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Friday, February 24, 2006

More NetEvents musings

I'm still at NetEvents, an event which brings together a group of technology vendors, and a captive audience of tech analysts and journalists who get "briefed at". There is always a broad range of companies here, spanning the wider communications equipment (and sometimes software / services) space. Some of these are absolutely in my area (eg various WLAN vendors), some are relevant (eg access aggregation and enterprise wireless tools) and others pretty tangential (rather too many enterprise network security widget suppliers for my liking).

Some quick observations:

- a lot of enterprise technology vendors are assuming that dual-mode cellular/WLAN handsets are going to be more prevalent than I believe. As usual, there is not enough focus on the complexities of getting the software and user experience "right".
- hardly any mention of 3G, HSDPA, picocells or other cellular bits & pieces (apart from my own questions to confused vendors). The assumption is that enterprises will just use WLAN, fixed LAN, metro ethernet or maybe WiMAX at some point in the future. No mention of Flarion, IPWireless or the other niche wireless broadband suppliers.
- a lot more talk about WiFi mesh and municipal networks than I expected. I have to confess I'd always though meshes were sort-of-cool-but-ultimately-niche. I might have to rethink that one, both for urban areas and emerging markets.
- enterprise network security is light years ahead of anything that carriers tend to think about, especially with regard to WLAN-equipped cellphones, but also any devices linking in via cellular to the corporate network. Forget about operators/SIMs as the most important authentication tools - this stuff is going to be tightly controlled by the IT department, with centralised security management covering PCs, servers, laptops, phones & anything else that hooks into the network. Not got the latest virus updates? Your device isn't getting on to the network. Put your SIM in a WLAN-phone that's not registered with a central directory as a "friendly" device? Forget it. Think your picocell is going to sit on the LAN & be remotely managed by a carrier through the firewall? As if.

I also got a chance to test out my rather trenchant views on deep packet inspection on a vendor, SandVine. I'm now even more convinced that the chance of ISPs or carriers blocking or degrading apps they don't like is very low indeed. The risk of "false positives" is huge. Wait till Microsoft starts using P2P to distribute Service Pack Whatever, and half the networks stop users from getting it. And if you open a VPN tunnel to Google Central, you can forget about peering into it to separate search from VoIP. And the hesitation I got when I brought up the subject of applications using XML, .NET and Web Services was very telling. How do you know if an XML object is for VoIP, SAP or both? Maybe SAP uses a VoIP Web Service component? Are you going to block that, Mr Carrier?

Right. A panel session is just about to start about IMS. Let's see if it changes my emerging view, which is that IMS, and especially interoperable IMS networks like the GSMA's IPX, only changes the cellular application environment from a Walled Garden, to an Open Prison.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Deep Voice Recognition Inspection

OK, slightly tongue in cheek.... but I continue to be amazed by the whole network neutrality / deep packet inspection thing. "Don't use my pipes for free" and all that nonsense.

How about extending the concept from broadband "pipes" to voice telephony? Surely carriers should be able to monitor the content of conversations and extract some value from them? I mean, if I book a flight on the phone, shouldn't British Airways pay a commission to my operator? If I'm the CEO negotiating the acquisition of another company for $10bn, surely the poor telephone company should get more than 2 cents per minute for enabling the deal?

So, I reckon the answer is live, real-time voice recognition and parsing. Differential pricing for conversations about the weather, or meeting at the pub, versus "business-grade" QoS-guaranteed conversations about more important & valuable things. And if you dare to try & encrypt the speech and maintain your privacy, you automatically pay top rates.

WiFi hotspot roaming and pricing

I'm at the NetEvents conference in Germany today. I've just heard John McHugh of HP's networking division opine on the future of networking and communications in 2010 and beyond. One of his points was that we should expect good, international and national WiFi hotspot roaming and interconnect. Not perfect, he said, but equivalent to cellular roaming or ATM machines - it usually works OK, albeit with the occasional glitch. Not an unreasonable assertion, although I wonder how well this works with roaming not just between major hotspot owners (T-Mobile, Boingo, BT OpenZone, The Cloud etc), but also with privately owned WiFi (residential & office) which is in my view much more important than public WiFi.

