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Monday, July 26, 2010

Vendor-managed offload?

I've just seen my first "live" WiFi SSID from an Android device used as a tether - it came up in my local cafe as AndroidAP.

However, it's made me wonder if there is mileage for an Android offload service (run by Google), rather than a tether, which is essentially the opposite.

It is already well-understood that perhaps the most difficult part of WiFi offload is the on-device client and connection management experience, especially given the heterogenous nature of WiFi APs, between home, hotspot and work domains. There's a minefield of user interface, behavioural issues (eg switching off WiFi), log-on screens and so forth.

Joining the dots with some of Google's WiFi efforts that I see in places such as US airports, it made me wonder whether it might be in the interests of Google, Nokia, Apple and others to start knitting together their own grids of WiFi offload partnerships.

Apple and others already make it easy to connect to home WiFi on smartphones - and, generally, it is a better experience for most data applications than relying on 3G, as long as the fixed broadband connection is robust. It also generally means that traffic goes directly to the Internet, rather than being routed via the operator's core.

As a thought experiment, consider this:

A hotel has a WiFi network run by a company such as Swisscom or BT Openzone. As well as the normal SSID, it is also set up with dedicated Android, Apple, Nokia and BlackBerry SSIDs (and, perhaps, Samsung, Acer, Huawei, HTC or others).

The hotspot operator can work on various business models with these vendors - for example revenue-share of adverts viewed onsite, or music and apps downloaded.

The devices come with clients that do auto-logon or simplified log-on (free, or even charged to your iTunes account). The user is happy to have a fast connection that doesn't count against the data cap (or worse, data roaming).

Their host operator has a more mixed view - they get the benefits of offload, but are disintermediated, unless they happen to own or partner the hotspot network themselves.They lose out on possible overage charges, but protect their macro network investment. They also likely get better coverage in indoor locations, improving customer satisfaction.

We already see Skype cutting a deal with WiFi providers (Skype Access). How much more sense to see Android Access as well?

[Actually, I've just remembered, the first(?) device vendor to push this type of model was actually Nintendo]

Monday, July 19, 2010

Yet more mobile data traffic management options

It's only been about 2 months since I published my recent Disruptive Analysis research paper analysing 10 different technological approaches to managing mobile broadband traffic - offloading, compression, policy management and so forth.

The main pitch of the document was that so many silos have evolved so quickly, that very few network operators are able to view all the options holistically. There are numerous cases of one "fix" simply shifting the problem elsewhere in the network - unintended consequences abound.

Yet on an ongoing basis, I'm being presented with yet more alternatives to either manage data traffic, or avoid its existence in the first place.

Among the things that have caught my eye recently have been:

- Routing of offloaded WiFi traffic back via the operator core, usually with the rationale of allowing the operator to maintain "control". One approach is the I-WLAN standard, advocated by companies such as IntelliNet, although I'm really not convinced that operators want extra load on their core networks, even if they can mitigate the 3G and backhaul congestion. It's also far from clear what this would mean for the connection manager on devices - WiFi needs to be able to operate in both "private" and "operator" modes, from the user perspective.

- Accuris is focusing more on the problems of WiFi offload needing the user to log on, often in cumbersome ways. It's pitching various forms of roaming-enabled WiFi offload, either using SIM-based WiFi authentication with EAP-SIM authentication [of which I'm a general disbeliever], or a new standard being developed by the Wireless Broadband Alliance called Wispr2.0 . Sounds interesting, but given the general lack of sensible pricing for any form of mobile data roaming, the Devil will be in the details. In particular, it's going to need to work around the issues I identified recently , where extensive partnering by hotspot providers may mean the user can attach to WiFi at a given location through various different affiliations. I'd be annoyed if data was charged (or set against my quota) automatically by my phone or PC, if I could get it for free on the same access point, with another of my services.

- I'm quite struck by Sycamore Network's IQstream approach to mobile broadband optimisation. It uses some combination of intelligent caching and video management - but in the radio network, rather than in the core network,. This is quite a contrast to the ByteMobile / Flash Networks / Vantrix / OpenWave / Acision approach to video compression and similar actions.

