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Friday, February 29, 2008

Verizon Wireless - $40 for 50MB... are they joking?

Sometimes, the differences between national pricing for the exact same services staggers me.

In the US, Verizon Wireless has just revamped its mobile data plans. It now has two - on at $40, and one at $60. Fair enough, you might think. Except that the $60 plan has 100x the bandwidth cap of the $40 one - 5GB vs 50MB.

This compares to the now-standard UK rates of $20 for 1GB, and $30 for 3GB per month with 3G modems, or about $15 for pseudo-flatrate data (typically in the 100's of MB at least) on handsets.

In other words, rather than going for small / medium / large, Verizon has decided to segment its customer base between just "occasional" and "lots" (ie business user). It appears absolutely uninterested in the massmarket consumer mobile broadband market that seems to be blazing a trail across Europe.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Starting to dismantle the Tyranny of the SIM card

About 18 month ago, I wrote a deliberately provocative post titled "The Tyranny of the SIM Card". It tackled the thorny issue of whether the SIM (which is essentially 'an operator on a chip') should maintain its central role as old-school cellular telephony moved towards FMC or triple/quadplay.

In an FMC world, if you don't have a SIM in everything that you connect to the network (phones, PC, TV etc), does it still make sense to have a SIM in anything?

A discussion I had recently with a company called Blueslice (which primarily makes advanced variants of HLRs for mobile networks) has sparked off a revision of my thoughts.

I think the SIM's usefulness is gated by its name - an Identity Module. This is valuable for when I need to have a single, consistent identity associated with a service. When I want the service provider's infrastructure to be able to recognise me "Ah, that's Dean Bubley trying to connect".

The most important use case I can think of in mobile comms, of having a single, consistent identity is having a consistent phone number.

But equally, there are also plenty of instances where the user might want multiple, or perhaps temporary identities to be associated with a single device. A classic case is mobile broadband access from a PC. Yes, I might want to have an ongoing account relationship with a given HSPA service provider - but I may also want to get temporary access to a second, third or tenth provider because of the specifics of local availability, price, speed and so on. I'm not taking inbound calls, so I don't need consistency of identity - I just want local connectivity. (And perhaps local services & content too - this isn't a 'dumb pipe' rant).

Yes, roaming performs the function too - but it's expensive & hugely complex. And unnecessary much of the time. If it weren't for the identity aspect of the phone number, why would I want my home operator to "lend" my identity to another service provider? If I use an Internet Cafe, they don't bill me via my home broadband. If I rent a car in the US, it's not added to my UK car lease. When I stay in a hotel room in Spain, they don't contact my London landlord to add the cost to next month's rent with a 10x markup.

Sure, there are exceptions when certain aspects of security and log-on convenience are involved, and so companies like iPass can make sense for business users. And yes, you can always buy a local operator's SIM card and put it in an unlocked device, although that's not always convenient either, especially for data access.

And even more counterintuitive is the notion that you would use a clunky mobile SIM card to authenticate for services or devices that are usually SIM-free. A classically pointless example has been the use of EAP-SIM for registering for WiFi on a laptop. Well, that's fine if I actually want to use a mobile operator's own WiFi hotspots, but what about the other 90% of the time? It's just another attempt to use a hardware form of lock-in on what has traditionally been an unlocked device. I've criticised SIM-based WiFi authentication for years, and my opinions seem to have been vindicated as it's shown very limited traction to date.

The thing I liked about some of Blueslice's usage cases were that they allow operators to be much more pragmatic. For example, combining phone+SIM authentication for voice, plus laptop+username/password authentication for WiFi - in the same subscriber record in the HLR, but with 2 separate profiles. This makes a huge amount of sense, especially as we move towards multi-access infrastructures. It seems that most WiMAX devices won't be SIM-based, so combining a single user account spanning GSM/UMTS plus WiMAX services might otherwise be tricky.

Other solutions to this class of problem include a growing number of dual-SIM phones, or "soft SIMs" of which a given device might support several simultaneously.

Bottom line - don't force physical-card SIM authentication onto products or services where the user might reasonably want to have multiple or temporary identities, or where roaming is an overengineered solution. Think about the growing likelihood of customers having multiple devices, some of which might be operator-specific (eg a subsidised & customised phone) and needing consistent identity, but also others which have a much more ephemeral connection to a given operator and for which using or obtaining a SIM is an unnecessary burden.

[Edit - apologies for overuse of the word 'tyranny' in two consecutive posts - writing the first item made me remember to do an update on the second]

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Challenging the Tyranny of Consensus (Off topic)

OK, no real post here.

Just that I came up with the phrase "challenging the tyranny of consensus" in a discussion with a friend this evening, and thought I'd claim it publicly, as it epitomises much of what I stand for.

If I didn't already have "Don't Assume", it would make a great tagline for Disruptive Analysis.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

E-Mobile's E-Monster - VoIPo3G in Japan

I've written before about the new Japanese operator E-Mobile, that's been supporting VoIP on its HSPA network, via a data-centric device, with a client from Jajah.

It's now announced two more voice-centric devices, one a modified HTC TyTn II affectionately called the eMonster, and the other from Toshiba. Insofar as I can work out from the press releases, these work on "broadband voice" which I think is marketingspeak for VoIP.

Out of coverage areas, the phones' voice roams onto DoCoMo's network (for an extra fee). It's not obvious whether this means it hands over to circuit, or carries on using HSDPA.

(btw - if anyone more familiar with the product can confirm that it's using VoIP rather than circuit, please post a comment - thanks)

Monday, February 25, 2008

What's a Normob?

You know that feeling when you encounter a new word... and then within a couple of days you start noting it everywhere?

Well, if you hadn't spotted it already, let me open your eyes to this particular neologism:

Normob = Normal Mobile User.