I've heard various software companies suggest solutions to WiFi roaming, and sometimes WiFi/cellular, in the past. However, there is always a missing element.

Any solution, especially if aimed at the massmarket, must default to the proposition "use free WiFi wherever possible, and paid-for hotspots only where it's absolutely essential".

And before I hear irate comments from hotspot operators - you only have yourselves to blame. Public WiFi pricing is ludicrous. £6 for an hour is typical in the UK, many European hotels charge €25 per day. Yes, it's cheaper in the US, but it's still overpriced. There's a great article on the WiFi rip-off in The Times, here .

What's the right price?


What's an acceptable price, given security, convenience, QoS and all the rest of the spurious benefits of "carrier-grade" WiFi

$1 per hour.

There is absolutely no justification for WiFi to be more expensive than Internet cafes / Internet shops. How can those places (and I've used them in more than 50 countries) uniformly offer good, fast Internet connectivity for $1-3 per hour? And they are paying for the PCs, LANs and all the rest of the infrastructure. With WiFi it's the customer's capex - their laptop or PDA.

So until we have sensible hotspot pricing, this is all just a tiny niche market for business travellers on expensives... and even then CIOs wince at the costs.

Last point. A message to any conference organisers out there.... You must include WiFi at events, especially wireless industry events. If I'm going to an expensive event I don't expect to pay an extra $10 for my cup of coffee in the breaks, and the same is true for local wireless connectivity. If the venue tries to rip you off (I was told of one conference that was going to be charged £2000 for 2 day's WiFi for delegates, by the hotel), then go somewhere else. Or use a 3G or WiMAX-backhauled portable access point and tell the venue owners & their gouging hotspot-management overlords to get stuffed.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

VCC - the best contender for dual-mode FMC standard?

Over the past 6 months, there's been a rapid acceleration in people telling me about VCC - Voice Call Continuity. This is the emerging standard for SIP-based call handoff from WLAN (or other IP networks) to circuit-switched cellular.

Although it is still at the stage of a "requirements document" from 3GPP, rather than a defined standard yet, it is getting an awful lot of mindshare from vendors and operators. It basically seems to be a way of tying together the various semi-proprietary SIP approaches from BridgePort, OutSmart, Convergin, Stoke, NewStep, Azaire and the myriad other specialist firms offering convergence gateways/servers/switches.

What's not obvious to me (maybe it would be if I waded through the technical documents) is whether VCC is only applicable to dual-mode solutions running in a full operator IMS context - in other words, is it also applicable to non-IMS SIP service providers / users such as Vonage, MSN, Yahoo or enterprise IP-PBX platforms.

Whichever way, it looks like it'll either just be very important... or completely essential.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Skype over 3G

Interesting to note that while the mobile world is focusing on dual-mode WiFi/cellular devices, some of the pioneers of VoIP are already moving onto VoIPo3G.

Last week's announcement of the Hutchison / Skype tie-up was the most obvious manifestation, along with Skype's earlier (laptop-centric) deal with E-Plus in Germany. But it was Skype's other press release which contained an interesting line

"Skype for Pocket PC 2.0 works .... with an internal Wi-Fi or 3G (EDGE, EV-DO or UMTS) radio. "

I'd heard at a conference last November that Skype was working on an EDGE variant, so it's interesting to see it launched so soon. A Symbian client is also nearing release by the looks of things .

All well and good... but these are (for the most part) relatively niche devices. It will be interesting to see if Skype tries to exploit a variant of handset-specific J2ME Java that'll be appearing on mid-tier phones later this year. (it's called JSR-180 for those who care....) This gives access from the Java environment to a SIP stack on the phone, if it's present.

There's an awful lot of Java/EDGE phones around... although whether they'll have the necessary horsepower to run the Skype client is another matter. (as is the per-MB data rates that operators charge)

Mobile operators, IT and outsourcing

One of the perennial themes in conversations with operators and vendors in the enterprise mobility space is the general inability of many mobile carriers to really understand corporate IT. Generally, the consensus view is that the cellular industry's marketing and sales functions are not up to the task of pitching "solutions" - let alone grasping the technical aspects of integration with existing enterprise computing and networking systems. Hence the never-ending stream of pie-in-the-sky mobile-only solutions like mobile IP centrex or SIM-authenticated WiFi, which don't really fit with the nasty realities of legacy systems, enterprise software architectures and corporate network security.

I mean, if you were an IT Director or CIO of a large firm, would you really trust the IT and systems integration capabilities of an operator that thinks about outsourcing its own in-house platforms?

Friday, February 17, 2006

Please leave your mobile switched off until you are inside the terminal.....

There's a huge amount of inconsistency about the treatment of cellphone users on planes and airports. I'm not talking about the possibility of on-board picocells but when and how you are permitted to use mobiles while on the ground.

Some airlines seem happy for you to use mobiles until they shut the cabin doors before take-off. Others won't allow you to use them on the plane at any point.

It isn't related to national or airport-specific regulation, either. I've flown into SFO a couple of times in the last 6 months. On one flight (Virgin), the crew announced "don't use your phones until you are well inside the terminal". On the other (United), the crew announced it was OK to switch on while the plane was still slowing down, halfway along the runway.

A couple of thoughts

- regulation is too ill-defined, so airlines have developed their own rules which they apply consistently across all their flights - but inconsistently with other airlines
- some airlines (especially low-cost airlines like EasyJet) want you off the plane ASAP, so they can turn around & head off again 30 minutes later. Fiddling around with phones while you're still in the aisle slows people down by a few seconds, so telling them they can't helps speed up the process or disembarking

Or, more cynically..... many airports and cellular networks carefully locate cells, antennas and other coverage solutions to grab as many lucrative "inbound roamers" as they can. Sometimes carriers may even pay a premium to the airport owner to be the first "visible" network when travellers get off the plane. But if they just hook into the local macro network in the Bay Area or Hounslow, all that RF planning cleverness and investment is wasted.

So, who knows.... maybe airlines actually get paid by operators to tell their passengers to wait before switching on their phones? A business traveller might be worth $50 to whichever operator gets his or her roaming business, so capturing a few more inbound roamers might make it worthwhile for Vodafone or O2 to have a chat with the operations folk at EasyJet or BA, as the legal situation seems to be so vague....

High-res screens for mobiles

One more quick post on 3GSM.

The coolest piece of tech I saw was Toshiba's tiny, cellphone-sized 2.4-inch screen - capable of full VGA (640x480 pixels) resolution. Epson had a similar, slightly-larger version.

It was absolutely stunning. This is what mobile TV, viewing pictures and other applications needs.

According to the Toshiba representative I met, high-end phones in Japan should start to ship with VGA screens towards the end of the year.

I want one.

A side-issue here. In my view, the growth curves of undrelying handset capabilities - screen, processor, memory - are outstripping the ability of wireless networks to exploit them fully. A VGA screen needs 4 times more data than a QVGA (320x240) one. Add in an iPod's-worth of flash memory, and again the cellular network won't be able to fill it up effectively. Yes, HSDPA and EV-DO are fast, but the backhaul is still a bottleneck. Net result? Yet more reasons to bypass the network, using WiFi, USB, Bluetooth, UWB or removable memory cards instead.

Barcelona wrap-up and indoor wireless

Well, my idea of doing a daily blog entry about 3GSM fell apart under the strain of 40+ meetings....

I'm still trying to organise and analyse the vast amount of information I've absorbed - I've had to "reboot my head" every hour or so, as I've switched conversation topics from handsets to WiMAX to IMS to in-building to FMC to mobile TV.

