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Monday, February 18, 2008

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.


Anonymous said...

Is the problem, perhaps, Norton AV?

Try free AVG.

Ian Fogg

Anonymous said...

I think you are right. The end user experience suffers with bundle of SIM, HSPA card with connection manager all from operator done the way it's happening today. Notebooks are totally horizontal in design and end users are in control. But we like to buy bundles don't we?

However, the bitpipe on HSPA vs. communication service provider strategy requires PC application strategy at operator end.

Circuit switched calls on notebooks is not really possible either.

What the industry needs is standard set from Microsoft for SIM authentication regardless of modem used. => standard Microsoft connection management in OS level.

On top of this comes the IMS Application or Skype or Microsoft Live...

For operator applications the ecosystem does not really work.
A "naked SIP stack" on notebooks is not the way to go either.

You have Laptop OEM, modem module vendor, Microsoft, distributors, network equipment vendors and IMS Application vendors in the value chain to bring the bundle to market...

Having said that there is a definite conflict of interest between operator and Microsoft control.

Dean Bubley said...

Thanks for the comments

Ian - no, Norton may have contributed to the email problem, but it was definitely mostly down to the Telefonica CM. The 3 CM didn't come close to screwing up the email as much as the other one. Plus the driver/CM conflict between the two operators' software was evident at the connectivity layer, even before firing up Outlook.

Jari - yes, I pretty much agree, although I'd say the 'bundle' argument applies less on laptops.

My reasoning:

- a desktop PC is single-access. You either have a single ISP account, or connect to a corporate LAN. You can use an embedded connectivity manager, or a third party one (eg from Cisco or your ISP) and you don't worry about conflicts.
- a simple handset is also single-access. The operator controls authentication via the SIM & embedded software.

But a laptop (or a dual-mode phone) is much more complicated, because it is *inherently multi-access*. You can reasonably expect to connect via home, work & hotspot wifi, via ethernet to a home or office LAN, and to *at least one operator mobile broadband service*. What the user definitely does not want is one of the connection clients (or worse, two or three) trying to be "on top" and unaware of/unsympathetic towards the other accesses.

This is definitely an issue for operators looking to provide laptop-based services - the *must not* assume that they "own" the authentication & connection process on the PC.

Mo said...

There shouldn't really be any need for any “connection manager” software at all, just drivers to make the USB device appear as a network device—the same way ADSL USB modems do.

Anonymous said...

Another Microsoft monopoly tool?

Dean Bubley said...

Rick - in this area, I'd trust Microsoft more than most operators. Microsoft doesn't really have any vested interest to prefer one type of network connection (HSPA, WiFi, LAN, Bluetooth, USB etc) over another. It doesn't sell WiFi gear, own cellular spectrum or make Gig ethernet switches.

If anything, MS wins by giving customers as much choice & flexibility in getting data on & off the device as fast & as cheaply as possible. Ditto Intel. More data in more places at higher speed = more need for software & processors.

Anonymous said...

SMSI, through their recent acquisition of PCTI's Mobility Group is 'closing in' on a 'defacto' standard for connectivity solutions. Here in US, they now have VZ, S, T, and I believe T-Mobile, in addition to lower tier folk such as All-Tel

Are you familiar with them?

They are also positioning to provide a handset client for FOTA (signed HTC), and also positioning with their IMS client.

Would be curious on your take of this company.


Anonymous said...

Hi Dean,

We could not agree with you more!
In fact, being one of those Connection Manager vendors, Diginext, we support standardization.

We launched an indepedent portal for users like yourself. The principle is simple; One Connection Manager, supporting all devices and all operators. Check it out at www.iqonn.com

Kind regards,


Anonymous said...

Hi Dean

It seems you suffered some problems caused by the installation of an old version of the Telefónica CM which had a known issue under certain combinations of software (antivirus, email client, the CM, etc.).

In case you are interested in the subject, I recommend you to use version 6.1 instead, which solves that problem and can be downloaded from


for different operating systems.