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Friday, September 28, 2007

Enterprise FMC - 1 vs 2 numbers and SMS

A regular discussion I get dragged into concerns enterprise FMC and numbering. As per usual, many of the 'convergence utopia' slides & pitches I see have the phrase 'one number' prominently displayed. But it's worth delving into this a lot further to assess whether the a single number is actually wanted.... and what other knock-on implifications it might have.

It's worth putting some constraints and background facts up first:


  • In the US (where quite a high % of enterprise FMC vendors are based) there are no differences between fixed and mobile numbers

  • Elsewhere, especially Europe, mobile numbers are visibly different to fixed numbers, eg 07xxx

  • Most people prefer using mobile phones for many calls, especially outgoing calls where the phonebook is convenient. This varies a lot by function, country, age and individual preference, however. Call centre operators and receptionists don't use mobile devices for the most part, for example.

  • A large and increasing proportion of users use SMS for business applications. This comes as a shock to many, especially those from the US. It's typically used for 'casual' messages like 'In taxi. There in 5 mins' or 'Delays on tube, will call you when nearby' or 'Your meeting this afternoon has moved from Booth#1321 to Booth#432'. While it's not mission-critical as such, it has high convenience factor, lots of user inertia, and is much more likely to be received in many cases than email (which of your clients/colleagues have BlackBerries? are you sure?) or IM or even voicemail. But most people won't SMS to a fixed number as fixed-SMS functionality isn't widely understood or 'expected'. In fact many phones' SMS client software won't even allow you to text to a fixed number.

  • People almost never change the numbers in their handset's phonebook unless they absolutely have to.

  • Some calls are made to people, others are made to places. I don't want/expect a mobile number for my pizza, my doctor's surgery, or the customer support & billing department at my mobile operator. Apart from anything else, in some markets it can be seen as 'rude' to expect your customers to dial into a mobile number from a fixed-line when it's not necessary, as it costs much more owing to larger termination charges.

  • I think that not all countries have 'inclusive' cross-network minutes for mobile-to-mobile calls. Again, this increases the costs for your clients or suppliers to do business with you, rather than (say) an 0800 number or a fixed phone. Obviously if you're calling a field engineer or a salesperson or a plumber you expect them to be on their mobile - but many people (and their employers picking up the bill) will resent paying a 10x premium to call an 07xxx number for someone they know is at their desk or perhaps on shop floor.

  • Many workers will have a separate mobile phone for personal use anyway. They may well get a bucket of cheap minutes & not worry about getting reimbursed by their employer. If the user experience & convenience is better, they'll use that device for preference unless there's a harsh proscriptive policy 'use a personal phone & you're fired'.

All this means there's no easy answer. Leaving aside the oddity of the US numbering scheme, all 3 alternatives for FMC numbering have both positives & negatives:

  • One fixed number - allows the enterprise to 'own' the number, routes via the PBX with all its benefits... but has problems handling SMS and the fact that it's almost impossible to 'hide' the handset's real underlying mobile number - which of course will then be stored in their contacts' mobile phonebooks.
  • One mobile number - works quite well for certain roles where employees can conduct all their calls from a mobile. Doesn't work so well in contexts where existing PBXs must be integrated, or where there are reasons for wanting geographic numbers for sites or departments rather than individuals. Issues with inbound call costs, plus issues with how easy number portability is to manage in reality during churn. More difficult to do least-cost routing for enterprises to minimise internation call charges.
  • Mobile + fixed number - Solves the above problems, but possibly higher costs to administer, and makes 'reachability' more difficult. Made even trickier if the user also has a second mobile number for personal use or an email device.

Bottom line: there's no single right answer. It will vary according to geographic market, function(s) of the users concerned - and how proscriptive/flexible the employer is. What I think is the wrong answer is for any vendor to focus exclusively on any one of the above options, unless they have a very specific target niche in mind (eg small businesses in Scandinavia, perhaps).

As an interesting example, it's worth noting that Vodafone's enterprise FMC team have both fixed & mobile numbers on their business cards.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Bandwidth? There's never enough....

