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Friday, February 27, 2009

Next week at eComm

Apologies for the slow posting of late - I've been utterly buried in a number of projects, plus MWC in Barcelona last week, leaving me less time to blog.

Next week, however, should be different. I'm away in San Francisco, for a mix of briefings, client meetings and, above all, eComm.

It's been a little while since I scrutinised the eComm website and agenda. I've just looked at it, and I'm staggered by the lineup that Lee Dryburgh has put together. It's going to be 3 days of bombardment by a fantastically diverse set of speakers, with background in everything from spectrum policy to social networks.

I'm speaking about the impending API overload in mobile - trying to reconcile the various operator initiatives, GSMA OneAPI, OMTP BONDI, smartphone OS's, assorted web services and so on.

I'll also try and blog about some of the more interesting companies that I see at the event, so stay tuned....

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Quick thoughts on MWC

I haven't really had much time to write posts this week as I've been dashing about between dozens of meetings here in Barcelona.

But some quick things to mention;

  • Nokia's 6700 Classic is a really nice small phone - I'm definitely a believer in nice well-engineered metals and other materials, rather than squeaky plastic.
  • QVGA screens are really starting to look tired on handsets, especially for web browsing and heavy-duty email. I think iPhone-style 480x320 or VGA (640x480) or WVGA (800x480) are pretty much essential for decent smartphones from now on.
  • Oberthur's integrated accelerometer-on-SIM is quite clever. But like most SIM innovations, it will suffer from the fact that most users keep their SIMs longer than their phones unless they churn, so it's easy to put new stuff in the handset itself.
  • Lots of policy management and DPI products. Lots of different pitches and usage cases too. Some are pretty good as they focus on integration with customer intelligence, providing data to marketing teams. Still lots of unrealistic expectation of app-level policies, often backed up by a deep lack of understanding about application environments and user behaviour.
  • Mostly realism about LTE, with timelines being pushed out a bit. Outside Verizon and Docomo, it's becoming clear that the only other big player in a rush towards it is T-Mobile. I'm wondering if any CTO-to-CFO friction will result in them dusting off their HSPA+ scenarios instead.
  • Recognition that Voice over LTE is still not fixed, although various propositions are being suggested. Since I identified issues with VoIPo3G and VoIPoLTE more than a year ago, there's been fair progress, but it's still slow.
  • ...although not as slow as IMS handset development. Yes, there's some release-1 RCS phones around, with trials being expected for H2 2009. But the really useful stuff like integration with Facebook, plus the addition of iPhone and Blackberry and other members remains at some indeterminate point in the future. There still seems a lack of thought about prepaid vs. RCS as well, while a 3rd-party SDK doesn't seem to be even on the horizon. There's a big risk that dedicated RCS clients will be made redundant by more full-featured browser and web runtimes that can access handset APIs, and which are more open to innovative developers.
  • Truphone launched it's Local Anywhere service, based on multi-IMSI technology. Looks differentiated from the other VoIP / roaming offers., Will be interesting to see how this evolves as it looks to sign up partner operators in different countries
  • Adobe is still quietly building up an impressive footprint for Flash and its Open Screen project.
  • I met the CEO of possible the world's only prepay quadplay operator at the Highdeal round-table I moderated. Very cool business model & billing/charging system indeed.
  • I'm a lot less surprised than many people about the announced Nokia / Qualcomm relationship for US Symbian phones, although I'd guessed that it would be Samsung rather than Nokia that would bring them into the fold.
  • Lots of noise (and foot-fall on the stands) among the picocell and femtocell crowd. A lot of feeling that "it's actually happening!" now.
  • The GSMA OneAPI platform for opening the network capabilities to third parties is emerging rapidly. I saw a good demo on the Aepona stand.
  • Apple is conspicuous by its absence. Not that surprising really.
  • A fair amount of noise about Android, as expected. But I've met one or two fellow unbelievers around. We'll probably be burned as heretics by the Googlistas.
  • My little Samsung netbook has got a full day of battery life for undemanding tasks like writing meeting notes. No carrying around a charger & power cord this year.
  • Not much mobile TV or NFC hype, although there's a bit of "digital money" and remittances talk.
  • Continued interest in developing SMS as a service. Interesting pitch from Acision about it's new open platform for playing with SMS - for example delayed rather than instant deliveries. Forget the doomsayers predicting the replacement of SMS by IM - it's easier to grow a $100bn business by 20%, than a $10bn business by 1000%. Oh, and SMS over LTE needs to work just as well as voice.
  • Less overall pessimism about the economy than I expected. Although that might be because the real doom-mongers all had their travel expenses cut this year.

And lastly, the "villains of the year" award goes to the GSMA Stasi demanding photo ID to get into the Fira precincts in the morning. Yes, I know security is an issue, but I'm not interested in attending any event that's based on Stalinist "We need to see your papers" approaches. Have they been taken lessons in authoritarianism from Gordon Brown & Jacqui Smith?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Prepaid data - my thanks to the Wiki

If you travel a lot, and you haven't seen it before, I'd heartily recommend checking out the prepaid wireless data resource here.

It lists prepaid data SIMs and tariffs in numerous countries - invaluable if you want to avoid ridiculous and unjustifiable mobile broadband data roaming prices.

Thanks to the Wiki, I managed to get hold of a Yoigo prepay SIM in Barcelona, and it gives me flatrate (albeit slowish) mobile data for €1.20 a day. The SIM costs €10 and comes with €10 of credit. It's great for email and web access on my phone, plus I'm finally able to use Google Maps and navigate myself in a foreign city, for less than the price of an equivalent taxi ride.

It was a bit of a pain to find and buy the SIM. I needed to take my passport as ID, and the sign-up process took about 15 minutes in the store. In other countries like Portugal, the process is a lot smoother.

It's a very good advert for the benefits of unlocked, unsubsidised smartphones. It's also highlighted that I need to get myself an unlocked or reflashed 3G dongle.

Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be an equivalent provider in the US - even on just with flatrate EDGE would be useful.

Time to ditch the phrase "over the top"

One of the big themes of this year's MWC appears to be the justification of LTE deployment business cases. The received (but largely whispered) wisdom seems to be that plain-vanilla "pipes" for normal mobile broadband just won't cut it. You might as well just stick with HSPA and sweat the assets. The CTO of an operator might like LTE's architecture, spectrum flexibility and overall performance - but I can imagine some interesting discussions when CFOs ask "So, what new stuff does it do? How much extra money can we make - or save - and in what timeframes?"

One answer is around operator-managed end-to-end device + service combinations, perhaps for in-car or healthcare sectors. That seems a reasonable target, although I definitely have my doubts about locked or "walled-garden service" laptops.

But I'm also hearing from various large vendors that LTE should enable new revenue streams from exposing QoS or other network assets to web-based businesses or software providers. Fair enough, that's very aligned with Telco 2.0, two-sided business model philosophies.

But there seems to be little emphasis on actually convincing those upstream providers that they really need these extra capabilities - or that the incumbents can be trusted. Given the issues around DPI and Net Neutrality, it would hardly be surprising if many of the Internet application providers viewed these "offers"with wariness. Perhaps they would be better off just lobbying for ever-bigger pipes?

One particular aspect stands out. I've never heard anyone from Google, Facebook, Skype or an enterprise PBX vendor refer to themselves as an "over the top" provider. It's a phrase only used by incumbent operators or major vendors - and usually in a disparaging tone. I get the distinct impression that it's usually used as a more polite alternative to "parasite", on the orders of the speaker's PR team.

I think "over the top" exemplifies the arrogance of the telecom establishment. Most operators wouldn't like their networks and services to be dismissed with hand-waving terms like "plumbing", "legacy" or "dinosaur".

Given that the telecom industry wants to convince these companies to spend money on enhancing "quality of experience", perhaps buying QoS-managed pipes, or advert insertion, or identity management services - shouldn't the industry start being a bit more polite towards their target customer base?

The computing industry refers to third-party applications by the neutral term "ISV" (independent software vendor). Perhaps an equivalent term like "IAP" (independent application provider) would be more appropriate in discussions like these?

There also needs to be an acknowledgement of symmetry. For every capability exposed by an operator and consumed by an Internet player (eg location or messaging or QoS guarantees), there is likely to be a reciprocal relationship in the opposite direction. Why shouldn't an operator use Amazon's data centres for hosted storage - or even use Skype or Facebook as identity and contacts management providers?

If the mobile industry (and also fixed broadband providers) continue to sneer down their noses at Google et al, they should expect to see a even more strenuous efforts by those players to force operators into being plumbers.

Friday, February 13, 2009

DPI and MVNOs - a question

A quick question for any blog readers who work in the area of deep packet inspection for mobile - is it possible to apply different policies to an MVNO's data traffic, vs. the host MNO's retail services? Also, are roamers subject to their home or visited network's policies?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The need for a new approach to roaming

I've spent most of this afternoon sorting out all my meetings and logistics for a week in Barcelona at NetEvents and MWC. One thing that's immediately apparent is that despite all the talk of VoIP, SIM-swapping and the like, I'm going to end up with a large bill for voice and SMS roaming.

I've got dozens of meetings, loads of people I'll need to contact (or be contacted by), inevitable changes to schedules and venues, plus all the usual work and personal call traffic I'd normally get in the UK. I'll be paying for both inbound and outbound roaming calls, which even at the EU's maximum 39p per minute is still likely to add up.

It's clearly not an option just to get a local SIM card - most of the people I need to contact will be outside Spain, and there are too many people likely to contact me, to inform everyone of a new number. For the same reason, one of the "roaming SIMs" is probably not a solution. I can't even have a 'regular' Spanish SIM that I keep year-in year-out, as it would expire after a few months without use.

Neither is WiFi an option. The congestion of the Kubi network at the Barcelona Fira is notorious - as is the pricing. And in any cases, much of the calling I'll need to make will be outside the MWC precincts, in the centre of town or assorted other venues in the evening. Even if it was working and relatively well-priced, many of the VoWLAN service providers have haphazard support of SMS, which is absolutely mandatory at trade shows where you have back-to-back meetings. I will have a voicemail message advising callers to text me, as it's the most reliable method to reach me during the show, rather than voice or email.

It's made me even more certain that the concept of paying a multiple of normal calling or SMS rates when you're travelling, rather than just perhaps a moderate % premium, is a complete anachronism. There is simply no adequate justification, either in terms of technology involved or the value to the user - even with the arcane setup of cellular VLRs and whatnot. The fact that a local SIM would work perfectly fine, barring the hassle factor of advising people of a new number, is a potent illustration of how well things could work, if the system didn't stack the odds against you. It's even more galling because my main number is with O2, which is owned by Spanish operator Telefonica, so I'm paying them huge sums to bounce my call around inside their own network.

I wonder what the regulatory view will be like when operators move to a full IMS or softswitch architecture, when it may not even be necessary for roaming calls or signalling to be "tromboned" back to the home network?

My situation (a frequent traveller, but to lots of different countries) is similar but not identical to those in which someone has two or three regular destinations. People living and working across land borders (eg Hong Kong and mainland China, or the Benelux countries in Europe) often need multiple phones, while people with foreign holiday homes, or students studying abroad, have similar problems. In some cases, their non-resident status may stop them from having postpaid subscriptions in a second country, even if they were prepared to pay for them.

What would be good would be a way to get a local SIM or account/number - ideally without physically having to buy one - and for this to automatically propagated to all your contacts when you were in-country. Or for it to somehow be linked to your existing home account in the network.

One set of possible solutions relates to what I was writing about the other day - multi-IMSI SIM cards could potentially allow two or more local mobile accounts to be tied together via a centralised meta-operator. In a way, this would be a more elegant approach than a dual-SIM phone as the meta-operator could essentially do clever things with call and SMS routing, caller IDs and so on, to give you the appearance of roaming but with local call rates.

I've heard various rumours over the last year or so about this type of "local roaming" concept, but apart from a variant used for telematics and M2M data connectivity, I haven't seen much real action. I suspect that actually getting it working, with all the various permutations for call flows, is pretty tricky - and it's also not obvious to me whether you'd still need some form of client software, or if it can all be tied together via on-SIM applications and menus. There may also be dependencies on different countries' regulatory and commercial stance on MVNOs, plus there are requirements for registration of all SIMs' owners in some markets.

I live in hope. But in the meantime, I think I'll just be very concise with my calls next week. Blame O2 if you call me and I sound abrupt or rude.

Cheap dongles still selling "like hot cakes"

I just went into my local Vodafone store - I was going to get one of their £39 prepay HSDPA dongles, as it's usable abroad for £10-a-day (ie less than hotel WiFi in some places), albeit with a 50MB daily cap.

Hopefully I'll have other alternatives next week while in Barcelona, but I thought that as a backup, that was a pretty good option - especially as it should also work in the US, where I'll be in 3 weeks' time. My usual mobile broadband provider, 3 UK, is great when used "on net" on other 3 networks in Sweden, Hong Kong etc (it's free, no roaming charges), but reverts to £3 per MB elsewhere - like Spain and the US.

Unfortunately, the shop had none in stock. They've sold 6 today - on a mix of prepay and postpay deals - especially to students at the various universities and colleges nearby. I asked the manager about embedded laptops (they sell Dell Mini 9's), and he said that although they sell a few a week, the overwhelming majority of customers are going for dongles.

Bought a netbook....

Given Barcelona's reputation for "tea leaves", especially around the time of MWC, I'm a bit wary of carrying expensive stuff around with me next week. I know several people who've been mugged, pickpocketed, scammed - and I've even seen a cyclist snatch someone's bag off their shoulder right in front of me on one occasion. I like the city, but it's not the safest, especially during an event when every crim in Spain knows there will be tens of thousands of extra laptops and phones in peoples' bags and pockets.

Add to this the fact that I want to take notes directly into a PC during briefings and meetings, but don't want to heft a big computer and the power brick around all the time.

The answer - join the throng and buy a netbook. After two of the most gadget-tastic people I know (Andy Abramson and James Body) mentioned it to me in the space of a week, the Samsung NC10 went to the top of the list, especially as I've had two Samsung PCs before and have been happy with them.

The main spec-related arguments are the big battery (7+ hours of light use apparently) and the 10-inch keyboard and screen which are pretty useable. There's no built-in 3G modem, but I'm happier using dongles anyway, or perhaps a handset with Joiku on it. Cost - £280+VAT

Some observations - although clearly a lot of netbooks are being sold through mobile operators or mobile retailers like Carphone Warehouse, the general PC channel also seems to be doing a brisk trade. The shop that sold me the Samsung said it was the 12th one that they'd sold that day, plus another lot of MSI Wind netbooks. Apparently, almost nobody asks about integral 3G modems at the moment. Most of the ones in CPW or PC World in the UK are sold with separate dongles, if they bundle them with an MNO contract.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The next step in multiplicity: Multi-IMSI SIM cards

I've written numerous times before about mobile multiplicity

What I haven't really discussed before is the concept of multi-IMSI SIMs. An IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) is essentially equivalent to a mobile "subscription" or "account". It's not the same as the device identifer (IMEI) or a specific number (MSISDN).

Clearly, there are numerous scenarios where people might want a convenient way to have access to multiple MNOs. It could be because of coverage reasons, pricing, roaming, particular service availability, different purposes (eg work vs. personal accounts) and numerous others. Yes, many of the MNOs would prefer you to concentrate all your spend and mobile activity - but I'm talking here about what the user wants.

Generally the current SIM model, for all its security and convenience advantages, mitigates against this. It's difficult to balance a single experience - or payments - across multiple MNOs. There's no easy equivalent to flipping up a laptop lid & seeing 3 different WiFi networks available on the connection manager.

In the past, the only services used were voice and SMS - and so it made sense to have a single service provider, as you had to keep the same number in order for people to reach you. But for other services, there's no reason not to shop around - Internet access from one MNO, perhaps a music download service from another, an enhanced roaming service from a third. It's up to the operators to pitch a convincing bundle - but as phones get cheaper, most users will expect to be able to pick and choose to some degree, even if it just means having two or three separate devices, with one SIM in each.

This is why I refer to the 'Tyranny of the SIM card', especially around areas like data and roaming. The advantages of security start getting outweighed by the disadvantages of lock-in. Yes it's sometimes just a benevolent dictator, but if you take that analogy, then SIM-locked phones are the equivalent of political imprisonment, especially if they are unsubsidised.

The easiest way around this is just to have an unlocked device and SIM-swap, but frankly that's a bit of a pain for most people. The new dual-SIM devices are a more elegant way around the issue, although the range of products supporting this is currently very limited.

There have been various discussions in the past about "soft SIMs" (Intel seemed keen on the concept for laptops, for example), although these have generally been swept away by security concerns (and, behind the scenes, commercial concerns as well).

Multi-IMSI is something that's been mentioned to me quietly over the last 12-18 months, with increasing frequency. It essentially enables multiple accounts/subscriptions to be loaded onto a single (hardware) SIM. Now at present, it's not possible to have them running simultaneously (eg for separate voice and data connections), and you cannot just "download" multiple operator personalities (eg Vodafone + Orange + 3) as most major MNOs only issue their own, single-operator SIMs.

But I've been hearing about some interesting potential applications, in a variety of contexts. A number of SIM suppliers offer the cards, and various network-side companies have methods of working with them.

I also reckon that there are some interesting regulatory and competitive impacts of the technology if it works well: perhaps even the mobile equivalent of an "unbundled loop" in the long term.

I've got some more to say about some specific applications of multi-IMSI, but I'll leave that to a separate post.

Monday, February 09, 2009

MWC Panel Discussion: Surviving the economy in 2009, "Prospering on a Shoestring"

I am moderating a panel discussion next Monday in Barcelona, looking at various tactics and strategies that can be employed by operators to mitigate the worst impacts of the downturn. It is being organised and sponsored by Highdeal, the billing/charging specialist.

Speakers include representatives from HP, SAP, Telekom Slovenia and Mauritius Telecom, plus Highdeal's CTO.

We'll be looking at a broad spread of issues around the challenges being faced in 2009/2010, ranging from industry consolidation and potential delays in capex, through outsourcing and innovative business models. We'll also drill into how services can be priced and packaged to balance the shifting priorities and behaviours of end users, against the limitations and constraints of operators' OSS and charging infrastructure.

I've done a couple of similar sessions with Highdeal in the past, and they're very interactive and cover a lot of general material; there's no big "pitch", just good discussion and (I hope) a bit of gentle disagreement and debate. There's also a reception afterwards with drinks & canapes.

Details and a sign-up form are here.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Reverse engineering carriers' network policies

18 months ago, I predicted that "that operators will need to start to divulge more about their traffic-shaping policy. Otherwise they'll find that other people will reverse-engineer it and do it for them."

So I felt pretty self-congratulatory when I saw that Google had announced its Measurement Labs tools this week, which does that yet.

I've said before that I can't get too exercised by the whole Net Neutrality debate. There are some perfectly valid reasons to prioritise certain traffic (eg emergency services, to take an extreme example). There are also some perfectly invalid reasons to differentiate traffic types, and I am still confident the market will work out when that occurs, and punish the offenders where it hurts - their customers base and revenues.

Put simply - if carriers want to be viewed as honest and trustworthy, they need to be absolutely clear on their network policies and how/when they are enforced. Any covert throttling or articifical quality degradation should be considered contrary to consumer protection laws, and dealt with appropriately.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

My MWC schedule is now full

My thanks to all the various AR people who've been in touch with me over the past few weeks.

My diary in Barcelona is now completely solid with meetings and briefings, so please refrain from additional offers in order to save ourselves wasted time.

(Obvious exceptions made for people who either want to spend money with me, or for invitations to really good parties or dinners)

I'll also be at eComm in San Francisco from 3-5 March, so if you have any representatives there you'd like me to talk to, let me know.

Repeaters vs. femtocells Part 2

I wrote a few months ago that I was hearing renewed noises about repeaters - essentially devices that boost outdoor mobile signals for better indoor coverage. They're generally disliked by many radio-planning traditionalists, especially where they are bought and installed illicitly by individuals.

So it's interesting to see that Nextivity has signed a deal with 3 Ireland for deploying its products for improved indoor coverage.

However, scrutinising what's been written, I don't actually think that this is a case of repeaters vs. femtos - it seems much more likely that this deployment scenario is about providing 3G coverage to places in rural Ireland that don't have DSL or cable, and which therefore couldn't support fixed broadband anyway.

Not only that, but for houses in remote districts - especially if they have thick stone walls - there is clearly likely to be a problem with decent indoor coverage from the normal macro network, plus the signal attenuation would effectively reduce the overall capacity of the base station.

It will be interesting to see if the solution is also used by 3 Ireland in urban areas, where the density of users and complicated urban propagation characteristics might make the overall RF planning more complex. (I also realised I missed an announcement a month or so ago about a similar solution being used in T-Mobile Netherlands retail stores)

Monday, February 02, 2009

Yes, handset WiFi is important - but dodgy surveys don't help make the case

Like many smartphone owners, I use WiFi quite regularly - although it's almost entirely for use at home. I find that iPhone users tend to be the most WiFi-savvy group, especially if they have come from the ranks of Mac laptop owners.

That said, I generally don't use WiFi hotspots on my phone - if I'm at a hotel or airport, I'd rather use my laptop if I've got 30-60 minutes. And if it's only 5 minutes, I'm certainly not going to sign up & pay money via a small-screen browser.

The solution is to have various automated auto-login options for devices, either via some for of embedded client (yes, even UMA has a role here), or an aftermarket app like DeviceScape's or Boingo's. On the other hand, this happens so infrequently, I'm certainly not prepared to have a separate paid-hotspot subscription for my phone - I don't even have one for my laptop, which would certainly be a higher priority.

Over time, this will continue to evolve, especially given roaming rates and the desire of operators to start offloading traffic from their macro networks.

On featurephones, it's pretty pointless having WiFi for all sorts of reasons - data consumption is almost zero, so the offload argument doesn't fly in particular.

In general though, I'm definitely in favour of smartphones having WiFi - it's quite possibly the case why the BlackBerry Storm isn't doing as well as many hoped, especially outside the US.

But what I do have a problem with is dodgy surveys to try and drum up interest. Honestly DeviceScape - what's the point in surveying your own user base (ie loyal WiFi smartphone users) and asking them if they like WiFi, and want it in more phones? Quite frankly, I'm curious about the 14% of people who *don't* want more WiFi in handsets, given the bias inherent in the survey base.

This just underscore a point I've made before. Any survey which is clearly being done specifically for PR purposes is generally not worth the paper it's written on. My standard expectation is that "90% of respondents don't know what they're talking about, and the other 10% lie". And that's where it's actually a representative sample, rather than "we asked people we could find cheaply and easily". In political polls, there is a branch of science called "psephology" that analyses election results. That's also an imprecise area - but at least it's treated with some level of rigorous oversight.

Surveys which are being done for real, internal, management information and product development purposes, but which have some data of external interest as well, can be a different story. Even then, you should always look carefully at the selection of the sample, and the "neutrality" of the question wording, as well as the number of responses.

Maybe there should be something like a "Technology User Survey Council" which sets down best-practice recommendations for sampling and questionnaires?

UK mobile broadband market slowing down

Sometimes not all the most interesting news is available online. I get the paper edition of the UK mobile trade magazine, Mobile Today - and a front page article from a week ago doesn't seem to have made it to the website.

The article is quite short, but the headline states baldly "Mobile Broadband Sales Flat". It states that growth in dongle sales have dropped off since the beginning of the year - presumably a mix of post-Xmas sales lull, coupled with economy-related concerns.

Fitting in with my view that there's only a limited pool of people wanting ongoing monthly contracts, the publication quotes an anonymous Vodafone person saying "Dongle sales are really just coming from prepay now." There is no mention at all of embedded-3G notebooks.

Clearly, the UK is one of the more mature markets for dongles, plus it's also one of the hardest-hit by the economic crisis (despite the protestations of our hapless prime minister). It's also been one of the most prominent in shifting to prepay - I was in Spain last week and tried to get a prepaid dongle, but none of the operators sold them. So it's perhaps not surprising that my domestic market is at the sharp end of any weakness in mobile broadband contract uptake.

However, I suspect that this will be mirrored elsewhere - although mobile broadband will continue to grow in user numbers in 2009, it won't be accelerating as hard as it has done up until now. I'm also expecting it to put further pressure on prices - although perhaps the silver lining in the cloud is that it could mean that radio network congestion risk starts to be pushed out into the future.