Basically a non-geek, non-mobile industry person who wants to use their handset to make calls, send SMS's, take some photos and maybe play a built-in game. Maybe they use the MP3 function, and occasionally they'll Google on the phone to cheat in a pub quiz. But someone who doesn't know what a smartphone is, and doesn't care. Not interested in "finding" things, downloading applications, using GPS, changing the softkeys, customising the menus or anything else. Someone probably on prepay, and who chose the phone either because it looks nice, or it's an update of their old one.

About 90% of people, in other words.

I'm not sure who coined it, but it could be from here or here.

The evolution of MVNOs

I moderated an interesting panel debate session while I was in Barcelona, on behalf of billing vendor Highdeal. It was titled "What do MVNOs want to be when they grow up?" and it featured speakers including representatives of

  • Highdeal
  • Carrefour (a French retailer operating MVNOs in 5 European countries)
  • SAP (which offers business support capabilities like payment collection)
  • Experian (which offers MVNE services)
  • Index Europe (which offers hosted web portals for MVNOs)

The session was quite lengthy, so I'm not going to review all of it here, but a couple of points really jumped out at me:

  • The easy times for MVNOs finding niches are swiftly passing. It's taken them a while, but competition has forced the incumbent operators to tighten their game in segmentation. Successful MVNOs will probably have to evolve their offerings continually, to avoid being copied by rivals with broader market visibility.
  • The increasing popularity of owning multiple handsets works in MVNOs' favour. They don't need to substitute outright for a given customer's entire existing mobile experience - instead, they can lower entry/switching barriers by targetting certain use cases via a second phone & SIM. Then, over time, they can look to supplant an increasing proportion of the user's total activity & spend.
  • Distribution really matters. The speaker from Carrefour pointed out that a very sizeable % of the French population walks through his stores on a regular basis. Conversely, a number of high profile MVNO failures have been attributable to a lack of retail presence. Clearly, this impact those MVNOs that bundle handsets rather more than those that rely on "SIM only" deals sent by mail.
  • Following on from this, the handset issue remains a headache. Availability of unlocked phones varies widely by country, and even where they are available, they are often difficult to use for advanced features other than voice & SMS. (Blyk uses MMS to deliver its adverts... sorry, "brand messages"). On the other hand, customising phones is a horribly expensive exercise, as Helio has found out in the US.
  • There was quite a lot of discussion about low-cost airlines' business models in comparison with MVNOs'. One particularly good observation was about Ryanair, which although provides a very cheap underlying product (airfares), then loads up with 100 extra revenue streams, like snacks and drinks on the plane, insurance, hold baggage, and now even airport check-in. I keep expecting to have to pay extra for a seatbelt or using the toilet when I fly with them. In an MVNO context, the parallels are with content, advertising or other sources of business. (Of course, most mobile operators have also long taken the same view of "customer service" as the airline's famously abrasive CEO, Michael O'Leary).
  • The need for flexibility in terms of billing and back-office systems came up several times (unsurprisingly given the event's sponsor) but it is something that I certainly agree with. There is still significant mileage in constructing innovative pricing schemes that appeal to think slices of the mobile population, as well as the need to adjust and amend these with a broad range of parameters. In addition, given the lack of certainty about exactly which of the future revenue streams may prove popular (or how to package/bundle them) retaining the maximum set of choices rather than "hard wiring" billing options makes sense.
  • There was an interesting question about the use of NFC chips in conjunction with retailers' MVNOs (or possibly bands), for applications like loyalty cards, payments and so forth. I'm pretty skeptical about NFC as a massmarket mobile proposition (although I don't write it off entirely), but I can see it making limited sense in some circumstances.

One area I couldn't really drill into was around data and corporate-focused MVNOs, which is where I think some significant innovation is occurring at the moment. But as I noted last week I'm seeing a definite increase of interest around dual-mode devices, unified communications and systems integration. To me, this is among the best ways in which MVNOs can differentiate sustainably. I'll cover "advanced MVNOs" in future posts.

Lastly, and also more food for thought, was some discussion around the concept of how 'mobile virtuality' plays out as more of the overall telecoms industry moves towards some messy combinations of outsourcing, bundling, multi-play and managed services. Arguably, the classical view of MVNOs as a simple wholesale/retail proposition starts to look a bit monochrome in the face of the quadplay, web services, network-sharing and new entrants like Nokia Ovi. Again, worth another look in more detail at another point.

Standalone Mobile Apps vs Web Apps on Mobile

Michael Mace at Mobile Opportunity has a very well-observed post on why he thinks mobile applications are dying, and are being replaced by web applications instead.

"app development on the mobile web sucks less than the alternative"

And Michael adds a very witty obituary:

"In loving memory of the mobile applications business. Adoring child of Java, Psion, Palm OS and Windows Mobile; doting parent of Symbian, Access Linux Platform, and S60; constant companion of Handango and Motricity. Scared the crap out of Microsoft in 2000. Passed away from strangulation at the hands of the mobile industry in 2008. Awaiting resurrection as a web service in 2009. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you make a donation to the Yahoo takeover defense fund."

In general, I agree. Barcelona was full of widgets & web services, and I've been telling my handset software customers for some years that they should be working on the best browser implementations they can.

I've also often pointed out that future operator/vendor "next gen walled garden" initiatives like IMS are driving the most creative developers towards AJAX and Web 2.0. And I certainly feel that the concept of "aftermarket" mobile applications (ie downloaded by end users) is almost an irrelevance to most users, apart from maybe games. Normal people don't download software to their phones, even if Nokia does try to rebrand them "multimedia computers". Come to that, normal people don't care if their phone is "smart" or not - most smartphone owners neither know nor care what's powering their phone or what it's theoretical capabilities might be.

There's also been no mechanism for popular mobile apps to spread virally - you can't just tell all your friends how cool something is, and suggest that they download it now. You need to know which phone, which OS/firmware, which operator, which data tariff etc etc. There's friction. The web is easier, at least once everyone has a decent-ish browser and a flat-ish data plan (give it 3 years in developed markets, I'd say).

I don't think the situation is quite that clear-cut though, and that there will be plenty of reasons to continue using native apps on smartphones, together with other virtual machines and on-device portals like Java, Flash, BREW and SurfKitchen.

In particular, the following use cases remain for native (or virtual machine) device applications:

  • Pre-installed applications at the factory.
  • Pre-installed applications by the operator or other service-provider (eg RIM)
  • Pre-installed applications by the retailer or distributor
  • Certain markets are a bit more application-savvy (eg the US, with its history of PDA users), although other markets still view installing (or even thinking about) handset software as a geek-only activity.
  • Applications installed by enterprises for their end users
  • Applications like VoIP that need access to underlyig device APIs and capabilities like codecs.
  • Applications (maybe IMS apps) for which carriers are able to design & enforce a complex over-the-air automated download & install process. Likely to only work in situations where the user has a deeply-customised phone, rather than a 'vanilla' device.
  • Games, and even then only by certain demographics.
  • End-to-end services coupled to specific devices or a limited range, rather than generic handsets (eg BlackBerry, Amazon Kindle)

Bottom line - I totally agree with Michael that web-based applications are becoming much more important relative to "installed" mobile apps. But I think it's a little early for the obituary, deeply amusing though it is.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Fixed lines.... rising or falling?

We're constantly bombarded by mobile industry propaganda that people are "cutting the cord" and moving to become mobile-only..... particularly in the US, there seems to be a perception that, to quote fellow blogger Carlo Longino "the landline's days are numbered".

Now absolutely there is ongoing fixed-mobile substitution in terms of originating call minutes, although the difficulty of tracking VoIP minutes (especially within VoIP communities like Skype or internal corporate PBX networks) muddies the water. Certainly, most of my own calls are mobile-based.

And yet.... perhaps reports of landlines' demise have been exaggerated.....

I just noticed, for example, that France Telecom's recent results has a KPI spreadsheet showing its base of landlines has been rising, slowly but consistently, for the last 5 quarters, up to 34.2m at end-07 from a low of 33.7m in mid-06. The growth has largely been driven by wholesale connections - ie particularly used by its competitors for triple play (with VoIP) and naked DSL.

I think it's definitely fair to say that the PSTN is slowly dwindling. And I don't see an awful lot more copper being installed. But taken together, fixed VoIP / triple-play connections, fixed-DSL, and increasingly fixed-fibre still has legs, in my view.

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.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Multiplicity management - sharing data & content between devices

Just spotted this article about a company called doubleTwist which seems to enable consumers to swap content, contacts & other files across multiple handset types (& other devices).

"provides sync support for the Sony PSP, Nokia N Series, Sony Ericsson Walkman and Cybershot phones, LG Viewty, and Windows Mobile smart phones such as those from HTC and Palm. Apple iPhone users will soon be able to view content they receive from friends by accessing doubleTwist from their phone's Safari browser"

This sounds like exactly the type of business model I have in mind when I talk about enabling users to enjoy multiplicity - "You want 3 devices? No problem, we'll help you."

In the long term, I can see this type of philosophy being much more successful than something like a Microsoft or Nokia/Ovi platform trying to steer people towards loyalty to a single OS or handset family.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Virtuality Squared - IBM has a virtual virtual operator in Finland

I had an interesting meeting with entreprise FMC vendor Telepo in Barcelona last week. They have some interesting innovations around that space - they are trying to occupy the middle ground between operator- and enterprise-controlled approaches to FMC. They don't extol a "bin the PBX" message, but also acknowledge the role of the operator in areas like SMS.

But the thing that really caught my eye was this announcement.

If I'm reading it correctly, it's an IBM-branded and operated corporate UC/FMC service, running on top of GSM Suomi's network. Now my Finnish isn't too hot, but both comments from Telepo's representatives, and posts like this suggest that GSM Suomi is itself an MVNO.

I've been wondering for a while if IBM or other large IT systems integrators would move into the corporate MVNO space. However, my impression has been that they've balked at the depth of negotiations required and the difficulty of constructing a global footprint. Maybe this is the next-best solution - offering a virtual branded service - in this case, via a virtual operator.

I guess I'll be the first to coin the term MVVNO.....

I actually have an analyst briefing with Big Blue tomorrow, so I'll grill them about it....

(Separately, one of Telepo's go-to-market routes is via an OEM deal with Ericsson, which has this morning sold its Enterprise Comms division to Aastra. That doesn't surprise me too much, as Ericsson has long looked a little embarrassed about its non-operator business selling 'legacy' PBXs instead of toeing the company line on IMS and hosted services. I wonder if Alcatel will follow suit).

The problem with mobile broadband - operator connection manager software

Regular readers will have gathered that I'm quite a fan of flatrate mobile broadband for my PC. I have an ZTE HSDPA modem from 3 UK which I use regularly, and I had the use of a Telefonica / Huawei one last week at 3GSM. I've also written a detailed white paper on HSPA for the enterprise, on behalf of the GSMA. Sure, there are still serious issues with egregiously-high data roaming costs, but it now looks like the operators will fix that problem themselves in the next few months , or else Viviane Reding and the European Commission will do it for them.

There is, however, another downside. I'd already mentioned that the Telefonica modem I got given in Barcelona had some driver conflicts with my existing software. I also noticed during the week that it caused difficulties with downloading POP3 email, either across the 3G network or using WiFi (eg on the free WiFi in T-Mobile's hospitality tent). Without going into the technical details, it did something horrible in conjunction with Outlook and Norton Security on my PC that stopped me downloading mail.

