2011: The Year of Pentaband?

Dec 29, 2010

When Dell's Streak 7 "Looking Glass" tablet crossed the FCC earlier this week, the surprise wasn't that the 7-inch M02M slate existed but the radio it used. Boasting both AT&T and T-Mobile USA UMTS/WCDMA compatibility, the Streak 7 looks set to join the exclusive club of pentaband 3G devices. In a market where more - whether more CPU cycles, more megapixels or more screen inches - is generally the easiest fight to compete in, cellular radios seem to have been left behind. Could 2011 be the year pentaband goes mainstream?

Some background first. At a simplistic level, while Europe, Asia and other regions have generally standardized on the 2100MHz band for 3G access, in the US T-Mobile uses 1700MHz and AT&T uses 1900MHz. That means 3G cellphones bought on one European network will - carrier locks permitting - be able to access 3G data on another network. Conversely, a 3G device bought for use on AT&T is unlikely to work on T-Mobile USA; both carriers use the same sort of UMTS technology, but the different frequency bands they operate on means the handsets aren't compatible.

Pick up a Nokia N8, however, and you can slot an AT&T or T-Mobile USA SIM inside and get UMTS/WCDMA speeds from either network. Now, this isn't some magical technology the tricksy Finns are keeping all to themselves. The N8 - and the C7, C6-01 and soon-to-market E7 - all use generally available chipsets; it's a matter of manufacturer choice to opt for a quad or triband UMTS radio, as you find in most other devices.

Why might they make that choice? Cost is likely one argument, since pentaband chipsets are more expensive than those with lesser frequency support. There's also the issue of carrier control. The US mobile industry is notorious for the amount of heft the carriers wield, versus an arguably more symbiotic relationship between networks and device manufacturers elsewhere. The different UMTS bands therefore become a bargaining chip to keep subscribers locked into a particular operator: if you've completed a two year agreement with AT&T, you can't take your existing handset and jump to a SIM-only T-Mobile deal unless you're willing to do without 3G support. Instead, T-Mobile will happily sell you another device, this time one which will only work with their own 3G networks in the US.

It's telling that the only real pentaband options in the US right now are from Nokia, a company you'll struggle to find offered through carriers. Instead, the N8 and other handsets are sold direct, SIM-free and unlocked (though the Finns are doing a spectacularly bad job of advertizing their relatively unique, cross-network hardware advantage). Even Apple, credited for upending the nature of carrier control in the US with the launch of the iPhone, has shied away from pentaband. Rumors about the iPhone 4 suggested it would switch to a pentaband chip, but the end result still resolutely clung to AT&T's network and ignored T-Mobile's for anything more than EDGE data.

So why would Dell pick pentaband for the Streak 7, when its 5-inch sibling made do with AT&T 3G support only? The obvious reasons are flexibility and simplicity: it's a single SKU that Dell can offer on both GSM US networks, offsetting extra cost from the radio against the ease of running a single production line. Perhaps it's also easier to "sneak" pentaband support in with the carriers with a data-centric device; we don't know yet whether the Streak 7 will support voice calls or, like the similarly-sized Samsung Galaxy Tab, be locked down to data-only.

Still, Dell is known for driving the PC industry with its standardization and production streamlining systems, and while it's yet to make a similar dent in the mobile market, the Streak 7 could well ease the way for changing manufacturer attitudes toward wireless segmentation. Samsung's Galaxy S was the best-selling Android device in the US last quarter, aided in no small part by availability (with different radios, among other things) on all of the key carriers - how much easier for Samsung would it be if the promised successor, due to make its debut at MWC 2011, adopted pentaband and thus a single core device could cater to both AT&T and T-Mobile?

Pentaband is in the customer's best interest and the carrier's worst. As we've seen in the past, situations where that dynamic is the case can often take a while to change. Nonetheless, change isn't impossible, and conscious decisions to adopt broader radio support by companies like Dell will help pave the way. If subscribers can be better educated in the process as to why pentaband is beneficial, market forces should hopefully do the rest.

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