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Mobile Communications August 2014 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Frederick Dopfel

Cell-Phone "Kill" Switches

Why is this topic significant?

Cell-phone theft is a growing problem worldwide. "Kill" switches that can disable devices automatically if they are stolen have proved effective at reducing cell-phone theft, and policy makers are driving toward making such kill switches mandatory.

Description

After Apple's introduction of "activation lock"—its implementation of a device-level kill switch—in September 2013, theft of iPhones decreased dramatically. For example, iPhone theft decreased 19% in the first five months of 2014 in New York City (in comparison with a 10% decrease in overall robberies). Robberies of Samsung devices (which did not have kill-switch functionality) increased 40% during the same period. Likewise in San Francisco, California, and London, England, iPhone robberies decreased 38% and 24%, respectively, in the six months after Apple released activation lock; theft of Samsung devices increased in both cities.

Google has offered remote lock and data wipe of Android phones since August 2013, but although these features can help users find their lost phones and prevent thieves from stealing personal data, they do nothing to prevent the thief from resetting and then reselling the phone. Google announced its own kill switch—"factory reset protection"—in June 2014 as a feature of its upcoming Android version L (Google will reveal the full name at a later date). Microsoft has also announced plans to implement a kill switch.

Kill switches are not without risk: Malicious hackers could misuse kill switches to "brick" (permanently deactivate) innocent users' phones. Nevertheless, the success of kill switches in reducing theft is motivating policy makers to make such switches mandatory.

Implications

Device manufacturers appear to favor "soft" kill switches, which make a phone unusable to unauthorized users while allowing authorized users to reactivate the device. Policy makers, however, currently favor a "hard" kill switch that would render a stolen device permanently unusable, even if the device returns to its owner. Device manufacturers presumably began implementing their own kill switches to negate the need for legislation mandating them. Both kinds of kill switches are likely to reduce crime, although their effects on new phone sales and user satisfaction may be wildly different.

Impacts/Disruptions

Both hard and soft kill switches will provide a major boon to legitimate used-phone resellers, who will face less competition from illegal sales of stolen phones. Kill switches may lead to a large number of accidental device kills from users who temporarily misplace their phone and mistakenly believe it to be stolen. Malicious hackers could also find ways to activate kill switches remotely without authorization. Soft kill switches offer a quick remedy to affected users who are in lawful possession of their phones, but hard kill switches will require such users to buy a new phone. Dealing with the fallout of accidentally (or maliciously) "bricked" phones could be very costly for manufacturers and insurers, particularly if a remote bricking exploit becomes widespread. Accordingly, manufacturers are hesitant to implement the hard kill switches that policy makers seem to want.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Legitimate used-phone sales

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Progress in VoLTE Adoption

Why is this topic significant?

Voice over LTE enables users to place carrier-sanctioned VoIP phone calls on a packet-switched LTE network rather than falling back to circuit-switched 2G or 3G networks for the call (early LTE networks did not support voice calling). LTE is more spectrum efficient than older technologies, enabling users higher voice quality or greater data bandwidth, and VoLTE implementation is an important prerequisite toward repurposing older 2G and 3G bands (which were previously necessary to support voice calling) for LTE use.

Description

Strategic Business Insights analysts have discussed voice over LTE (VoLTE) for years, although wireless-service providers' adoption of the technology has began to pick up only recently. For example:

  • China Mobile began VoLTE rollout in January 2014.
  • AT&T began VoLTE rollout in May 2014.
  • Hong Kong Telecom announced VoLTE rollout in May 2014.
  • T-Mobile began VoLTE rollout in June 2014.
  • NTT DoCoMo began VoLTE rollout in June 2014.
  • Vodafone Netherlands began VoLTE trials in June 2014 and expects rollout mid-2015.

Increasing interest by wireless-service providers in enabling VoLTE on their networks represents early steps toward enabling enhanced calling features and improving service.

Implications

"Over-the-Top Services and Data-Only Plans" in the July 2013 Viewpoints discusses VoIP services for cell phones. However, most of these services are not carrier sanctioned and do not implement the user's native phone number. VoLTE, by contrast, is transparent to the user, because it uses the same interface that conventional phone calls use. MVNOs such as FreedomPop, TextNow, and Republic Wireless have enabled VoIP calls via data-only plans for years. However, these MVNOs require smartphones with custom software to enable VoIP, and they remain highly niche. Enabling VoLTE allows service providers to repurpose their 2G and 3G spectrum to provide LTE service instead. Because LTE is more spectrum efficient than 2G and 3G, such repurposing could help improve service and reduce congestion. VoLTE also enables service providers to implement enhanced calling features (such as HD voice) via over-the-air updates. For example, Verizon Wireless claims it will launch its VoLTE service with video-calling functionality. Only a few phones natively support VoLTE today, but most new phones are likely to incorporate this capability in the coming months.

Impacts/Disruptions

VoLTE is an early step toward repurposing old networks for LTE. LTE not only increases capacity through better spectral efficiency but also is a common standard between service providers who use incompatible WCDMA and CDMA2000 3G technologies. In theory, a full transition to LTE packet-switched networks could eliminate the "CDMA versus GSM" rivalry and commoditize wireless-service providers to the point at which a user could switch providers simply by swapping SIM cards in their phone (a common practice in Europe). Wireless-service providers may attempt to differentiate themselves by enabling unique calling features via software updates on their network. VoLTE may lock in phones to a particular service provider if the service provider uses proprietary software (built into the phone's operating system) to enable advanced calling features.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

In-call applications

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: