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Thursday, February 21, 2008

WiFi vs 3G and session-based mobile broadband

The problem with paid WiFi hotspots is that the one-off cost and hassle of getting access can often be too high. In theory, the session-based approach is quite elegant as it affords the user plenty of choice, but practical and economic constraints mean it's often poorly provisioned in reality. And it's almost impossible to sell ongoing WiFi subscriptions to massmarket users - you can never be sure of the availability of (say) BT Openzone or T-Mobile or Boingo, and roaming isn't perfect.

Conversely, the problem with mobile broadband (HSPA) is that generally it is only available on a subscription basis (or sign-up-to-a-specific-operator prepaid in a few countries). In addition, data roaming charges are often prohibitive, you can only access a given carrier's network even if others are available, and you may have to deal with lousy operator-specific connection manager software.

When you just want to access the Internet from a laptop, there is almost no reason to haul all the traffic through an operator's core network - especially backhauling it internationally to your home operator's GGSN. It should just be linked out to the Internet at the closest and cheapest connection point to your present location. Sure, some services may need to be routed back (eg operator-specific messaging or VoIP), but the bulk of traffic should be able to transit the most convenient access. [And yes, I know there's always lots of industry blather about content filtering, but I see no reason why it should apply to laptop 3G but not laptop WiFi].

There is an urgent need for HSPA/EVDO session-based broadband access. If I travel to the US, I want to be offered a menu accessible from my PC, with with T-Mobile and AT&T competing to provide me mobile broadband access for the duration of my stay - and maybe Verizon & Sprint too if I've got a dual-mode modem. I don't want to be confined to whichever happens to have a roaming relationship with my UK operator. Sure, I want that as an option, but there's absolutely no reason to be locked in to it. I want lots of different payment models - the hotel cuts a deal with AT&T, maybe my client has a guest HSPA network with T-Mobile via a picocell and so on.

Initially, I thought this operator-neutral approach to mobile broadband could be achieved with local, cheaply-bought extra 3G dongles. Buy one (or rent one) at the airport on arrival, preloaded with SIM and 5GB / 5 days / whatever, and drop it in a recycling bin on the way out. Maybe even get one lent to you for an hour with a cappucino, or given free to you as a conference delegate (as per the GSMA's approach to some analysts & journalists in Barcelona). But my recent experience with clashing modem drivers and dodgy connection managers has made me rethink this.

In a nutshell, 3G modems, either built-in to laptops or as separate modems, need to be able to easily and switchably support multiple operators. No software glitches, no need to get an extra SIM card from a shop or by mail, no onerous registration tasks. Sure, some people will opt for the subscription route anyway because it meets their needs precisely, but there need to be alternative models as well.

I think the WiMAX guys already "get" this. But a lot of mobile operators are still beholden to their custom modems and software clients and SIM cards. They need to face up to the reality that mobile PC users are different from mobile phone users - there's no need for a consistent inbound phone number, and therefore much less need for a continuous relationship with just a single service provider.


vinnie mirchandani said...

check out what these Cambridge and MIT profs are suggesting as a solution...


Martin said...

Hi Dean,

I am completely with you:


Let's hope they are as clever as the market requires.


Edsard Ravelli said...

Dear Dean,

Let me start by saying that I read your blogs very often and frankly agree you with most of the time. We have similar ideas on many subjects and that is always a nice thing!

Having said that, I think you, with what you are saying, very close to what the market is in fact already doing. In other words, nothing new here.

"clashing modem drivers and dodgy connection managers has made me rethink this.."

In 2006, the GSMA started a 3G standardization initiative to solve just that. This project, now 2 years later is still ongoing and has the backing of some of the big players; Microsoft, Intel, Qualcomm, etc...
Here is the link to the 2nd document, released in 07, http://www.gsmworld.com/documents/3g/se43_2_0.pdf

"..3G modems ... need to be able to easily and switchably support multiple operators..."

Again, as I stated above, this is something everyone in the industry understands and on top of the initiative I listed above, Microsoft is working on a WWAN SDK (Generic SDK which does exactly what you ask), Qualcomm - with Gobi - has exactly this SDK to allow any GUI on top of a generic Connection Manager and Intel is going to release an SDK.
Nothing new considering they (and we the real connection manager companies - Diginext, Smith Micro and Birdstep) have been working for 2 years to achieve just this.

Bottom line, what you are saying is not a prediction at all - its merely stating what is ongoing.
Any serious analyst should know this already.

Lastly, one perception issue I would like to clear. I agree completely on the previous article:
I too think; Operators should not build their own Connection Managers. What the heck do they know about software development, in fact they should only be able to control some "look and feel" of the GUI but nothing more.
That is why the Telefonica Connection Manager is "a tad lacking on the QA side" - and i am being extremely %$#@! polite now. But its not just the Operators, Huawei makes a nice and cheap USB modem, but on the Connection Manager side, they just plain blow. On the positive side; Option, Novatel, Sierra Wireless, Smith Micro, Birdstep and Diginext make good connection manager.

Now the obvious advertorial from my side;
We saw this shift coming years ago and realized that monetizing Connection Managers would end sooner rather then later. Considering that Huawei offers a cheap card and a free (crappy) connection Manager, we realized that many operators don't even want to pay for a Connection Manager. Please realize that as well.
That is why we bit the bullet and now offer a independent and free Connection Manager with all sorts of webservices.
The reason; 1. show the bitpipes (that don't want to be called that) that there is more the just Connecting you can offer the consumer and 2. by offering this, we hope to make some money from advertising.


my personal page:


Dean Bubley said...

Hi Edsard

Thanks for your comments on this & a previous post. I think we're broadly in agreement - I'm well aware there are some things going on in the background with regard to single connection managers, session-based access etc.

The post was not intended to be a "sudden idea" of mine - it was triggered by various discussions I had at 3GSM and before.

But I'm also aware that the concept still has little public profile, and it also appears to lack universal support within the operators. There still appears to be a wish to tie customers in to a single operator, and to attempt to link access and service inextricably.

That GSMA document is very interesting & I need to read it more closely.

However it still appears to perpetuate the UICC & SIM-centric security model, which I am increasingly thinking is inappropriate for PC-based data and Internet access. In particular, it seems to be dancing around the possibility of enforcing SIM-based authentication for the WLAN connection, which is flat-out unacceptable in my view.

Ideally, there would be a SIM-free mechanism for local cellular acecss to whichever provider the user chooses at a given time, but I really cannot see this happening unfortunately. The next best would be to have a single SIM as an identifier but not have an ongoing billing relationship with its "owner".

Separately, I will get in touch with you offline for an update briefing about your product.



Anonymous said...

Hi Dean,

Keep your eyes on www.slingshot.com. They founded prepaid internet and are launching session based 3G access here in the U.S.. I had a friend that met the CEO at CTIA and they will be providing seemless roaming between US, Canada and Mexico this year. In 2009 with they have incorporated the Qualcomm Gobi chipset and will be providing both GSM as well as CDMA roaming on an international basis. Of course, I wanted to by up some of their stock but they are privately held.

Best regards,

Dean Bubley said...

Hi Kelly

Thanks for the comment. As I mentioned on the other post from your "colleague" referring to Slingshot, it sounds interesting & I'd be interested in receiving more details.

But it's a shame it's being let down by a poor-quality SEO approach to spamming my comments with links. That makes it lose several credibility & reputation points before it's even started.