Annoying, but not a huge problem at the time as I had webmail access & another device anyway. But now I'm home, and I just spent 3 hours fixing the problem, in conjunction with Norton's support - eventually solved by deleting all traces of the Telefonica software (via its Spanish-language interface....), reinstalling Norton, rebooting about 4 times and holding my breath / swearing a lot.

Not ideal. And this isn't just a Telefonica problem either - the 3 software seems to dislike downloading or sending email from time to time as well, although it seems to be behaving itself now. And at least removing the Telefonica software hasn't taken out or disabled its rival as collateral damage (something I'd feared).

Now all this wouldn't be a problem if people used the same operator for the lifetime of the laptop. But in many cases this isn't going to happen. In fact, I had several discussions at 3GSM which talked about the need for a "session based" connection model for HSPA - where you basically choose service providers in a similar fashion to choosing WiFi connections. That's a topic for another post, especially as it poses some interesting issues around the use of SIM cards.

The bottom line is this:

Operators need to stop developing their own connection manager software and expecting end-users to install it on their PCs. The same goes for related applications like messaging clients, security functions and probably the IMS Rich Comms Suite I was dismissive of the other day. Developing PC software is a huge undertaking, and has huge potential for software conflicts - especially where users are likely to want to install competing versions of connectivity clients.

The connection manager "engine" needs to go down in the operating system, and perhaps be customisable at a UI level by operators who want to brand it differently. There should not be dedicated clients per-operator until they have demonstrated interoperability (between themselves & with popular mail & security software) and ease of removal. I do not want operators mucking around with the underlying connectivity settings of my PC - I don't trust them to have my best interests at heart (which may include churning or dual-sourcing).

Actually, this isn't just mobile operators' HSPA clients either. BT's diagnostics toolkit on my fixed broadband seems to slow everything down, and don't get me started on handset vendors' PC connectivity suites either - I have an obscure SonyEricsson dialog box inviting me to "Switch to" every time I boot up my PC.

Bottom line - there needs to be a Universal Connection Manager in the next version of Windows, which will allow branded operator services to be provided - but will also allow the customer to control (and add/remove) multiple operators' experience and clients on their computer. My Yahoo and Skype messenger clients don't fight each other or kill my email. If operators have any hopes of offering "rich" PC-based experiences, they need to prove that they can match or exceed their rivals' software abilities. I suspect they'll be forced to do it via the web & browser plug-ins, rather than dedicated software.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Handsets and interference on planes

Like many readers in the industry, I'm pretty skeptical that mobile handsets can cause problems with aircraft electronics. I always thought the laws were a legacy of the old, more powerful analog phones of the past. At worst, I thought there might be the sort of "dum di di dum" sounds in poorly-shielded headphones - the type you get through the sound systems at conferences when the speaker's phone rings in his pocket close to the microphone.

Which is why I was rather surprised to hear an announcement this afternoon, midway back from Barcelona on an Iberia Airbus A320 saying;

"The pilot has requested that all passengers check again that their mobile phones are switched off, as the aircraft systems are registering interference"

and again 15 minutes later

"The aircraft systems are still experiencing interference. Would passengers please switch off all electronic products now"

Anyone else ever heard something similar? I'm guessing that a flight back from Barca today after 3GSM would have a higher than usual number of cellular gizmos.... and perhaps some precertification prototypes, but this still really surprised me.

3GSM in Barcelona... no surprises

For the first time in years, I haven't used my own cameraphone to actually take any pictures at 3GSM this week. Nothing's made me say "wow". Nothing's been particularly unexpected. There's no new 'shiny thing' that's a must have. That said, there's been a lot of business and serious discussion going on.

It'll take a while to sink in, but some more comments and observations for now:
  • A surprising lack of discussion around 900MHz UMTS or spectrum refarming
  • Orange (and to a lesser degree Telefonica) are emerging as the key proponents of old-school mobile operator thinking ("We can control everything - content, handset UIs, home networking etc"). They seem to be believing the IMS/walled-garden mantra of customer lock-in. I probably need to understand their domestic French & Spanish markets a little more, but I think they'll probably fail.
  • Linked to this, the IMS Rich Communications Suite was announced by a partnership of operators and vendors. It's basically a 2002-era Yahoo Messenger client for IMS, running on PCs and handsets, bundling messaging, file/image sharing, IM and so on, but linked to the user's phone number and account. At first glance, I think it risks turning into another "coalition of the losers" as it doesn't directly peer (or easily integrate via web services) into today's defining social platforms like Skype or FaceBook. Maybe it'll be adopted by certain groups, or perhaps there will be a reason for it to be used as Social Network #4 by some users. I can't see an easy route to it becoming the primary network - operators aren't cool/differentiated enough, plus it'll probably involve payment. Bottom line - interesting as an IMS application. But unlikely to be popular, and certainly not an Internet-beater. At least it's been better thought-through than the useless basic IMS videoshare application, though.
  • There's an interesting spectrum of opinion emerging as to whether we'll be dashing straight to LTE, or dropping off via HSPA+ (also called HSPA Evolved) on the way. Some vendor-specific preferences (Qualcomm = HSPA+, Nortel = LTE, everyone else sitting on the fence but leaning in one direction or the other). It's likely to be geo-specific, with DoCoMo (which doesn't have a 2G GSM network to run in parallel, and has lots of spectrum) pushing hardest for LTE, while European operators may balk at 2G/3G/LTE coexistence and could procrastinate for years.
  • VCC seems to have been downplayed a lot this year (and UMA seems to be dependent on femtos rather than dualmode for any future operator sign-ups). Is WiFi/cellular dead? No, definitely, but there's certainly more pragmatism about operator-led deployments. And, thankfully, the word "seamless" seems to have been confined to the dustbin of history.
  • I'll be talking a lot more about femtocells in weeks to come. I saw some interesting demo's of how to take them beyond just cheap-voice-at-home. That said, there's a lot of debate about realistic timelines for their deployment. I wish we had a standardised way of defining telecom technology trials, akin to the pharmaceutical industry's Phase 1/2/3 methodology.
  • Smartphones are, like, so 2005.... It looks like the industry has woken up to the reality that the majority of end users don't care about smartness. They want a 5MP camera, cool design and GPS, not the ability to download software. Sure, the proportion of open OS's will creep up slowly, but many of the coolest devices (and likely best-selling) new devices around at the show used embedded RTOS.
  • The world seems to be dividing between those who think Google Android will save the planet, and those who are saying "Android - yeah, so what? They're underestimating how tough this whole mobile thing is". I'm in the latter camp for now.
  • WiMAX seemed "real" this year. I'm still unconvinced that massmarket phones are round the corner though - despite the prototypes.

