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Thursday, October 29, 2009

The "Social web" - does anyone actually want it?

Is this another example of The Emperor's New Clothes?

I've lost count of the number of pitches I've heard recently along the lines of "a single client to manage all your social network connections", or "a feed of updates via homescreen widgets" and so on.

I've also often been bombarded with the hideous phrase "social web", which I'm starting to think is utterly cringe-worthy, and ties in with a lot of nonsense talked about "social graph" and the farcical notion that you might be able to link together all your various communications channels.

I am genuinely unsure why anyone would want to link their various social networks or contact lists / directories, or tie together their calling and messaging patterns.

Personally, I work incredibly hard to make sure that I keep Facebook and LinkedIn almost totally exclusive. I'm happy that my Skype friend list has minimal overlap with Yahoo contacts. (Sidenote: on average Skype users have<10 contacts, but they're very "intimate").

Like most people, I'm happy with multi-tasking and compartmentalising my communications channels. I don't meet or talk to people who find they have a problem with fragmented social networks or phonebooks. And I certainly don't want *anyone* to be able to derive collated intelligence from across all of my different ways of interacting with friends, clients, acquaintances and so on. Fragmentation is safer and more comfortable.

I suspect that the only people that only really want this are aggregators and/or operators slightly irked by being usurped by Facebook et al. Plus some of the "social media connectivity freaks", who are generally just those in the social media industry itself, or its immediate neighbours like PR and politics and entertainment.

I reckon there's a near-100% overlap with the type of people people who think Twitter is important, ie a very loud and very small group who like shouting at each other repeatedly via 100 different media. The same group that sit in conferences obsessed with back-channels and Macs with Tweet-deck or whatever else they're playing with this week.

But I've seen no evidence that normal people identify with the types of problem that the "social web" attempts to cure. It's possible I'm projecting my own prejudices here, but I don't think so.

Edit: One specific problem will be that of de-duplication of messages. I already have 50%+ of personal emails being Facebook notifications, as well as the little notification icons on Facebook.com itself. So if I also had them replicated to my phone's homescreen, I'd be getting them in triplicate. Wonderful. (And no, I wouldn't turn off the email notifications as I want them on my PC as well as phones - yes, phones *plural*)

Back to low-power GSM: licence exempt?

I'm at eComm in Amsterdam - and currently listening to a very interesting presentation from James Body (historically with Truphone but wearing a different hat today).

A few years ago, I wrote about the UK's low-power GSM auctions, and the subsequent slow-burn deployment of various GSM picocell-based services from companies like Teleware. It's never really lived up to its promise, though.

I hadn't realised this before, but apparently it is now legal to deploy low-power GSM in the guard band in the Netherlands, *licence-free*. I'm not sure exactly how this is implemented, as presumably there needs to be some sort of coordination to manage interference. Maybe you act as "your own MVNO"? One of the audience reported that the Dutch military was already using this option to build their own mini GSM networks on their bases and ships.

More interesting still - apparently this approach conceivably be rolled out Europe-wide. Worth watching....

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sharing multiple mobile broadband connections - possible already

About a week ago, I wrote about the exciting possibility for the new WiFi Direct technology to enable sharing of multiple mobile devices' connections via WiFi. I also noted that this would further help to reduce the historic link between "subscription" (ie SIM) and "identity", which I have long felt is one of those areas where MNOs have taken their role for granted unrealistically.

I wrote "I'll bet one of the most popular will be some form of bandwidth-sharing or load-balancing between multiple phones or other products. I can think of numerous "reasonable" use cases here, eg de facto user-driven "national roaming" to work around coverage blackspots. I'm sure there will be some cool connection-sharing iPhone or Android apps, as well as ones for PCs"

Well, I was wrong on one score - the first connection-sharing app is for Symbian S60, not Apple or Android. I saw a presentation by Joiku this morning about their new JoikuBoost Beta, which does precisely what I had been talking about, multiplexing together multiple data connections, on multiple devices, potentially via multiple operators, and creating one super-fast WiFi virtual hotspot. This can either be open or secured. The technology could also be used by a single device to effectively combine two or more separate HSPA connections (or even HSPA and LTE and/or WiMAX I guess, if devices with suitable OS's become available).

Given what I wrote yesterday about doubling up HSPA channels to compete with LTE... well, it looks like a radio network standard might not even be necessary. Now I think about it, this is even a good way to combine two separate frequency bands - have one phone on 2.1GHz and one on (say) 900MHz, and you've suddenly got the perfect indoor/outdoor solution without all that cumbersome messing about with handoff.

The ramifications of this type of technology are huge - I can see it eventually enabling users to create their own ad-hoc shared meshes, bridging operators, frequencies, radio technologies, tariffing plans and so on. There's no reason that it shouldn't incorporate dongles and MiFi-type devices with Linux or other OS's as well.

Not so much "dumb pipe" as "dumb aether". I think this could be truly disruptive in time.

I think there's probably 100 enhancements you could do in software to optimise, set up groups, manage power, share costs equitably between users and so forth. There's also some fairly horrible things this could do to operator business models - although it potentially also enables congestion problems to be mitigated by the cross-operator load balancing functions. In a way, it's software-defined radio at the application layer. Exciting/scary stuff....

Monday, October 26, 2009

HSPA in 2.6GHz?

I'm wondering.....

... if LTE looks like it might be delayed, for example because of poorer-than-expected performance, difficult optimisation, continued wrangling over voice/SMS implementation, or because operators don't want to be strong-armed into IMS...

... then does it start to make sense to put HSPA/HSPA+ into the 2.6GHz bands, especially given the flurry of upcoming auctions in 2010/2011?

After all, HSPA is a "known quantity" in terms of radio deployment and operation, it's not too difficult to add another band to existing handset platforms, and it's got voice built-in out of the box.

Let's imagine a situation in markets with existing consumer use of mobile broadband, say Europe or Australia or parts of Asia. Now imagine the end of 2012 - there's a lot of 2.6GHz spectrum that's now owned by MNOs. LTE still has teething problems for whatever reason... and in any case, there's several hundred million PCs, dongles, smartphones and other gizmos running on HSPA, albeit only on existing bands like 2.1GHz. I've got to believe that a 2.1/2.6GHz HSPA+ netbook on sale for Xmas 2012 is going to be cheaper and more reliable than a 2.1GHz HSPA + 2.6GHz LTE one - and with broadly similar performance and network efficiency.

On the same theme, do any readers familiar with the innards of UMTS specifications think it might be possible to tweak R9 or R10 HSPA to support flexible channel size, from 5MHz-only to something more like LTE's range of options.

Friday, October 23, 2009

New personal phone - might finally get around to getting an iPhone

A real life case study in handset decision critera & thought process: Me.

This is my genuine thought process about choosing a phone. Probably not typical, but nonethless a realworld example.

At the moment, I mainly use two handsets

- A SonyEricsson C902 for my personal use, billed to D Bubley esq, and only used for voice & SMS (plus originally for camera, although the images are worse than my old S-E K800i from a couple of years ago), on O2

- An unlocked Nokia E71 for work use, used solely for web, email and VoIP. Currently mostly using a 3UK prepaid SIM, although occasionally other SIMs if I'm travelling. It's billed to Disruptive Analysis.

I also occasionally use other devices I have around on loan or that I get through other channels, usually with the 3UK data SIM. I've also got a 3G dongle & a MiFi.

My personal S-E is on a contract coming up for renewal. Also, the software is very buggy, it keeps hanging during calls and occasionally losing inbound speech while a call is live. It's a pain.

Question: what do I replace it with? My normal preference is for my personal handset to be a featurephone, not a smartphone. I have no personal interest in downloading apps at all - I only use download mobile software for work reasons. If I wasn't in the industry, I'd just want a decent browser and email client, and maybe a mapping app.

... however. I'm quite tempted by the idea of a personal iPhone. I like the UI, even just for scrolling through the phonebook and camera album. And I might resuscitate my old & broken iPod music on my PC. And maybe... just maybe... I might try some free apps (I don't have an iTunes account, so I won't be buying anything).

Otherwise, the only appealing options are things like the new widescreen LG Chocolate, the Samsung Jet and maybe the Nokia 6700. The S-E Satio looks tempting and has a camera with a xenon flash, but unfortunately I've lost faith in S-E after the C902, and anyway it's a smartphone so not what I'm looking for. At some point I may play with a BlackBerry, but that's as a replacement for the work E71, not person.