Network capacity appears to be the theme of the week.

First off, I spent a couple of days at IIR's conference on LTE - how will it fit against a background of WiMAX & UMB, when will it appear, what speeds can it deliver, what are the applications & services? Lots of slides mentioning 100Mbit/s and similar numbers, plus a tacit recognition that, give or take some IPR issues, LTE = WiMAX = UMB in terms of much of the underpinning technology.

There's still plenty of unanswered questions though - especially whether LTE has any real use if operators can't get hold of enough spectrum to run it in 2x10MHz or 2x20MHz channel widths, which is the only way to approach the peak bandwidths that are being mentioned. If they're stuck with the current UMTS networks' 2x5MHz channels, operators might just be better of sticking with HSPA.

Another theme which emerged was around applications - realistically, are there actually any mobile/handset applications that could exploit 100Mbit/s? Can screens or browsers actually exploit that much data? (I'll leave as a separate question whether anything running at 100Mbit/s without a fan could be held by hand without asbestos gloves).

So, what does need that much bandwidth?

...on mobile, anyway. But in terms of fixed networks, I've just heard a presentation that really raises the bar on bandwidth requirements and makes you realise just how many zeros we can use if we get the opportunity. I'm now at NetEvents in Malta, and the keynote speaker was the Network & Comms chief supremo from the CERN particle physics accelerator in Geneva. I was blown away to find out that the new Large Hadron Collider (LHC), when it finally comes online, will generate peak 'raw data' outputs of about 1 Petabyte per second. Not MB, not GB, not TB, that's PB. He bemoaned the fact that this had to be filtered down in realtime electronics to 'a few hundred GBit/s' of the most useful data, with the rest just discarded as it couldn't all be networked or stored even by their state-of-the art private optical network. (As a sidenote about backhaul/transmission capacity, these guys also have dedicated 10Gbit/s links to international research labs). They'd love to upgrade to full speed if they get a chance & network technology catches up.

Now the awkwardness of carrying around 1000+ 30-ton superconducting magnets means that we won't all be detecting Higgs Bosons or leptoquarks on our phones any time soon. But it's also worth pointing out that when I asked him whether they any wireless tech anywhere at all at CERN, I got a shrug and a comment that there's a bit of WiFi in the labs and experimental chambers, but nothing in 'the critical data path'.

OK, this is probably the most extreme example.... but it's also an ultimate reality check for those that suggest we can ever get too much capacity - wireless or wireline.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Quick musings on Net Neutrality

A couple of quick Sunday morning ponderings:

- Sprint's new femtocell service is designed to work with any ISP/cable operator's broadband. It's a separate standalone box which plugs into a router, rather than a new integrated home gateway product & bundled broadband service. Now to be fair, Sprint appears to have a comparatively relaxed policy on open Internet access & Net Neutrality, especially given its WiMAX deployment plans. But I've got to wonder whether any fixed operators/ISPs will try & encourage it to pay for premium QoS for its femto traffic on 'their' broadband infrastructure.... Presumably it'll be pretty easy to spot as it'll be heading to a central network aggregation node. I can't imagine Verizon will be too chuffed at helping backhaul Sprint's CDMA traffic...

- I wonder how 'mission critical' Internet services like Google now are to large telecom companies. Presumably they use it to search for market information, track competitors, look for technical papers, screen new employees and so on. Also presumably it's fairly easy to spot searches emanating from main HQ or R&D sites by IP address. How much leverage would Google or Yahoo have if they threatened to block (or start charging) for searches emanating from, say, a major carrier's employees?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Commercial launch of CDMA femtocell service

OK, this has come a little out of left-field. Sprint has launched a CDMA-based femto, manufactured by Samsung. I was expecting Sprint to push for WiMAX femtos when it launches (especially as 2.5GHz will have a hard time penetrating in-building), but I hadn't reckoned on them pursuing a similar approach for the mainstream CDMA cellular network.

Initially I though it might just be a repeater (widely used in Korea), but no, it's a proper broadband-connected femto. It was actually announced back in March & called UbiCell by Samsung - although at that point is wasn't obvious that it was so close to real, large-scale deployment rather than just going into operator testing like most of the UMTS/HSDPA ones.

One interesting feature is that it ships 'open' by default so any Sprint customer can use it - a sort of cellular FON model, I guess.

I'm guessing that RF management might be a bit easier in CDMA than UMTS.... but if anyone else has theories on how CDMA femtos have pulled out what I guess is a 18-24 month lead in largescale commercial shipments, I'd be fascinated to hear them.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Interesting Telco 2.0 Broadband survey & upcoming conference

Regular readers will know I've helped out at STL Partners' Telco 2.0 Brainstorm conferences in the past. Martin, Simon & co. have some cool strategic visions on how telecom operators & partners can sensibly position themselves in an Internet / IP / Web 2.0 world, without commoditising absolutely everything into dust.

They're currently running a detailed Telco 2.0 survey on the future of broadband. I filled it in yesterday, and it's one of the few times I've actually had to really stop & think about my answers while filling in a questionnaire. The survey takes around 20 minutes to complete, and asks some challenging questions about industry business models. The link is here:

http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=AIE7Zsl2ndRRF1k0cFyzCg_3d_3d

Everyone who completes the survey gets a free summary of the results.

The findings of the survey will be presented at the next Telco 2.0 event in London on 16-18 October. They are also offering a 25% entry discount to Disruptive Wireless readers (they clearly want the right people to come) -- contact me for details via information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com

Mobile data roaming continued

...I'm still trying to work out the best option for data roaming for my business device. I've come to the conclusion that I'll have to make sure I do nothing more than download 2kb email headers except in extreme circumstances, and wait till I get WiFi coverage.

The thing I find most astonishing is the discrepancy (hypocrisy?) between roaming charges on a phone, vs. on a laptop. Vodafone's €12-a-day HSDPA laptop tariff gives fair use up to 50MB - ie about 20p per MB. Others are roughly similar... and thus perhaps 30x cheaper than handset rates. Shame it's not easy to use an always-on laptop as a sort of 'reverse modem' for a cellphone via Bluetooth, really.

There seem to be 2 exceptions to all of this:

- 3 is to be congratulated on having no roaming premium at all on either X-series or its USB 3G modem services... as long as you're on a 3 Network, which restricts you to Ireland, Italy, HK, Australia and a few others. Elsewhere it won't work at all.

- Mysteriously, my local Vodafone shop insists that if I get a BlackBerry, then email roaming is free on all European partner networks (but not web browsing). Unfortunately, nothing in the brochures they gave me, nor the Voda website, seems to spell this out clearly & unequivocally. There's still the 'up to £10 a MB' line for roaming. The shop doesn't have any printed price plan, so if I go for it, I'll have to video/record the staff telling it to me verbally, I guess.

I actually contacted the UK's Office of Fair Trading alleging anti-competitive behaviour about data roaming last week, but got a negative response directing me to Ofcom or the telecom ombudsman (?). When I get a chance I think I'll pursue both options as this whole thing is completely galling.

Going back to my multiplicity theme.... if anyone else out there wants to suggest to me that you can run your entire communications life on a single mobile device, I'll gladly bet them a year's data roaming costs that they're wrong.....

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Congrats to the OMTP on the USB recommendation

This came out a couple of days ago, but doesn't appear to have got that much exposure. Standardisation on micro-USB ports for phones. About time.

Maybe... finally.... we might be able to end the ever-growing mountain of proprietary charging bricks & power cables for handsets and accessories. I've got at least 10 cluttering up my house.

This could also have beneficial environmental side-effects, in terms of production of the power components and also waste disposal. Also, many lazy users leave their power cables plugged in & switched on even when not charging phones. Hopefully the OMTP will also push for standardised 'power down when no phone connected' mechanisms.

This also fixes one of the downsides of 'multiplicity' in mobile devices. I don't mind carrying 2+ phones, digital camera and a laptop if I've got a bag... but if any longer trip involves also lugging another 3kg of transformers & plugs then it's a bit more of a pain.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Nokia-Siemens femto deal with Airvana

Interesting one, this.

Before the merger, Nokia and Siemens both had relationships with picocell suppliers RadioFrame and ip.access respectively. When I spoke to NSN in February in Barcelona, they said they were likely to continue dual-sourcing picos for existing customers, but were still working on their strategy for building/buying femtos.

Given that both their existing partners are also active in the femto area, I hadn't expected them to bring a 3rd option into play - although in retrospect I guess they'd probably have cast their net as wide as possible.

Airvana's femto product stems from its acquisition of UK-based 3Way Networks earlier this year. I'd imagine that, at the time it was up for sale, someone from Nokia might have dropped in to 3Way to see what was happening (given Nokia was presumably on the VC's potential acquirer list), so they may have been pretty familiar as well.

Couple of things - in both the press release & the website, it only mentions UMTS femtos rather than specifically saying HSDPA/HSPA - although I'd imagine that must be on the roadmap. I'm not 100% certain what backhaul mechanism Airvana uses for femtocells - although its architecture diagram mentions IPsec, and I seem to recall its UAG gateway can handle UMA among other options.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Multiplicity in action - 1.6 phones per person in the UK

One of my current research & consulting themes is around what I call 'multiplicity' - the notion that future mobile users will have multiple devices and/or numbers, service providers, messaging inboxes, broadband connections, bills, social networks and so on.

I still regularly see presentation slides titled "The Power of One" or something similar - dispensing the 'obvious' wisdom that the future involves one device, one number and so forth.

This is marketing wishful-thinking that flies in the face of human nature, Moore's Law, competition & differentiation and assorted other factors. For every two things that converge, another three will diverge. If phones are both cheap & highly differentiated, why would you just want one? It doesn't mean you have to carry all of them, all the time.

Same with operator services - if they're commoditised, then sure, one is enough. But the paradox of competition is that if there is real differentiation in coverage, pricing plans, available devices, content/application partnerships.... then it's not surprising that customers will be promiscuous and want multiple suppliers, dividing their spending between them.

Sure, some people will be both loyal and adamant they want such a degree of simplicity that they'll happily confine themselves to a single 'thing'. But others - especially today's multitasking/multichannel youth - don't have a problem with managing complexity. If you're already happily juggling multiple groups of friends on MSN, Yahoo, ICQ, Facebook, MySpace & Bebo... adding another phone number ain't exactly difficult.

Some great evidence of this trend comes from this survey, apparently conducted by ICM for bank HSBC (I have no idea why & can't find the original press release). 45m adults, 70m SIMs, 71m phones - and 9% have 4 or more devices. My only question is whether the data assumes that only 'adults' have phones - I see plenty of 10-year olds with handsets, which might skew the analysis.

This correlates somewhat with other estimates I'd seen before, but if accurate seems to indicate an acceleration - previous estimates seemed to be in the range 1.2 - 1.4 per person, if memory serves me right.

The continued evolution of multiplicity is inevitable, in my view. Vendors and operators should take their heads out of the sand. As well as selling convergence products & services (which will certainly continue), they should also look to exploit and support divergence in parallel. Multi-SIM, Multi-Handset, Multi-Number services - and maybe even work with their peers to do cross-operator phonebook syncs and other services.

People evidently want lots of phones, numbers, operators, email addresses, whatever.... so make it easier, not harder.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mobile data roaming - still ridiculously expensive

I'm about to renew / churn both my business and personal phone contracts, and so I'm wading through all the current tariff plans and options.

Looking over my bills from the last year, the largest variable monthly cost tends to be international data roaming - picking up email from abroad, using the web on my phones, and so on. I don't tend to make many international voice roaming calls - anything lengthy is usually prearranged, so I can use SkypeOut from my laptop via WiFi or ethernet.

But although there's been a lot of movement in laptop data pricing over the last 6 months, with some (comparatively) sensible roaming fees, that's still not true for handset plans.

I really resent paying £7.50 per MB to roam on T-Mobile - even to Germany or to other on-net T-Mo subsidiaries. And don't get me started on the £3 / MB costs for even domestic data on my personal O2 phone.

Unfortunately, these prices have hardly shifted in the last 18 months. If you can actually find the tariffs cunningly hidden on the operators' websites, you find that (prices including VAT):

O2 - £7.05 / MB
Orange - £6.50 / MB
Vodafone - £5.00 a day or "up to £10.28 per MB"
T-Mobile - £7.50 / MB
BT doesn't seem to give any details at all of data roaming costs.
3 doesn't seem to allow data roaming in most countries unless it has its own local network for X-Series, although then it's free if you're a subscriber (if I'm reading it correctly)

Frankly, these prices are ridiculous. I'd say they are overpriced by at least 2 orders of magnitude, or arguably 4. Putting traffic on the Internet costs well under £1 per GB.

These prices are more than some tariffs using data via satellite with an Inmarsat BGAN or similar.

I posted a while back that the EU is keeping an eye on data roaming. Well, Ms Reding if you're reading, now might be a good time to start waving a very large stick. Come to think of it, Ofcom might want to have a look as well.

EDIT A brainwave....

I wonder if you could write a Symbian / Windows / Java app that emulates an old-world 56k modem over a cellular voice connection? 56kbit/s = 7 kBytes/s = 420kBytes / min.

So 2.5 Mins = 1 MB....

So in Europe with the new EU capped roaming rates, if you could squeeze 56kbit/s into the voice channel, you'd be paying about €1.14 per MB... or about £0.80p. Which just goes to illustrate how much of a ripoff the whole thing is. You could even use a much less demanding audio modem @ 9.6kbit/s and still pay less. And if you did some sort of callback function so you receive the call inbound whilst roaming, the rates are half that sum.

Forget VoIP, this is IPoV......

This must be feasible - someone needs to do this NOW.

Multi-operator services - eg Mobile PBXs

I was at an event yesterday, run by Aepona, speaking about service-layer architectures and business models for mobile operators - IMS, SDPs, capability exposure, web services and so on.

Part of the discussion related to hosted and managed mobility services for business customers, and there was some talk about the long-heralded mobile PBX concept. Bin your PBX and deskphones, give all your employees a single mobile number/device, and host everything in the operator's network, get shortcodes & cheap calls between employees.....

Hmmm. I've been a skeptic of this concept for ages, on numerous grounds - the fact that not all employees are mobile, how do you integrate call centres, how do you integrate with legacy PBXs or non-hosted IT systems like CRM and ERP, how do you migrate over time, how do you deal with multiple geographies, what's the channel.... and so on. Put simply, my view is that it's OK for an 11-person software firm in Helsinki, but it won't fly with large enterprises except possibly for small isolated teams of sales or field-service personnel.

But the event yesterday catalysed my thoughts about another issue. At the moment, there are very few network-resident services that can easily work across multiple operators simultaneously. If you're in procurement for a large enterprise, you almost certainly won't want to lock yourself into a 5-year contract with a single mobile operator. You'll want to dual-source. You'll want to be able to churn. You'll want to be able to have a group of employees with another operator if they get an exclusive & desirable device (eg your CEO wants an iPhone.....).

Yet most of the services like Mobile PBX assume that one operator wins the entire account. This is unrealistic, I think.

So what would be the architecture that would enable a big firm to say "Yes, I want all my staff on mobiles, and a hosted mobile PBX service? But I want to pick & choose between Vodafone, T-Mobile and Orange for any given employee, with the option to have CDMA operators for staff in the US and Japan as well".

Tricky. But necessary.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Do operator UIs harm handset brands?

Did an interesting comparison yesterday:

- my SonyEricsson K800i, bought a year ago from O2 via Carphone Warehouse, which has minimal customisation vs. the 'vanilla' device - an O2 menu & link through to its portal
- my friend's SonyErisson K810i bought direct from Orange 3 weeks ago & heavily customised with a new idle-screen menu, different icons etc

The UI on mine is rocketship fast, clicking a button has near-zero latency, and it has crashed once in a year. I like it.