But overall? Well, first off, Barcelona beats Cannes by a huge margin. Yes there were a few first-time glitches (Vendors: No offsite meetings between 9am-6pm next year, please). But the scale, organisation, atmosphere, friendliness and facilities (OK, except WiFi) were much better. And it's a proper city with plenty of hotels, restaurants and transport (flights, tube trains, cheap taxis...), not a huge campsite like a geeky overpriced Glastonbury. I hope 3GSM stays there, and that the rumours of a return to the South of France in a few years are untrue.

In terms of what I saw and heard, I'd say there was a great deal of pragmatism and reality, once the marketing guff has been stripped away. I have not been "surprised" at all this week, either positively or negatively. I've had lots of opinions reinforced, with a couple of subtle "ah-ha!" moments at best.

One particular area of focus which I've been aware of - the dawning realisation that indoor coverage is a lot more important than in the past. Historically, most carriers have viewed indoor solutions as "special projects" - important, but not really strategic. This is clearly changing, because of a few factors:
  • the higher the frequency, the worse the in-building penetration, generally. This tends to mean that current 3G is worse than 2G... and anything in 2.5GHz or 3.5GHz range (step forward WiMAX) is worse still
  • people tend to use high-bandwidth applications (video, browsing, email attachment downloads etc) when they're stationary, or even sitting down. Which tends to be indoors. HSDPA is a particular nightmare.
  • operators' expectations of achieving the "mobile premium" for cellular calls is looking increasingly untenable indoors. Not only are you not "mobile" when at home/work, but there's a fixed phone available as an alternative... and increasingly a fixed-VoIP phone which is even cheaper or free.
  • WiFi's rapid adoption and evolution has pointed out just what can be achieved with indoor wireless if well-funded innovation and fast standards evolution is possible.
  • it is getting ever more difficult to get outdoor sites for cellular base stations approved under local planning regulations
  • WCDMA operators are having to learn that the "CDMA" bit means they're network planning differs substantially from their older GSM/GPRS networks (cell breathing etc.) and indoor coverage poses particular issues
  • landlords and enterprises are looking to offer facilities to their employees or visitors... and potentially monetise them as well
  • for residential customers, there are all sorts of benefits from triple-play, quad-play and so forth. Add to this the possibility of getting users to pay for their own radi0-network backhaul (via a DSL/cable connection) and home cellular solutions start to look increasingly interesting
  • Net result? 3GSM was full of a plethora of innovative Indoor Wireless and Fixed-Mobile Convergence infrastructure. Picocells, microcells, femtocells, remote radio-heads, repeaters, distributed antennas, UMA, WiFi/cellular SIP, dedicated chipsets, in-plane and maritime solutions and so on....

Dozens of companies had stories here. Radioframe and ip.access have been pitching picocells (direct and through OEMs) for years and continue to do so - although they're behind the curve a bit on 3G. Various major vendors are plunging into the picocell fray - Motorola's AXPT looked well thought-out, Nortel had a product, Andrew has shipped them for ages, ZTE and Panasonic are also in the market. 3Way Networks and Ubiquisys are aiming for the medium-term residential "femto-cell" space. Specialists like Alvarion, Zynetix and Altobridge have local switching added in to propositions based round picocells, ideal for applications like maritime, remote locations or military deployment.

(a quick historical note - a few companies, notably Nokia, Ericsson and Cisco all tried this market too early, around 6-7 years ago. They're all still pretty skeptical as they got expensively burnt at the time, but I think they should dust off some old business plans, as the world's changed since then)

There is one important alternative emerging to in-building infrastructure, however: lower frequencies for normal deployments. Many vendors (and possibly operators) view recycling older 900MHz GSM spectrum for 3G as an urgent priority, as it would solve much of the problem using traditional "outside-in" approaches to coverage and capacity. Expect much lobbying of regulators in the next few years.....

Overall, I don't think anyone would ever describe in-building wireless as an exciting part of the industry. The mobile content companies' parties are much more fun. But this is, arguably, one of the most important aspects to deploying mobile and wireless broadband and multimedia services and applications.