For whatever reason, the HTC Hero and the various Moto devices have no appeal to me right now.

So to be honest, I'll probably get the iPhone - because I'm fairly sure that the "smartness" won't get in the way of me using it as a basic device. My main question is whether the 3Gs if worth an extra £100 over the basic model - essentially a question about whether the camera's any better, as I don't care at all about either video or speech control.

Anyone have any alternative suggestions for a non-smartphone with a good camera, ideally Xenon flash, which looks cool & has a decent browsing experience?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

LTE needed immediately!.... er, or else what?

Interesting story in today's Fierce Wireless that apparently LTE is needed urgently in 2010 to avert a capacity crunch for mobile broadband.

Well, I guess that means we're on for a crunch, then. I'm not expecting to see any major deployments of LTE in Europe until 2012, with no real massmarket availability of devices and coverage until 2014-2015.

In practical terms, the lack of devices, lack of spectrum auctions and early-stage nature of the network technology (plus the perennial "what about voice?" question) means that:

- Expect to see even more emphasis on offload to Wifi and femtocells (I'm currently working with Telco 2.0 on a specific and detailed look at managed offload, more details to come soon)
- Some operators are going to start giving serious consideration to putting HSPA/HSPA+ in 2.6GHz instead of waiting for LTE and/or will be pushing harder on 900MHz refarming. Places like Germany even have spare 1800MHz around.
- Lots of opportunities for HSPA optimisation in terms of radio network planning and tweaking
- Various attempts to keep a lid on traffic volumes, with new tariff plans based around time-of-day and so forth.
- More sensible pricing for data tariffs that aren't based solely on marginal costs
- Possibly some more opportunities for WiMAX in those tempting unused bits of TDD spectrum
- Some interesting stuff around sideloading, in an effort to get people to use local content rather than the web... maybe "free 8GB of movies on a memory card with this phone"
- Various attempts to compress web images and other traffic from the Novarra's of this world. All great, but unless you have a robust solution on the client side as well as the server (and that means PCs) it's just rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

We'll also hear a lot of talk about application-level filtering ("you can't do video over 3G") instead of flatrate plans, but frankly a lot of that is just hot air. It's rather tricky to go to market with a proposition which states "it's just like ADSL. But you can't look at that funny clip that your friend has posted on Facebook".

The fact remains that most of the 3G traffic in Europe still comes from PCs and iPhones, neither of which the operators have any real control over in terms of application or, critically, user expectation of openness.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

WiFi Direct - helping to break the link between SIM and personal identity

One of the claims that the mobile industry likes to perpetuate is that SIM cards (and subscriptions) are "personal" and therefore position cellular operators as ideal providers of identity management services.

I've long thought that there were lots of assumptions about the one phone = one SIM = one person view of the world that were extremely fragile. Most obviously, it's very common for one person to have multiple SIMs, but that's not a particularly critical issue in most cases. Having multiple "identities per person" is pretty valuable to most users, anyway.

More interesting is the opposite problem - multiple people per "identity". This has long been the case in fixed PSTN and broadband, where the basic subscription unit is a "household" not a person from the operator's view - perhaps with the "bill payer" identified as a named individual. The rest of the household members are generally anonymous, despite years of attempting to offer various family services to help distinguish the bill payer from their spouse or children or flatmates.

The same thing is happening in mobile. There have been fixed cellular routers for some time, albeit achieving limited popularity. But two new developments have the potential to create a massmarket disconnect between SIM and individual:

- MiFi-type devices, as sold by companies like Novatel and Huawei, which act as "mobile hotspots" for multiple users connecting via WiFi, without any form of personal identification. In theory there are mechanisms for tracking back individuals via WiFi MAC address, but in reality that's very complicated, especially for shared devices like PCs.

- the new WiFi Direct specifications from the WiFi Alliance, which essentially make peer-to-peer WiFi easier to use and more like Bluetooth-on-steroids. This will enable adhoc connections between devices, and I'll bet one of the most popular will be some form of bandwidth-sharing or load-balancing between multiple phones or other products. I can think of numerous "reasonable" use cases here, eg de facto user-driven "national roaming" to work around coverage blackspots. I'm sure there will be some cool connection-sharing iPhone or Android apps, as well as ones for PCs. Yes, there will be a ton of security issues, but I bet some could be solved via social-network reputation techniques (eg "share my connection only with my Facebook friends, and friends-of-friends")

If you have 10 random people in a room collectively & collaboratively sharing 5 bridged WiFi-to-cellular accesses, you can pretty much forget about an notion of individual identity being traceable through the SIM. Add in anonymous prepay and it's even trickier.