- More generally, there seems to have been much more interest in busy-hour, or busy-cell traffic management, rather than catch-all policy management or optimisation. I'm increasingly skeptical of any solutions that don't have some links into the radio network - in particular, I'm expecting to see more regulators follow the Canadian stance on mobile net neutrality. This seems to be an extremely smart approach, which sits comfortably on the fence between "pure" neutrality, and a free-for-all allowing any form of policy management that operators want to apply. If I'm reading it correctly, it says that traffic can be shaped *if* the network is congested - Ars Technica describes by saying that policy: 'must not be "unjustly discriminatory nor unduly preferential." Management must "be designed to address a defined need, and nothing more."'

I think that sounds like a sensible compromise, especially if it is combined with a requirement for transparency - it should be a requirement to publish network policies, and not just in meaningless broad-brush terms. If I get a chance, I'm intending to put in a comment to Ofcom's ongoing consultation in the UK about Net Neutrality.

The other trend I've been observing is more about influencing user behaviour and psychology. Clearly, a lot of the pricing tiers for the new group of data plans have gone through a lot of research and analysis. Some are cynically designed to be heavy-handed and force an upsell - especially by pitching tier thresholds just below or around average iPhone data usage. Others are more nuanced and fair-seeming or generous.

But the other thing that has struck me is the use of nannying "content control" software - ostensibly to protect children from seeing undesirable websites. However, I suspect a secondary purpose of reducing adults' downloads of adult content - a major contributor to fixed-line broadband traffic, presumably likely to be replicated in mobile. There's no particular reason for defaulting to content-moderated status where an operator *knows* that the user is not a child - yet by forcing users to make an awkward or embarassing call to a customer service agent to disable the block, they probably reduce disactivations - and therefore traffic - considerably. Depending on your views, this is either pragmatic, clever, sinister, cynical or illiberal - but probably quite effective.

Overall, it's fair to say that mobile broadband traffic management is still evolving at quite a pace - and is becoming more sophisticated. There is definitely a split between two philosophies, though:

- Reduce costs and limit / delay capex, by focusing on finding and solving specific congestion hotspots
- Increase revenues by pricing, tiering and policy - and also look for ways to get Happy Pipe revenues from "upstream" companies like content or media players, a la Telco 2.0

My current feeling is that operators should be splitting their focus about 70 / 30 between these two domains. Clearly, some initiatives span both - but I believe that the long-term future of "two-sided" business models is predicated on a lot more intelligence in the radio and transport networks. Nobody will pay for prioritisation or premium QoS - they will want an SLA, and a way to measure it. Also, even if regulators allow it, nobody will want to pay a premium when the network is not actually congested.

If you are interested in more detailed discussion and analysis of these topics, I would encourage you to purchase my research paper on Traffic Management. I have also been conducting a variety of client projects, presentations and workshops on these themes - please contact me via information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com if you would like to enquire about custom services.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Policy conflicts on the horizon with offload?

A couple of weeks ago, we saw a huge furore erupt about the fact that femtocell-offloaded data traffic is sometimes charged against a user's quota, while most WiFi offload traffic is not. AT&T and Vodafone are both among the guilty here.

[A discussion for another day, but I think there's a great business model for someone to work out how to charge back to operators, for their use of *my fixed broadband pipe*, in this scenario, as I become the backhaul service provider].

But beyond the billing argument, there is another tier of discussion about policy. If I use (say) a Vodafone femto over a BT ADSL line, or an AT&T femto via a cable modem, then we essentially have a situation where "policy stacking" occurs. The mobile core network policy engine, and whatever is on the fixed network before it breaks out a peering point.

In the base case, this means that the user receives the lowest common denominator between the two sets of policies - although obviously the femto offload data is buried inside a VPN tunnel, so the fixed DPI will find it hard to see exact details. (If you have local breakout via LIPA / SIPTO it becomes more visible).