Monday, February 13, 2006

3GSM Day 1

I haven´t had a chance to wade through all the announcements I´ve heard today - and certainly not the briefings and discussions I´ve had privately.

However, a few highlights so far:

- Loads of cellular picocells around. I´ve been talking about these for years, but it´s only now they´re appearing on radar screens. Different use cases are emerging - HSDPA inbuilding coverage & capacity, potential future residential cellular base stations, low-power indoor GSM private or operator networks, maritime/airline/military uses, network fill-in.... the list goes on. Some 2G, some 3G. Watch this space... some companies to keep an eye on: ip.access, Motorola, Nortel, 3Way Networks, Huawei, Radioframe.... and despite protestations that "outside-in always wins", maybe Nokia will step up at some point.....

- Unsurprisingly, Mobile TV in 101 incarnations is a major showstopper. DVB-H, DMB, DAB, TDD.... however, one interesting differentiator to think about - what is the latency time when switching channels? I´ve heard that 10secs+ might be typical of a certain technology. Go home now & force yourself to wait 10 secs between each push of the channel +/- button on your remote. Annoying, isn´t it.....

- "Cute" award of the day... the miniature Marshall amplifier attached to music-playing phones on the DoCoMo stand

- I´m ever more convinced that UMA deployment only works in cases where the service provider gives the user a dedicated home gateway, and not where there are legacy WiFi access points. Ask me personally for details on this if you´re interested.

- Moto´s "Seamless Mobility" slogan looks even more tired than when it was first announced. A shame, because they´ve got some cool stuff there, even if the press conference was a bit of a triumph of presentation over substance. Some of the new thin-phones on the way look cool - the mockup of a mini-RAZR called the RDIO looks rather cute. UK-based readers will be laughing hysterically at the idea of a phone called the "MING" however.... (to my international readers, "Ming" means "to be really ugly". And it´s also the name of a LibDem politician)

More tomorrow.....
More to come tomorrow....

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Barcelona.... the quiet before the storm

I'm in Spain for the annual mobile industry havoc-fest that is 3GSM which starts tomorrow. Somewhere north of 30000 people are here as well - I started bumping into family faces yesterday afternoon at Luton airport.

I have around 45 meetings, briefings, receptions, interviews, dinners and parties scheduled between now and Thursday afternoon, spanning from the nice leisurely lunch I had with a client in a tapas restaurant this afternoon, to dash-and-grab 30 minute interrogations with vendors in the huge exhibition halls.

If I get a chance to breathe, I'll try and post a few quick thoughts...

Observations so far... Motorola and Samsung have won the Barcelona advertising fight, with Moto This and Moto That and Moto The Other posters everywhere, pitching against Samsung's enthusiastic promotion of the first HSDPA phone, adorning city buses and most of the airport.

At least this year I've got a hotel walking distance from the exhibition centre... and had the room available when I arrived .... unlike last year's fiasco in 3GSM's previous home, Cannes in France, when a hotel receptionist greeted me at check-in with a very unconcerned "non" before eventually finding an alternative room in a fleapit 30 miles away in Nice.....

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Mobile as wallet.... how very 1999

Motorola seems to be shrugging off its new-found image as king of up-to-the minute mobile coolness and going retro with a very old-skool press release about the idea of using your mobile phone as a replacement wallet.

"Motorola Helps Subscribers Leave Their Wallets at Home". Yeah, ditch those credit cards. And those paper receipts. And all those plastic gym membership cards with magstripes. And those business cards and coins.

Haven't we been here before? Micropayments, use the SIM instead of a credit card, blah blah blah? Only this time with an RFID-style NFC (Near Field Communications) chip.

Now, let's see, what were the problems the last 17 times this was tried?

OK... trust, security, difficulty of changing consumer behaviour, upgrading point-of-sale equipment, educating retailers, huge system integration costs & complexity, vagaries of international usage, legal status of operators as "banks" or lender, credit risk, single point of failure, greedy business models, no "credit card portability" when you switch carriers, stolen phones, low battery, RFID privacy concerns... hmm, maybe I missed something?