Monday, October 12, 2009

One scenarios where femtos could be faster than WiFi

A commonly-asked question around femtocells is the question of what advantage they confer to data devices, in the case where both the device and the broadband gateway also have WiFi access. Is there any advantage in keeping the data on the femto connection, given that many millions of people are now routinely using WiFi set-ups with security keys & SSIDs, without much hassle or confusion?

I've been thinking about this, as it also fits with some work I've been doing on offloading 3G cellular traffic, and the role of fixed operators (DSL/cable) in providing additional capabilities or grooming services, going from purely independent offload, to a more collaborative "managed offload" scenario where the fixed and mobile operators work together, even if they are not sister companies.

One scenario I can envisage is this: a homeowner has a relatively low-tier home broadband service, say a 4Mbit/s connection, although the local copper could support 10Mbit/s. Now, consider if the user purchased a mobile broadband service offering "up to 7.2Mbit/s", for which the operator also supplied a femtocell in the hope of offloading some of the traffic generated while the user is at home.

There is is an argument that attaching the 7Mbit/s femto to a 4MBit/s ADSL line is actually against consumer protection law - the customer is legitimately paying money for a mobile broadband service which, at least theoretically, should be able to get to 7Mbit/s. If he uses his laptop or smartphone at 3am next to the cell tower, he should be able to attain peak speeds. But with the femto, it ceases to be even theoretically possible, because the backhaul won't support it. Potentially, the connection would *slower* than if the user just unplugged the femto and went back to the macro coverage.

It's not really the operator's fault - the customer has chosen to have a low-spec ADSL service. But the experience is unsatisfactory nevertheless.

However, now consider that the mobile operator pays a small sum to the ADSL provider to "over-provision" capacity to a certain IP address range (ie the femto gateway). Perhaps $2 per month to permit bursts of headroom up to a total 8Mbit/s, as long as total volumes don't exceed 2GB.

Everyone is a winner in this scenario - the user gets blazing-fast connections via the femto, which actually perform better than his own WiFi. The mobile operator offloads more traffic & has a customer with more loyalty. And the fixed operator gets a bit of extra revenue which pretty much goes straight to the bottom line.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Amazon Kindle 2: Does this herald the arrival of "dumb roaming pipes"

Reading between the lines of the Amazon Kindle 2 announcement, it seems that Amazon may have worked out a method for solving one of mobile application and device developers' biggest problems: how to avoid hiring an army of lawyers and commercial personnel to put in place deals with 100+ mobile operators around the world, and also avoid aggregators that want to take yet another slice of revenue. It might also have enabled AT&T to invent a new business model - servicing end-users resident outside its own geographic footprint.

My understanding is that Kindle 2's (initially at least) will ship from Amazon's US website and operation - and will have AT&T-registered SIMs. This means that a UK customer will purchase the device and have it imported (including paying customs charges) and that it will work on one or more UK mobile networks automatically.

Details are still a bit opaque, but as far as I can see, Amazon seems to have persuaded AT&T to provide it with a fully-loaded cost for supporting non-US Kindle users. I would imagine that AT&T has sufficient clout to get some quite good international data wholesale rates in general, although whether it has negotiated a special arrangement for the Kindle seems less likely. Amazon has probably worked out some good compression mechanisms (one source I've read suggests foreign Kindles won't download images in newspapers, although that might be for copyright reasons).

I would also imagine that AT&T really won't want to disclose its wholesale rates that are behind this. But if somebody buys a book for $10, Amazon squeezes it down to a 1 MB of data, and the roaming cost to AT&T in the UK or Spain or wherever is $0.30, then clearly the numbers all work out nicely as long as they're kept in the background.