More to come next week.

And to finish - thanks to the GSMA (and Huawei & Telefonica) for the HSDPA dongle & temporary broadband wireless access during the show. It worked very well (noticeably better than the 3 network in my part of London, in fact). Now just rename the show from MWC back to 3GSM for next year, and I'll promise not to be too negative about things like the IPX....

Monday, February 11, 2008

Quick thoughts from 3GSM

I've got a couple of minutes free, so some initial thoughts on what's hot & what's not here in Barcelona:

- Mobile VoIP seems to be being downplayed, especially by the larger handset vendors like Nokia & Samsung

- We won't be seeing many HSUPA phones till 2009 (there's a couple from HTC & I-Mate and Toshiba), although there's quiet a few dongles supporting it

- Lots of LTE demos - but a surprising amount of skepticism about timelines

- However, HSPA+ seems to be bubbling under as a more important near-term upgrade (see Vodafone's trial announcement this morning). I think this makes a lot of sense, especially for operators that aren't sure they can get 10 or 20MHz spectrum chunks for LTE.

- Given a choice of putting WiFi, GPS or a 5MP camera in a phone being designed-down to a budget, the camera wins, with GPS a close second and WiFi trailing after.

- An awful lot of navigation stuff, much of whch actually looks quite cool

- A surprising amount of Mobile TV, which seems to be making a second attempt at wooing the industry. It still looks like a highly questionable proposition except for a few niches though.

- Apart from a few ultra-top end phones (iPhone, some Windows Mobile ones mostly), there's not much sign of VGA screens. Outside the Japanese market, the standard top-end phone is still 320x240 pixel QVGA.

- Conspicuous lack of presence from Apple & Google

- Some cool new devices - I like the G900 from SonyEricsson, and the N96 from Nokia, and the Samsung Soul.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

IMS MMtel - does anyone apart from Ericsson care?

This may come as a surprise to you, but there is a 3GPP standard for a "PSTN replacement" form of VoIP. Supposedly, it will enable both fixed-line (TISPAN) and mobile operators to deploy a single, bearer-independent telephony application that will supplant existing circuit telephony and bring new revenues from its ability to blend speech with video, messaging and other elements. It will be, allegedly, the basis for Telephony 2.0

It's called IMS Multimedia Telephony, or more briefly, MMtel.

Ericsson takes every opportunity to talk it up, insisting that it will drive IMS business cases, be usable over everything from DSL to HSPA to LTE, will help operators defend against 3rd-party VoIP, and may even itself be a developer platform.

But if you haven't heard of it before, I wouldn't be at all surprised. Almost nobody has. I ask plenty of people who should have heard of it - operator applications people, interoperability bodies like the MSF who work on IMS interconnection, a variety of SBC vendors, VoIP specialists, handset platform providers. Almost universally, I get blank stares when I ask "what do you think of MMTel?". And the handful who have heard of it usually display zero enthusiasm, or even pitch an alternative approach.

Ericsson seems alone. Even the main book on the subject is written by people from Ericsson Research.

The problem is evident from the name. The word "multimedia" was last considered sexy in about 1995. MMS has been a failure. Sure, people like video stuff like YouTube, but they don't want videotelephony or videosharing except in a tiny fraction of circumstances. Generally, multimedia doesn't need to be realtime - it's more important to capture multimedia for later upload to social networking sites or for other applications. I've written before about the uselessness of things like video share.

Yes, it will be possible to "delete" all the multimedia baggage from MMtel and just use it for "plain vanilla" VoIP. But I bet that's not the cheapest or best-optimised method to deliver it.

The next generation of voice isn't about adding & dropping extra streams of video or messaging. It's more about three other things:
  • 1) Today's telephony but better - better quality, better coverage, lower price
  • 2) Intelligent telephony - calls which use the user's context better. So perhaps the telephony application knows that the phone is on charge, in a darkened room, and hasn't been moved in 5 hours. It injects an announcement before connecting saying "the user may be asleep - press 1 to go straight to voicemail"
  • 3) Non-telephony voice - as I've discussed before, it is becoming important to blend voice with other applications. A variety of VoIP mashups will add value to both consumer and enterprise services.

These ought to have been the central tenets behind the standard for next-gen telephony, not pointless focus on minuscule niche requirements like realtime video. 3GPP (and Ericsson) need to seriously rethink MMtel.

But at least they can take heart from one thing. The fact that nobody else has heard of MMtel means they won't need to work too hard to re-educate the market and its expectations.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Mobile PBX Fundamentalism.... the acid test

I regularly criticise the notion of mobile centrex as a plausible standalone replacement for PBXs. Absolutely, it has a role to play in certain niches - salesforces, certain small companies (if you can get the channels right) and so on. And in the context of a larger consultancy-driven managed services offerings (think BT Global Services), with plenty of IT systems integration involvement, there is a possibility of more wide-scale adoption of telephony "in the network".