But that may just mean that the mobile core looks just like an encrypted connection to a web proxy server, from the fixed network's point of view. And so may therefore fall foul of some policy rules itself.

I guess there might also be scenarios where you get some sort of "ping-pong" effect as the two policy engines try to adapt to each other's presence unwittingly. Added to some sort of intelligent connection manager client, there are all sorts of possibilities I'd imagine.

With WiFi offload, another possibility occurs - if the mobile operator has sold some sort of "content control", perhaps a parent buying a device for children, or just the default settings on many devices - that ceases to work in many cases when attached at a hotspot. Something like I-WLAN could bring all the traffic via the mobile core for secondary policy enforcement, although that requires it to be supported in legacy WiFi access points and devices, which seems unlikely.

It may also be very easy to develop applications which split packets *between* WiFi and femtocell accesses on the device, thereby making it impossible for either policy engine to reassemble a whole bit-stream and work out what the user is doing.

One solution is the type of "managed offload" I discuss in the Broadband Business Models report, in which the fixed/WiFi operator is somehow able to "import" the mobile policy rules and enforce them, instead of its own ones.

A topic to be continued, I suspect.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

FAO PR people: how to avoid getting black-listed

I'm suffering under an increasing deluge of irrelevant email. Not just ordinary spam ("Private Jets available 24/7". Yes, really) but a huge volume of PR spam as well.

So.... a combined rant and set of guidelines.

Now I need to be clear - getting relevant announcements, from relevant companies, is extremely useful for me. I willingly sign up to email lists, read specific mail in depth, and sometimes follow up for briefings or additional information.

But at the same time, I'm getting increasingly irritated by the flood of irrelevant bumph, especially from people or companies I've had no contact with in the past.

I'm getting to the point at which I blacklist specific individuals, or even entire agencies, if they repeatedly offend.

Before I do that, however, some ground rules:

1) If you've never contacted me before, send me a brief email of introduction, listing companies you, or your agency, represent, with a line or two about what they do. Do not just get my email from some web-based list of journalists/analysts and send me unsolicited releases.

2) My research themes are pretty obvious, if you read a couple of months-worth of my posts on here. If it's way off-beam and we don't have a relationship already, err on the side of caution and don't send it.

3) I'm am utterly disinterested in random iPhone or Android or other general smartphone apps or accessories. There are hundreds of thousands, and just because one developer has decided to spend money on a press release doesn't make it more relevant. Case in point: I had a recent spam PR talking about connecting guitars to phones, and another about a toilet-finder service. Cool. Maybe call me back when you've worked out how to network a toaster to a guinea pig.

4) Don't follow up with a phone call. I'll email you if I'm interested.

5) I'm really not that interested in knowing about mid-ranking appointments, unless you've hired Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt or Megan Fox.

6) I certainly don't care that Executive X is speaking at Conference Y on Subject Z. Unless it's the CEO talking to the United Nations about a new way to solve world hunger. Believe me, Mr X wouldn't want to get a press release from me, every time I got in front of a projector or chaired a panel at an industry event - so I've got no interest in a pre-announcement of his pitch at the Global Widgets Summit either. And, frankly, I find it hard to imagine anyone else cares either.

7) As I've said before, I am not a blogger. So if you're the head of "social media relations", you should delete me from your email list right now - I am not part of your audience. Give my email address to AR, or the Chief Strategy Officer instead.

8) Similarly, I'm not a journalist or an editor. I'm not interested in "stories" and I'm certainly not going to have a guest post from someone trying to pitch a product or service.

9) If you're telling me about a survey, you probably want to check the methodology and interpretations are solid. I want to know the source data, the questions asked, the sample. If it's a fluffy "made for PR" survey, be aware that I'm more likely to do a scathing analysis of its flaws, rather than a reporting of the culprit vendor's message.

10) Don't bother sending me 3MB photos of the CEO smiling like Gordon Brown, or some unidentifiable bit of electronics

Apologies to all my friends and regular contacts in the PR industry - you know I love you guys. Just make sure you give all your fly-by-night colleagues a good smack, as they're giving you a bad name....