This approach will likely have upsides and downsides. Downsides will probably involve slightly cumbersome ordering and delivery from the US site to an overseas destination, plus issues around customer support, as well as possibly some interesting tax/VAT implications where books are bought "in the US" but delivered onto a technically-US registered device while it is "roaming" in the user's home country. I'll leave that one to the lawyers to deal with. A representative of a UK operator that I met at the ITU Forum yesterday seemed a bit annoyed with the whole thing - as if Amazon had behind their backs and come up with a non-optimal solution.

The upsides for Amazon are clear - far fewer headaches in dealing with multiple operators around the world: they've outsourced all their contractual headaches to AT&T. The prospect of working on 100 global MVNO deals must have had them tearing their hair out. Not only that, this means that but the nature of roaming should mean the Kindle gets better coverage, as it can potentially use any or all of the 3G networks in a given country, as long as AT&T has a roaming relationship. This means that AT&T can firstly shop around for the best wholesale rate and update its preferred partner list on an ongoing basis - and secondly, that coverage should be much better than one provided via an in-country MVNO deal.

Now, this approach only works because the Kindle is a low data-volume device. It would be much harder to justify the bundled roaming charges for video or even hi-res colour images, so I'm not expecting to see a YouTube tablet or similar following the same model. But I can think of a whole range of "mobile narrowband" devices that can benefit from "mobile broadband" networks - falling roaming costs per MB could mean a whole host of opportunities.

It's rather ironic that while all the operators have focused on Internet "over the top" players, it might actually be their international peers that become the real threat, using ever-cheaper "roaming pipes" without paying for local infrastructure or spectrum, and taking a much greater share of customer value.

The one fly in the ointment is perhaps regulatory - will national authorities really be happy with AT&T "exporting" SIMs to users in countries in which it doesn't have a licence to operate?

[Caveat - much of this is written based on limited real information and supposition, as there's a real lack of clarity. It's possible that the situation may be clarified or change over time. I'll try & update if that happens]

EDIT - one additional thought here. How does Net Neutrality and policy management apply to data roaming users, exactly? Presumably any restrictions on applications etc would need to be in the wholesale arrangement between the host and the visiting operators - I really don't know whether an operator can apply the same T's and C's to visitors as to domestic customers who have signed individual contracts. For example, I've never tried using VoIP on a device with an 3UK SIM while roaming on a network which blocks its own users...

EDIT 2 - Interesting that Amazon is already advertising the UK Kindle on prominent UK websites (I saw it on a political blog I follow). Going through to the Amazon site and clicking through to the UK T's and C's yielded this:

Important Product Information for Your Country
  • Your international shipment is subject to customs duties, import taxes and other fees levied by the destination country. We will show you these fees upon checkout. Learn more
  • Kindle ships with a U.S. power adapter and a micro-USB cable for charging your Kindle via a computer USB port. The U.S. power adapter supports voltages between 100V - 240V.
  • You can transfer personal documents to your Kindle via USB for free at anytime. Service fees for transferring personal documents via Whispernet are currently $.99 per megabyte. Learn more
  • Wireless download times can vary based on 3G or EDGE/GPRS coverage, signal strength and file size.
  • Kindle books, newspapers, and magazine are currently priced and sold in United States dollars
  • Blogs and the experimental web browser are currently not available for your country
The US power adapter is obviously going to be an annoyance for UK customers. But more interesting is the figure for the "personal documents transfer". If I was a normal US AT&T subscriber with a data card or smartphone, I'd certainly be annoyed if I had to pay retail roaming charges of more than $0.99 per MB when travelling to the UK in future....

EDIT 3 - just joining some dots here. Thanks to Eelco for the comment about the KPN/Garmin deal . The interesting thing there is that it references a company in the M2M space I've come across before, called Jasper Wireless, which hates to be referred to in the same sentence as the term "data MVNO", but which nevertheless has a platform which looks like a value-added MVNO aggregation service for data devices. By a curious coincidence, Jasper announced a deal with AT&T a few months ago with the even more coincidental phrase "The companies expect to connect the first emerging device under the agreement in the coming months".

If I'm right, then it's possibly Jasper that's done the heavy-lifting around negotiating data roaming rates for M2M products like the Kindle 2 - which I suspect may well be less-expensive than plans aimed normal smartphones or mobile broadband PCs. The downside may be that it only has one partner per territory, so the hopes of multi-operator roaming and better coverage might not prove realistic.