But I still keep getting blustery press releases from vendors and operators which essentially say "throw your PBX in the bin on Friday night, and start using your mobile handset instead on Monday morning, with your operator as your service provider".

I've posted at length before about why this is utterly unrealistic as a massmarket, generic proposition, whether it is FMC-based, IMS-anchored, IN-resident or any other variety.

So I've thought up a simple test for whether this can fly in reality, particularly in a heavy-duty, mission-critical enterprise context:

Show me a mobile operator which runs its own main customer call centre via a network-hosted platform, rather than a discrete ACD or PBX. And which has taken away all the deskphones from its finance department. Then (and assuming it works!) I'll start to change my mind.

A cellular radio network planner's worst nightmare......

The picture above is taken from the NetEvents conference I'm attending in Barcelona before the start of 3GSM. It's a room of about 80 technology analysts and journalists, most of whom are using laptops to take notes. The event is "green" in that there are no paper handouts - presentations are downloaded from the web. There is free WiFi for delegates which runs fast.

The conference room is in a hotel basement, with thick walls & ceilings and lots of marble.

It just struck me to think: could this all be managed using cellular? Leaving aside the issue of roaming costs in Spain, the radio problems alone would be horrible. I'm sure it would be technically feasible given enough effort (eg HSPA macrocell in the corner of the room with 100MB ethernet for backhaul)... but could it ever be provided at a cost suitable for a conference?
It's not just the raw bandwidth capacity either - a pico or femtocell would struggle to deal with the number of simultaneous data connections (PDP contexts etc).
And from a business point of view... how would the organiser contract with all the attendees' various operators to offer "free" coverage during the event? Or would they have to give a separate prepaid 3G dongle to each person, irrespective of whether they already had 3G deal with their normal operator.... and how would the connection manager software deal with that?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Rapid growth in fring's VoIPo3G user base

I gave a presentation yesterday morning at a press launch of VoIP provider fring's new update. For those not aware of the company, it's a specialist provider of mobile IM and VoIP software. Unlike some of its peers, it offers both communications within its own community of users and allows users to exploit it as a proxy for their other PC-based VoIP/IM/social-network accounts like Skype, MSN, Twitter & ICQ - or a whole range of other SIP-VoIP providers.

So the handset client essentially lets people "mobilise" & combine their existing favourite online services in a single piece of software. When you consider that many people use 4, 5 or 10+ Internet communications tools, it's clearly not realistic to have separate mobile clients for each of them running simultaneously on a smartphone. And not many operators support a wide range of them (although 3 isn't bad) through their own embedded client suites or browsers.

(why do people use multiple platforms? subtle differences in capabilities & user behavioural inertia. My Yahoo IM contacts are different from my Skype contacts, and different from my Facebook friends. I'll use all of them simultaneously for subtly different types of interaction with different groups of people. Skype tends to be "friendly" work contacts for me, for example. I'm not unusual in this - many people are promiscuous in their IM/VoIP/email/social-networking choices).

Apparently the typical fring use case on mobile is fairly similar to many users' experience of Skype on a PC - a short IM session, which possibly then gets upgraded to a VoIP call.

The interesting thing is that fring can work over 3G, WiFi or even 2.5G (GPRS/EDGE). At a conference I attended last October, a spokesman said that the mix of traffic was roughly split 33/33/33 between 2G/3G/WiFi. Apparently the mix has subsequently shifted somewhat towards 3G, thanks to the rollout of HSDPA phones and the advent of flatrate data plans.

But what surprised me was the rate the company yesterday claimed to be signing up new users - somewhere above 100k per month recently from a diverse range of countries. While I'd guess that not all of these become regular active users, and some probably just use WiFi rather than 3G, that suggests a significant active user base of fully-independent VoIPo3G - made more impressive as the company doesn't have a PC client to exploit the growth of 3G USB modems.

In fact, adding together all existing active VoIPo3G users with independent "challenger" providers - fring, Truphone, Skype, Yeigo and others, across both phones & 3G-connected PCs - I suspect the total is now comparable to that of operator UMA-based VoWLAN subscribers. (although less than the total # of VoWLAN users including non-UMA variants).

It's a feature, not a service - so bill it once only

I went to an reception hosted by Portugese mobile data backup company MobiComp the other day. Interesting on various levels, but given that I've seen a whole host of firms that do backup / filesharing / remote access between phone & PC recently, it sparked one particular thought:

PC-to-phone connectivity is a feature, not a service, and it should be either free or sold on the basis of a one-off fee.

When you buy a phone, it typically comes bundled with a CD for sync/backup. It's usually some fairly useless piece of software that's buggy and won't be much use if you ever want to switch to a different brand of handset or operator & transfer your contacts. There are also SIM-backup devices that copy contacts etc off a SIM card. Similarly, there is a variety of backup software for PCs, typically bought in conjunction with an external hard drive or perhaps bundled into another suite of tools.

Now to be fair, none of these is usually a wonderful experience from the user's point of view, so there's definitely an argument for any technology which it improves it.

But I can't see an argument for why that technology should be sold on a "per month" basis rather than purchased outright and upfront. I also can't see many reasons why comparatively smaller amounts of data should be hosted "in the network" rather than split between your own devices. Sure, the service providers would like to lock you in to their platform - there aren't any backup-portability laws - but consumers aren't that stupid, especially where that lock-in also involves lock-in to an access network.

In fact, the phone-backup proposition makes most sense as a churn enabler rather than a churn preventer. If Orange (let's say) wanted to sign me up as a new customer, with a Nokia handset, then providing me with a software app that makes it easier to transfer all my old contacts, pictures, music from my O2-issued SonyEricsson would be well worth paying for.