Oh yeah. I remember. Unlike a real wallet, I've yet to find a mobile phone equipped with a pocket to hold a condom.

Interesting subscriber numbers, part 2

Both the GSA and 3G Americas report that there are now around 50m WCDMA subscribers, and gush enthusiastically about how quickly the number is ramping up.

There's some rather dodgy-seeming maths (or at least over-zealous PR spin) from the GSA, though, saying that "3G/WCDMA Takes 30% Share in Western Europe" ... which seems to stem from the (fairly independent, in my view) numbers of total net subscriber additions in Europe (about 44m) and the total number of new 3G subscribers (13.9m).

Consider me a cynic, but doesn't that imply that all these 13.9m people were "net additions", rather than people simply upgrading (or churning) from their previous 2G service & handset? The only difference is that you need a new SIM card if you swap to a 3G phone.

I'd be pretty surprised if more than 5-10% of completely-new arrivals to the cellular market chose to jump straight to 3G, especially as most newcomers will be on prepay tariffs unlikely to be available on 3G phones.

Mind you, with 3GSM next week, I doubt that this is the worst case of PR hyperbole we'll see in February....

Interesting subscriber numbers, part 1

I see that BT has finally announced some numbers for its Fusion service: "Following launch of the market leading V3B ( Motorola RAZR) phone, weekly customer connections have continued to rise, and reached over 2,000 for the week ending February 3, 2006, bringing the total number of Fusion customers to over 13,000" . I suspect this means subscribers rather than households - from a recent BT presentation I heard there are typically 1-point-something phones per Fusion hub. Let's say around 9-10,000 Fusion households.

Not exactly setting the world on fire, but roughly what I would have expected, given BT's stated softly-softly approach to introducing & tuning Fusion, especially prior to the WiFi version's launch in the summer.

My guess for the rest of the year? Given the WiFi launch, enterprise/SME Fusion and BT's general presence and marketing clout in UK mobility, I reckon by end-2006 (calendar, not BT FY) we'll be at about 70,000 Bluetooth Fusion users and maybe 140,000 WiFi-UMA ones, if they get the marketing packaging right.

As it stands, I'm quite happy keeping my June 2005-vintage forecast for UMA-based VoWLAN phone shipments in 2006 at about 600,000 globally, working on the assumption that US operator(s) launch in H2, and maybe a couple of other operators do some low-key soft introductions in Europe or Asia. There's possibly some upside here, if someone comes out with an ultra-aggressive package & subsidies (T-Mobile US?), but I'd be surprised to see more than a million leave the shelves under any realistic scenario.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Cisco and UMA

Much will undoubtedly be made of Cisco's apparent embracing of UMA/3GPP GAN technology, announced today in a release from Kineto Wireless.

Undoubtedly, people will jump to conclusions about Cisco strategy around enterprise-grade FMC, whether or not its IP-PBX and WLAN products will support UMA, what this means for its consumer Linksys brand, its announced SIP-based partnership with Nokia and so on.

My read on it is that it's a relatively straightforward announcement about network security. A number of other network security infrastructure vendors such as ReefPoint, Stoke and apparently Lucent have already recognised that UMA deployments have significant impacts in terms of scaling up authentications, VPN tunnel termination and so forth in the mobile operator's network.

"Cisco's UMA security products are designed to provide defense in depth from both malicious and non-malicious threats by combining high-density IPSec termination with a voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) peering point security architecture, load balancing, routing and switching all converged in the Cisco 7600 series router platform"

Given the likelihood of some US operators introducing UMA services (Cingular & T-Mobile seem almost certain candidates), it is unsurprising that one of the world's largest network security vendors - and one which is making a big push into carriers - almost has to have a solution.

Whether or not Cisco actually has invested a huge amount in this, or expects to sell many UMA Gateways, is of course another matter. My understanding is that entry to the UMA club (either for operators or vendors) is not desperately expensive. But that still doesn't alter my conclusion that UMA's just not going to work commercially, or in terms of overall user experience.