December II 2008

Fredric Morris, Editor-In-Chief, Connect-World
Fredric Morris
Editor-In-Chief
Connect-World

Mobile broadband, competing technologies and user interfaces

I asked a few people about mobile broadband. One, while queuing at the bank, must have thought I was a bit weird, but research is research. The others I asked, friends, family and acquaintances – well, they already know I get a bit weird when I am talking about technology. Still, no matter how I put it, except to my co-directors at the local telecom association, almost no one had a clue. A few that recently bought phones and were pitched about 3G by a smartphone-pushing salesperson, a Crackberry addict or two and one proud owner of a mobile-phone laptop modem had some notion of its benefits – oh, yeah, fast photos, email, Google and one or two other common applications.

Mobile broadband is a revolution, but it’s got such a great disguise no one knows it’s there – that is no one except Intel, Microsoft, Google, all the big operators, equipment manufacturers, service providers, content providers, applications developers and a long , long, list of other interested parties all waiting for the big bucks to flow.

Mobile broadband is not only a revolution and an opportunity; it is a technological race and a competitive challenge

Google – you know, the guys that own the Internet – is so interested it has developed its own open platform (with lots of Google apps stuck in – really stuck in – for free) operating system (OS) for mobile phones. The OS called Android, and the Open Handset Alliance that supports it is rapidly gaining support from handset manufacturers – at least, as an alternative.

Android backers are celebrating the steady growth of the alliance supporting Google’s technology, and they are especially pleased by Vodafone’s adhesion to the group. Vodefone is the mobile operator with the most – the most revenues, and the most clout with cell phone manufacturers; what Vodafone wants, it gets. Until recently, Vodafone has been a great mobile Linux supporter.

Google is happy. If you haven’t counted them, Google now offers 59 services in addition to search; and many of those that aren’t yet ready for mobile are like to go mobile shortly. Many are already bundled with Android.

Google, together with a number of other companies, plans to launch 16 satellites that will circle the globe above the equator. The idea is to offer cheap high-speed Internet access by the end of 2010 to the poorer, developing, regions of the world. In these regions, many more people have mobile phones than PCs, so mobile phones will be their main form of Internet access.

Google, with a number of other investors, have put some US$60 million into O3b Networks, a startup that proposes to offer Internet services in developing regions that now have little or no connections with Internet backbones. O3b’s motto is, “Connecting the other 3 billion” – O3b. Of course, it will take much more than US$60 million; initial estimates put the total cost at close to US$650 million.

The system is not directly aimed at the final user. The plan is to sell bandwidth and backhaul to local mobile operators, WiMAX services, ISPs, and fixed-line telcos. Google surely plans to use O3b to increase the already astounding penetration of its services and applications. About 710 million people search Google each month. Worldwide, Google handles 60 per cent of the world’s search traffic; in some countries they handle more than 90 per cent and they want to extend that dominion to the furthest reaches of our world – not just search, but for all their applications. Backhaul for mobile broadband fits Google’s plans well.

Google isn’t alone in its search for ways to provide inexpensive or free, mobile broadband access. They have even joined with archrival Microsoft, among others top-tier players, in the White Spaces Coalition to plead for the use of ‘white space’ spectrum – the unused frequencies between analogue television channels. Anything that Microsoft and Google agree upon has to be important.

This push to use white space frequencies has, obviously, called down the wrath of TV broadcasters, ISP’s and cell phone operators who rightly see the plan to use these unlicensed frequencies to provide free broadband access as a threat to their businesses. Nevertheless, the FCC approved this spectrum for, despite tests that found significant interference in the adjacent licensed spectrum. Once the US TV broadcasting becomes totally digital, this unlicensed spectrum will become increasingly valuable.

While the White Spaces Coalition celebrates its victory, and is gloating over the prospect of free – maybe just cheap in some instances – mobile broadband, companies with big investments in 3G and 4G rollouts must be looking on in dismay. No mistake, this is an all out street fight. If the US experiment works, it is likely to spread around the world.

The mobile broadband for cell phones will grow rapidly in the coming years, but its use with data cards (laptop modems for broadband mobile phone networks), laptops with built-in WiFi, WiMAX or even whitespace connectivity, eBooks, gaming consoles and a wide range of special purpose devices will all use one form or another of mobile broadband. It is said that within five years, these devices will drive between US$80 to 110 billion in operator revenues around the world.