A theme that I regularly discuss with clients is the difference between capabilities which are best offered as:

- service,
- application,
- feature, or
- function

To my mind, backup and related components fall towards the bottom of that stack. That doesn't mean they're not valuable - but they should be sold, not billed.

(This isn't just a shot at mobile backup either. I've been struggling with Norton's recalcitrant online backup service on my PC and quite frankly that's not something I'd be happy to be billed for on an ongoing basis either. And before anyone comments, these are obviously consumer-grade products. There are numerous remote-backup and disaster-recovery solutions for enterprises which clearly are suitable as ongoing services, especially as they usually include a substantial amount of upfront customisation and consultancy to smooth the path).

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Mobile industry customer service encourages churn

The cost of providing mobile voice calls, and mobile data traffic, is falling. Coupled with vicious competition, prices to consumers are falling as well. In theory, mobile bills ought to be falling year on year - or you should perhaps be getting more for the same amount of money.

After a frustrating hour spent on the phone to both T-Mobile and O2/Carphone Warehouse in the UK, it's become increasingly apparent that the only way that consumers can actually benefit from falling prices is if they churn.

O2/CPW negligently failed to inform me of a lower tariff that almost exactly met my requirements, despite my asking. The customer "service" representative repeatedly tried to upsell me to a higher tariff, despite the fact that I clearly don't even use most of the minutes allocation in my current plan. He claimed in fact that I went over each month - when in fact the extra charges are almost solely due to roaming. When I rang back asking to be switched to the lower plan I'd found on their website, I got passed around 3 departments ("oh, that's not an upgrade, we can't do that") and eventually gave up. And given the level of stupidity & poor service I was facing, I decided that trying to mess around with my tariff plan a few days before 3GSM was too much of a risk. I've had CPW arbitrarily turn off international call capability when I switched tariff in the past, and it would really be a pain to fix next week if they screwed up again.

I'll give them one last attempt when I get back from Barcelona - otherwise it's both easier and cheaper for me to churn to someone else & port my number.

The T-Mobile rep wasn't an awful lot better - also trying to upsell me to a substantially higher tariff, albeit with the inclusion of an upgraded device and better data plan. For some reason, they've stopped doing the data-only Web'n'Walk plan - annoying as I don't use my data device for voice at all. They also absolutely refused point-blank to do anything about the ludicrous £7.50 / MB data roaming charge.

Simple solution - stick with the current plan and old phone, but pay £15 to get the handset unlocked, and then just get a local prepaid data SIM when travelling.

Oh, and in both of these cases they tried pitching me an 18 month contract as well - in O2/CPW's case without even telling me before trying to get me to agree to it - pretty close to the legal definition of mis-selling, in my view.

So the bottom line is that despite the fact that I've had relatively OK service from both companies, I've essentially been encouraged by both of them to churn. And despite the fact that I've been out-of-contract for about 6 months on both of them - they appear to be trying to crassly upsell me instead of rewarding my loyalty. And one thing that's become abundantly apparent to me is that the UK's mobile market is horribly overpriced, and in fact much less competitive than the industry tries to make out.

Rant: Blog comment spam - naming and shaming

I've resisted having moderated comments on this blog for a while - it would add both extra work for me, and latency for people who want to make useful contributions. I don't mind forthright argument & criticism - I dish it out enough, so it would be hypocritical of me to censor opposing views.

But comment spam is another matter entirely. Like other forms of spam & unwanted direct marketing, I detest the nasty little parasites who seem to think I should provide them with a platform for free advertising.

One repeated culprit is a website called broadband.co.uk . Despite my giving them several warnings, I'm still getting their rubbish on my posts. As well as emailing their website owner saying how much I disliked their marketing/spam practices, I also spoke to an odious character who calls himself "gary the scuba guy" - aka Gary Beal - actually the boss of a so-called search engine optimisation provider (ie web spam specialist) called Sticky Eyes. He blamed some of the automated spam on a long-forgotten scripting tool, and was almost totally unapologetic.

Enough is enough. I'm still not being forced into moderating comments - but I will name & shame these useless Internet bottom-feeders. I suggest you avoid both companies like the plague.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

I'm moderating a press roundtable on MVNOs at 3GSM

Just a quick heads-up to journalists & others interested in MVNOs - I'm going to be moderating this event on behalf of billing vendor Highdeal on the Tuesday afternoon in Barcelona.

The discussion will cover both today's MVNO marketplace (are there enough profitable niches? and what do you need to be able to address them?) , and possible future virtual operator models. I'll be hoping to drill into themes such as the role of advertising, and what my friends at Telco 2.0 refer to as "two-sided business models", with payments flowing in multiple directions from multiple parties. There's also a question of how MVNOs fit into a mobile landscape where many other aspects are being outsourced or virtualised - think Nokia Ovi, and the roles of Apple, Google et al.

The increasingly competitive and highly-segmented approach by some of the MNOs is also forcing their virtual rivals to address ever-finer-grained mechanisms for carving out addressable sectors. This requires some sophisticated back-office systems, as well as the more bricks-and-mortar approach to effective distribution via retail or other channels.

On the technology side, I expect the panel may also touch onto other themes such as 3G MVNOs, how IMS & MVNOs fit together (or not), and some of the interesting developments I'm seeing around FMC-based MVNOs. A number of companies have talked to me recently about blending dual-mode handsets, their own VoIP skills, and a cellular virtual component (BT Enterprise Fusion, TDC Zoo, Telio etc).

Friday, February 01, 2008

A new slant on VoIPo3G - Circuit voice over mobile HSPA IP tunnels

A few months ago, I published a quite controversial report about VoIPo3G. I said that I expected as many as 250m users of fully mobile VoIP by the end of 2012 - mostly driven by the operators themselves, rather than independent players like Skype and Truphone - although partnerships between the two groups would also be important.