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Challenges in measuring offload volumes

I suspect we're going to get bombarded with statistics in the next year, along the lines of "Operator X deployed Vendor Y's offload solution, removing Y Terabytes of mobile data traffic from the macro network and saving $ABCm".

It's also struck me that there's going to be a world of pain in actually validating these claims.

On one side, there is the likelihood that the volumes will be over-stated, because they generate incremental, rather than just substitutional traffic. Generally the offload (WiFi or femto) will be faster and cheaper than the macro network, and so it might reasonably be expected that user behaviour will mean that it sees traffic that otherwise *would not have occurred at all* on the macro infrastructure.

I can quite believe that for every 100MB offloaded, an extra 200MB of "new" traffic might be generated. There probably needs to be a "control group" of non-offloaded users (with similar devices, original traffic and a similar extra software step) for the statistics to be interpreted properly. Before/after comparisons would also help, if adjusted for any underlying growth in data consumption.

On the other side, some WiFi offload will be under-reported, or at least difficult to distinguish from "normal" usage. For example, I've now managed to work out how to do the Vodafone offload to BT Openzone hotspots from my iPhone. But I'm currently sitting a Starbucks, where I can also use the free Starbucks-branded BTOpenzone splash page. Or the BT Openzone hotspot access included with my ADSL broadband package. Or the BT Openzone hotspot access included with my sign-up to FON, the WiFi sharing network.

Now, presumably BT knows which "entry point" to Openzone I use for a given session. But to me, they're all interchangeable, and I'll use whichever has the fewest clicks, or does auto-logon. Which is classified as offload from Vodafone's point of view? And is that a meaningful number given my other options for doing exactly the same thing?

I've been advising some consulting clients about other issues around offload recently. If you'd like to get more detail on Disruptive Analysis' work in this field, please contact me via information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com.

You may also be interested in my recent research paper on Mobile Broadband Traffic Management technologies, from $350. Details available here

Monday, July 05, 2010

Please participate in 2 surveys on Developers & SDPs, and the EU Digital Agenda

A couple of surveys running at the moment from friends & collaborators - Ajit Jaokar from Futuretext, and Mac Taylor of Moriana.

First, Mac's survey on developers:

Exposure of operators' network capabilities to third-party developers is something that I've long discussed, through my work with Telco 2.0 and more general business model innovation in telecoms. I probably don't use the term SDP (Service Delivery Platform) regularly enough on this blog, but it's clearly relevant here.

Service exposure long been part of the SDP promise. But what do operators really think about the opportunity? And will they ever be able to support and meet developers needs and demands? And what do developers think about operators? Mac Taylor of Moriana is running a survey on Service Delivery Platforms and operators' relationships with developers, which seeks to explore these issues.

The survey is *only* aimed at operators and developers - not vendors or SIs. It's been running for 2-3 weeks already and has generated some good responses. Mac claims that the replies and data are very interesting - providing a good insight into the future of telecom application development and service delivery. The survey closes later this week on July 7th.

All developers and operators get a Free summary of results, along with some other incentives like a chance to win a netbook.

OPERATORS click here: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/CGNDZW6

DEVELOPERS click here: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/CGGMPY7




Secondly, Ajit Jaokar is running a survey for questions to be asked to European Commission Neelie Kroes at an upcoming event about European policy.

Ajit's blog OpenGardens is here - a background piece and a link to the survey is here

I must admit I'd been pretty unaware of the contents of the latest round of proposed EU rule-making - the "Digital Agenda". Having had a quick scan of this, and some news coverage around it, it seems like a mixture of the worthy and the warped. Some of the things that the Commission does are definitely worthy of applause - such as action on distorted and egregious roaming wholesale rates for mobile data. Despite the operators' lobbying efforts, the reality is that nobody in the industry thinks they're fair and reasonable. I'm also certainly a fan of combating cybercrim, and extending broadband - although I'm wary about making blanket committments at a continent-wide level rather than nationally.

