiWire also had a transmission tower on Black Mountain near MediaFLO’s other tower that covers the area.

HiWire’s parent company Aloha Partners L.P. recently sold its 700 MHz spectrum assets to AT&T Inc. for $2.4 billion.

MediaFLO USA declined to share any details about its earlier trial network in Las Vegas.

“We analyze many factors in determining where we trial our coverage and these factors are specific to MediaFLO USA and are proprietary, therefore we are not able to share more information about where and why we trial coverage in specific markets,” a spokeswoman wrote in response to questions.

“(Las Vegas) was one of the several markets where we conducted trials and became commercialized. We conducted simultaneous trials in other markets too,” she wrote.

Beaming from space

Clearwire and ICO’s trial, which was first deployed in Raleigh, N.C., with plans to add a second trial in Las Vegas, marks the first time mobile television will be broadcast using digital video broadcast-satellite handheld technology, the companies said when the plan was first announced last year. DVB-SH is a variant of DVB-H that relies on satellite for delivery.

Although DVB-SH is largely unproven (only satellite radio can be pointed to as a similar service that’s commercially launched) for mobile TV services, ICO is sure it has the right technology up its sleeve. Instead of being a one-way satellite feed, ICO’s service will be two-way, enabling enhanced interactive services through a GEO-Mobile Radio interface to complement the video component.

“I feel really very confident that that’s the right technology for us,” CEO Tim Bryan said.

The trial will test the mobile video broadcast system and examine the feasibility of using Clearwire’s 2.5 GHz spectrum and ICO’s 2 GHz spectrum more efficiently.

The satellite-based service will also carry a terrestrial component to it, thanks in part to ICO’s partnership with Clearwire. A terrestrial repeater network will be used to fill in coverage where shadowing might occur near buildings.

“This is mostly meant to be a mobile service so we’re not specifically targeting in-building penetration,” Bryan said. “It won’t have quite the in-building coverage of something like 700 MHz.”

WiMAX

For those who haven’t had the chance to check out Clearwire’s larger mobile WiMAX trial network in Oregon, the company demonstrated its network capabilities in a partnership with Motorola earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Using a 10-megahertz channel per sector over 2.5 GHz Clearwire spectrum, Motorola took press and analysts out for a spin on the streets surrounding the convention center for demonstrations.

“The demo at CES has WiMAX equipment … but what they also added was a Wi-Fi router,” Clearwire’s CTO John Saw said. “The actual equipment itself was wired straight into WiMAX.” The companies decided to use a Wi-Fi router in the car to allow visitors to use their laptop computers to check out the network on their own.

Motorola and Clearwire told passengers that the unloaded network was providing downlink speeds of around 2.5 megabits per second and 500 kilobits per second to 1 Mbps on the uplink. Each cell site covered about 1 square kilometer, the companies said. Clearwire’s WiMAX network also served as the backhaul for the demonstration.

The vehicle had a streaming video camera that sent pictures of where the car was driving to the Internet, a mobile entertainment unit that streamed Yahoo Inc.’s Music service to the vehicle and a mapping application. Passengers were able to check e-mail and stream YouTube clips on their laptops.

Clearwire installed four base stations identical to the equipment it uses in Oregon for the demonstration and says some of those sites will actually serve as an early part of its network buildout in Las Vegas.

Saw said their trial is progressing equally well clear across the country. “We are now transitioning a technology into a product,” he said. “We are actually transitioning WiMAX into production.”

“Candidly, we are flushing out a lot of early technology issues,” he said.

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