I stated that this was particularly because operators will want to exploit greater spectral efficiencies for packet voice, that become possible in later versions of 3.5G. I also argued that because LTE, WiMAX and UMB are all-IP, it was inevitable that we would ultimately end up with full mobile VoIP, and that the question was then about the timelines and roadmap. Moreover, I said that I thought that VoIPo3G (or VoIPo4G if that’s how LTE etc become defined) would quickly overtake VoWLAN in prevalence.

It’s fair to say that I came in for some criticism. Some commentators thought that VoWLAN would grow much more rapidly than I expect pointing to growing availability of dual-mode phones. Others pointed out that using 3G networks for VoIP ran into barriers of power consumption, operators blocking 3rd-party VoIP traffic, or the potential need for IMS or other IP-based core networks.

My view has been that the 3GPP operator “fully standardised” version of mobile VoIP would be slow in arriving, partly because it was expected to be tied to IMS, and partly because of the lack of a defined “plain vanilla VoIP” services in 3GPP or OMA standards. Yes, there’s MMTel (IMS Multimedia Telephony), but that’s not “just VoIP” and in my view is part of the problem rather than the solution, because it bundles in useless and unwanted fripperies like video sharing, rather than just focusing on voice (or web services mashups).

Instead, I expected two things to happen instead – growing use of non-IMS operator VoIP (based on softswitches) extended to the mobile domain, using “naked SIP” handset clients, or possibly standalone VoIP app servers on top of "IMS lite" implementations. And secondly, I anticipated the growing use of fully “over the top” Internet or corporate VoIP applications using 3.5G data channels and flatrate tariffs.

Because I saw standardised “vanilla VoIP” as so slow in arriving, I’ve been exhorting operators who’ve bought the report, or spoken to me personally, to instead consider partnering with the Internet VoIP players – who will inevitably exploit flatrate data and smartphones/3G-connected PCs anyway. Basically, my view is that operators should either work with Skype, Truphone, fring et al – or compete head-to-head with them using their own pre-standard mobile VoIP implementations.

I still believe this is a good route to VoIPo3G, especially for operators that are already moving to VoIP in their fixed networks, or which are early deployers of IMS or other IP-NGN architectures. (This is also relevant for CDMA operators, which seem more IP/IMS friendly at present). Blocking VoIP it not a viable option in competitive markets - as evidenced by the increasing trend towards openness that's been seen in recent weeks.

But interestingly, another ‘flavour’ of mobile VoIPo3G is now emerging as an alternative for mobile operators – Circuit Switched Voice over HSPA, as an early specification within 3GPP’s Release 8 generation of standards. This was just starting to evolve seriously when I published the report in November, and is mentioned in the comments on this post of mine. And it now seems to be moving fast. In the last week, two of the largest ‘'movers and shakers' in mobile technology - from both handset and network sides - have talked up this approach to me unprompted. And I’m in agreement that it’s undoubtedly going to be important.

Basically, CS voice over HSPA takes the ordinary mobile circuit voice service, using ordinary diallers on the phone, and circuit core switches in the network... and tunnels it over an underlying IP bearer. So the application isn't VoIP, but ordinary circuit telephony, but the wireless transport (down in the guts of the phone) is IP.

In other words, it's "Mobile Circuit Telephony over IP"

In fact, we've all heard this concept before. It is an almost direct HSPA equivalent of UMA’s voice over WiFi. In both cases, there are benefits for operator voice calls, derived from the nature of the radio IP bearer: cost in WiFi’s case as it’s unlicenced spectrum, and the efficiencies of new packet transmission techniques in HSUPA and beyond. And in both cases, it’s not necessary for the operator to have already deployed IMS, VCC and so forth – they can reuse their existing core networks, and get away with less messing-around at the handset application layer. [I’m not sure yet whether the IP tunnel uses a similar IPsec approach to UMA, and could use a similar gateway, or if it’s entirely new]. The downside is that this isn’t a next-gen IP voice service in terms of application capability – it’s voice 1.0 transported over network 3.5.

There are also various reasons why I'm more positive on CS over HSPA than I am about WiFi-UMA.

It's a matter of semantics (and your company's point of view) whether you treat CS Voice over HSPA and UMA as 'true' wireless VoIP. Both are using classic circuit signalling, rather than SIP or proprietary protocols like Skype. Neither are as easy to use as "full VoIP" as the basis of innovative applications like voice mashups.

The interesting thing to me is that the industry is starting to polarise into different points of view on this issue. Ericsson remains a staunch MMTel advocate, driven by its desire to push IMS as the main future application layer. But other major players seem to be edging towards a CS over HS worldview, albeit with a hedge around naked-SIP VoIP.

So… taken together, the various types of VoIPo3G are going to be:

  • Over-the-top independent VoIP (Skype, Truphone, IP-PBX etc) with a dedicated client on the handset or PC
  • CS voice over HSPA, using the ordinary circuit voice app plus some lower-level IP ‘plumbing’.
  • IMS MMTel – needing a full IMS client on the device
  • Other IMS or standards-based voice apps like PoC or perhaps a standalone SIP VoIP server plugged into the IMS application layer
  • Standalone operator softswitch-based VoIP connecting to a (probably) SIP client on the handset.
  • Partnerships or mashups of the above.

Messy and diverse, in other words. And all of these have different use cases, different pro’s and con’s, different requirements in terms of user behaviour, cost and so on.

But the bottom line is that with the addition of CS Voice over HSPA, my top-level VoIPo3G predictions are still looking feasible, although some of the fancier web- or application-based VoIP capabilities will be trickier to exploit by the operators choosing that approach.

Purchasers of the Disruptive Analysis VoIPo3G report will get ongoing support & commentary about these developments. Please contact information AT disruptive-analysis for details.