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Media Coverage

GSM Sunset is on the Horizon

In August 2012, AT&T announced plans to shut down 2G GSM/GPRS by Jan. 1, 2017—a little more than four years away. This shutdown will impact about 12 to 14 million devices currently on AT&T’s GSM network.

With the alarm industry facing this incredible challenge over the next three to four years, there simply isn’t any time left to waste. All companies associated with the alarm industry must act now to rapidly reate and execute a multi-year plan to replace 2G GSM devices and minimize disruption for their customers.

The AMPS Sunset
In the 1990s, the alarm industry deployed analog AMPS cellular devices for monitored alarm systems. These devices underwent an “AMPS sunset” after cellular carriers began a transition to digital cellular. Less than 1 million alarm devices were replaced.

When carriers deployed digital cellular, they chose incompatible protocols. Some carriers selected CDMA and others selected GSM (after changing from ANSI-136TDMA). For simplicity, these are referred to as “CDMA carriers” and “GSM carriers.”

Carriers wanted to transition to all-digital services. In February 2003, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set an AMPS Sunset. Customers using AMPS had five years (through Feb. 18, 2008) to migrate to digital, and carriers were required to support AMPS through that date.

As a result, companies developed digital cellular products using two services: CDMA 1xRTT and GSM GPRS. The automotive and trucking industries chose CDMA for the higher data throughput and for roaming into AMPS markets. More importantly, automobile design and production cycles drove a requirement for service longevity, for which CDMA was the best choice.

However, CDMA radios were 2 to 2.5 times more expensive than GSM radios. Thus, costconscious industries, such as the alarm industry, chose GPRS, since the far lower cost of GSM radios was just too attractive to ignore.

Dramatic Growth in Smartphones
More recently, carriers saw large increases in the number of smartphones and a dramatic rise in data use. This forced them to acquire more spectrum and deploy more spectrum-efficient protocols in existing spectrum.

Because of the higher spectrumefficiency of CDMA, CDMA carriers were under less business pressure than GSM carriers. They deployed 3G EV-DO, which can co-exist with 1xRTT in the same spectrum bands.

However, carriers who chose 2G GSM have had to deploy a new 3G technology, UMTS, in new spectrum bands. UMTS uses a W-CDMA protocol that is incompatible with the TDMA protocols of GSM.

Over time, enhancements improved performance: EV-DO Rev. A (in the CDMA family) and HSPA, HSPA+, etc. (in the GSM family). CDMA carriers deployed 3G in their entire coverage footprint rapidly, but GSM carriers have yet to complete their 3G deployment.

Advent of 4G
As smartphone usage increased, carriers needed to deploy even more spectrum-efficient protocols, such as OFDMA (in WiMAX and LTE). Since they had fully established their 3G networks, CDMA carriers began
deployment of WiMAX and LTE sooner than GSM carriers,who had to continue their 3G expansion in ultiple steps (HSDPA, HSUPA, HSPA, HSPA+, etc.).

For 4G deployments, carriers have been using new spectrum to avoid disrupting 2G/3G services. However, AT&T is in a weak spectrum position in many markets. Thus, in 2011, AT&T proposed purchasing T-Mobile to acquire additional AWS licenses at 1700/2100MHz for LTE. During negotiations, AT&T’s VP Jean Marsh wrote about whatmight happen if the purchase was not approved:

“First, AT&T would promptly shut down its 2G GSM network–a network that currently supports tens of millions of devices […] that customer base would be required to go purchase new mobile broadband (UMTS) handsets, which are generally more expensive,” noted Marsh.

As we know, AT&T did not receive approval for the T-Mobile acquisition.

Call to Action
The GSM sunset is a major issue for the alarm industry because it has deployed such large numbers of GSM devices. An estimated 4 to 5 million 2G GSM alarm devices must be replaced within four years (or less in major markets).

Assuming 200 working days a year, the alarm industry must start replacing more than 5,000 devices per day, starting immediately. To accomplish that, the alarm industry must rapidly develop and execute a comprehensive plan, including new products from suppliers, detailed schedules, customer notifications, installer training, etc.

What are the Options?

  • There are four possibilities:
  • Change service to T-Mobile.
  • Replace with 3G HSPA unit.
  • Replace with 2G CDMA unit.
  • Replace with 4G LTE unit.

Change Service to T-Mobile.
It may be possible to move service from AT&T to T-Mobile by swapping the SIM inside devices. This requires a truck roll. Furthermore, T-Mobile will also remove 2G eventually. Thus, this option only delays the inevitable by about two years; however, it allows additional time for implementing other options. It could require two truck rolls: one to replace the SIM soon, and another to replace the 2G GSM device later.

Replace with 3G HSPA.
Alarm device suppliers are making new 3G HSPA devices. However, the HSPA coverage is much smaller
than GPRS and, in time, HSPA spectrum also will need to be swapped for LTE. Thus, there is likely to be an “HSPA Sunset” starting in about seven to eight years. This sunset would be worse, since the number of deployed alarm units will be much higher.

Replace with 2G CDMA.
Alarm device suppliers have not yet supported this option, though it is likely the best. CDMA carriers have committed to 10-plus years of service longevity, and the 1xRTT coverage is better than GSM. Given the lower cost of 1xRTT radios and the large number of deployed 1xRTT applications in other industries (notably automotive and trucking) supporting the technology, using 1xRTT for alarm units makes sense.

Replace with 4G LTE.
Deploying LTE devices is not viable for the alarm industry today. Radio costs are very high, and coverage is simply not sufficient for national deployments. Both will improve in time, but not at a pace that makes it a viable replacement option today. Carriers have not yet worked out LTE roaming agreements—these also will take time.

Most importantly, the spectrum fragmentation for LTE means that current generation LTE radios are single-band (dedicated for use on a single carrier when in LTE mode). This is too restrictive, since these units can never be moved from one carrier to another.

Of the above options, replacing 2G GSM devices with either 2G CDMA or 3G HSPA devices is viable. The CDMA option has advantages: technology longevity; better coverage; lower price; larger installed base in other industries, etc. This makes it a better choice. However, since only HSPA devices are available today, it would require alarm manufacturers to develop and provide CDMA devices.

Whichever path you choose, be aware of the impending deadline and the magnitude of this project. Executing a comprehensive 2G GSM/GPRS phase-out plan will take a lot of time, foresight and a detailed
plan of action.

Syed Zaeem Hosain (“Z”), an industry expert in the area of machine-tomachine (M2M) applications and cellular technologies for machine communications applications, is chief technical officer at Aeris Communications. He can be reached at Syed.Hosain@aeris.net or via his blog at: aeriscto.wordpress.com.