But I have doubts about the realism of other European Commission policies and concepts. In particular, it seems that the EU has become infected with the interoperability meme - the notion that closed and proprietary technological platforms are inherently worse, and less valuable to consumers, than open and fully-interoperable ones. Never mind the fact that consumers actually seem to *like* the fact that such platforms work well (iTunes, for example) - there is a view that standards and openness, set centrally and ideally by European bodies, must always be a good thing.

To my mind, this smacks of the EU still crowing about its success with the GSM Directive - and conveniently ignoring contrary debacles and failures, such as the ridiculous focus on DVB-H mobile TV in recent years.

Anyway, make up your own minds & fill in the survey. My suggested question is:
Despite the benefits of "openness" in technology, there has also been huge value and innovation from the speed and flexibility of "closed" or "silo" technologies in the past. How can you ensure that Openness rhetoric is kept in perspective?

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Death of the Kin - proof point that mobile social networking aggregation doesn't work

Goodbye Microsoft Kin, the so-called social network phone.

I maintain that one of the biggest myths in the mobile industry at present, is that users want to have some sort of master-app or UI to aggregate their various social networking and messaging experiences.

It's another classic case of technologists thinking that "convergence" is elegant and therefore cool, while actual user psychology is completely the opposite - divergence is cool, exclusive and personalised.

Convergence and standardisation in underlying enablers can be good, as long as they don't get in the way. Having (national) standards for electrical sockets is handy. Having a combined toaster and dishwasher, because they can share the same physical footprint, single power outlet and a common UI "look and feel" isn't.

For mobile social networking, I can see the world polarising into two extremes:

  • Dedicated client or web page, run by the specific service. So either a Facebook app, or Facebook.com rendering well on the handset browser, depending on the specific device/OS. This is always going to be the best-performing version, as it comes from the people best-able to integrate and customise the experience - and who get the customer data and feedback, and are thus able to tune it progressively.
  • Or, at the other extreme, very low-end phones getting status updates via SMS / MMS. Lowest-common denominator, doesn't need a data plan or 3G, should work out-of-the box for billions of people.
I'm really not convinced by all the other approaches in the middle. Home-screen aggregation and widgets like MotoBlur or some of the Nokia UIs or Windows 7 demos? I'm not sure they work that well, especially when notifications come through rapidly, or where the new "service du jour" isn't represented for 6 months after it becomes cool. Maybe some of the BONDI / WAC widgets will improve things, but I'm not convinced yet.

Operator-branded front ends to social networks? Do they add or subtract from the experience of "the real thing"? Maybe if there's something really special involving a mashup of operator and social-network APIs, I'll believe - paying for in-app microcredits through the carrier billing system perhaps - or automating SMS reminders for events.

Phonebook enhancements to show statuses and presence? Unconvincing - and risks de-valuing the proper user experience. My Facebook status is intended to be seen *in context* with the rest of my wall & posts, not abstracted as a solo item. If I decide to federate bits of my social world, I want it to be on *my* terms. Plus, as I've written before, the phonebook or contact list is a lousy repository for all your affiliations that are not people (events, groups etc). IMS RCS? You probably know my views - and I'm putting the final touches to my report on it, if you don't.

I'll make an exception for dedicated devices like the various INQ phones, which clearly have a lot of thought and collaboration involved. But they too will need to have a way to compete with the "updateability" of web pages and dedicated apps - something I suspect that the company's move towards Android reflects.

The short life and brutal death of the Kin is probably a reflection of other factors as well - notably pricing and the imminence of Windows 7 phones. But it is a salutary lesson on the concept of "social value" inherent in fragmented communications experiences. Device vendors and operators need to learn when convergence and "unified XYZ" is appropriate - and when it diminishes utility and flexibility.

In an era of multi-tasking, multi-channel, multi-device users, it surprises me that we keep seeing the same monochrome engineering-type view that combining applications or services must always be good.