Intel’s decision to include WiFi capability in its PC chips gave a major, perhaps most the important, push to WiFi acceptance. Intel is now a major WiMAX and white space supporter. Its recently displayed ‘Moorestown’ chips support 3G, Bluetooth, WiMAX, WiFi, GPS and mobile TV broadband. Given Intel’s support of white space technology, can a white space chip be far behind?

The move to mobile wireless, whether cell phone-based, 3G, 4G (WiMAX or LTE) white space – whatever the technology – will strain the ability of existing networks to handle the backhaul traffic these high-speed technologies generate. Traditionally, backhaul is a significant cost factor. Since mobile broadband providers must continually reduce the prices they charges users to remain competitive, finding ways to reduce the cost of backhaul is essential. Still, like the search for the Holy Grail – passionately sought for salvation, ways to cut backhaul costs are often tantalisingly just out of reach. Nevertheless, equipment providers will spare no effort and miss no trick to reduce this cost; it can become a matter of life or death for their customers. The need to economically deal with broader coverage, increased base station deployment and rising backhaul requirements will challenge the sector for some time to come.

The competition between WiMAX and LTE – essentially the same technology cooked with different sauces – will provide some interesting moments, but over the next few years, as both of these standards mature, the differences between them from a consumer’s perspective should practically disappear.
Advanced Wireless Services, or AWS-1, spectrum is used in the USA for mobile voice and data services, video, and messaging. The AWS frequencies, originally used for MMDS and wireless cable service were sold by the FCC for mobile voice, data, video, and messaging services. Exit MMDS, an unmourned death. Understandably, T-Mobile, which bought most of the available AWS-1frequencies for its 3G wireless network is now aggressively fighting a proposal by the FCC to auction spectrum called AWS-3 for a nationwide network; the proposal calls for using much of the AWS-3 spectrum for free Internet access. A vote on the proposal scheduled earlier this month was cancelled. It is unlikely to be considered until next year, after a new FCC Chairman is appointed by the Obama administration.

Despite the great advances in technology, the real revolution of mobile broadband will be the applications it makes possible, many of which have yet to be deployed or even invented. The impact will be profound everywhere, but nowhere more so than in the developing regions of the world.

I have no idea how the applications will shape up, but I am willing to bet that the combination of high-power, high-speed, anywhere/anytime access and really small screens will spark a significant revolution in user interfaces. The more today’s screens put a lid on innovation, the harder people will work to invent better interfaces to overcome its limitations. I don’t know what the new user interfaces will look like or how they will work, but they will be better than an iPhone, more useful and far more exciting.

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The next issue of Connect-World Asia-Pacific will be published early next month. This edition of Connect-World will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows such as: PTC, Hawaii (18-21 January 2009) and Carriers World Asia, Hong Kong (16-19 March 2009).

The theme of this issue of Connect-Word Asia Pacific will be – Convergence, communications and business innovation.

Communications with customers, suppliers, service providers, financial institutions and the like are the lifeline of any business. Today’s converged networks, converged devices and applications that take advantage of the possibilities a converged environment brings are revolutionizing the office – or the home in the case of tele-workers/ telecommuters – to deliver a seamless work environment to workers wherever they may be. The converged environment has stimulated a wide variety of innovative applications for large and small businesses alike. Many of these applications are not just new ways of doing the same things, but are real changes in the way we do business or are new businesses in their own right. Interaction is facilitated, costs are eliminated or drastically cut, and collaboration with colleagues, clients and suppliers anywhere at any time is enhanced. By minimizing the need to travel, applications such as video-presence are also starting to reduce business travel – and the user’s carbon footprint.

This sort of convergence offers a powerful way to simplify business processes, and its implications are far reaching and complex. Cloud computing, software as a service (SaaS) special applications, Swiss knife communications and computing devices, innovative applications and a host of storage, communications and network equipment will be needed to make this work efficiently and cost effectively.

This issue of Connect-World Asia-Pacific 2009 will examine the implications of these far-reaching converged systems and the impact they have not only upon users, but upon the complex ecosystem that will make these innovative communications systems possible – the networks, communications equipment, user devices, software and business applications.

Asia-Pacific I 2009 Media Pack; Click here

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One Response to December II 2008

  1. Thanks for providing information for me

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