The UI on my friend's is like wading through treacle. Much of the time, the idle-screen menu has 3-sec latency to do anything, and the rest of the phone also much less useable. He hates it and is about to take it back, or may try to have it reflashed to vanilla settings.

I suspect the fault lies with the custom UI, which I think is rendered in Java (some S-E phones have multitasking Java but no smartphone OS). I know that some Orange subsidiaries use SurfKitchen's software on certain 'Orange Signature' devices & it works OK on Symbian devices I've played with, but I'm not sure if that's the culprit here.

Either way - it's a horrible user experience and reflects negatively on both operator and handset vendor. Will it increase his spending on new & wonderful multimedia services or improve loyalty? Yeah right.

Perhaps phones are like cars.... the people who design them best are the original designers, especially non-smart featurephones. I don't add on nasty bits of plastic from Halfords to modify my car, and I don't want nasty bits of software modifying my phone.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Reconnect

Back from my holiday, and slowly getting back to the world of what we think of as 'normal' communications.

How often do you switch your phone fully off? (ie not just to silent or flight-mode)

As I promised myself before I went away, I left my mobile switched off virtually the whole time, checking it once or twice daily. I left a fairly terse voicemail message suggesting that email was a better way to reach me. I charged the phone once in 3 weeks. No work calls, no mobile Internet connection, no ridiculous roaming charges - just a handful of texts with a couple of friends I wanted to meet up with. I totally recommend that everyone disconnects like this once in a while - it's hugely therapeutic.

Although I certainly wasn't looking out for them specifically, a few mobile/wireless observations caught my eye during my time in the Balkans.....

- Croatia is probably the most developed mobile market in the region at first glance, in terms of 'visible usage', retail sophistication - and I guess influence from the hordes of Italian & northern European tourist mobilistas. Serbian capital Belgrade had adverts for 3G services.
- Lots of 'hand-me-down' highish-end phones from 2005-6 pressed into service for basic prepaid: either 'remaindered' stock, or perhaps recycled second-hand ones (eg unloved Nokia 6670s)
- I saw a total of 3 BlackBerries being used while I was away, 2 of which were held by tourists in Dubrovnik
- Mostly small independent shops selling every current phone (including up-to-the-minute N-series Nokias and the latest S-Es)
- 3G phones even in places with no 3G network (eg Macedonia). Nokia even has streetside adverts specifically for the N-Series in Skopje.
- Nowhere near as many people taking photos with cameraphones as I see in the UK (eg not many 'night out with friends' snaps)
- Absolutely no sign of the oft-repeated myth that 'the new generation will first start using the Internet on mobile phones'. Total rubbish & wishful thinking, as always. Internet cafes everywhere, broadband ads everywhere, no signs of data use on low-end prepay mobiles. I don't believe there's a single individual on the planet, outside maybe Japan, whose 'first experience of the Internet has been on a mobile'.
- Lots of local networks seem to use the cell-location field, with the name of the cell/part of town you're in appearing on your cellphone screen. Not sure what this achieves, really - I generally know where I am, and if I'm lost I need something a bit more specific. Only exception I found was falling asleep in a bus/train in a foreign country & waking to be uncertain of how close you are to your destination.
- Macedonia allegedly has a countrywide WiFi network, although I suspect this is a bit of an exaggeration. I saw a grand total of 2 laptop users, both in a cafe with its own (free) WiFi. No WiFi handsets on sale in the shops either - although bizarrely one retailer did have a couple of ISDN (!) videoconferencing terminals (!!) on display. Rather than wasting money on metro-WiFi, I suspect a better investment for the country would be in the roads in the capital city, which are in shocking condition.
- typical Internet cafe price - about $3-4 an hour, more in Croatia, less in Bosnia & Serbia.

Also, just before I went away, I bought a new digital camera (a really small handset-sized Ricoh Caplio R6, which has 7x zoom & 1-sec startup time). I'd just gone past the 1000th pic I'd taken with my SonyEricsson K800i, which I'd been using as my main digicam for a year & generally rave about. But I've found that I've taken 700 great pics in just 3 weeks on the Ricoh - the mobile industry is still some way behind state-of-the-art in imaging.