Podcast: US Wireless Carrier Landscape

As a frequent traveler, I’m amazed that each country seems to have it’s oddities when it comes to mobile carriers. In some countries, mobile voice and mobile data is very cheap while in others just accross the border, the world looks quite different. Debi Jones of MobileJones.com and Mediaslaves has been nice enough to do the first in a series of podcasts discussing the state of wireless in different countries. Debi lives in California, so the US mobile landscape is the center of our discussions:

Part 1:

  • Coexistence of GSM and CDMA in the US
  • HSDPA deployment
  • Closed down CDMA handsets
  • The Nokia vs. Qualcomm battle
  • The Korean CDMA/UMTS situation
  • Price of wireless data

Podcast, MP3, 26 mins, 12 MB

Part 2:

  • Muni Wifi and combination of Cellular and Wifi Data plans
  • Wireless traveling in the US
  • A hotspot detector (check it out at CanaryWireless.com)
  • Wireless Instant Messaging, Yahoo Go!, Skype and Trillian
  • Verizon’s Walled Garden
  • Mobile phone multitasking on Nokia N-Series phones
  • Mobile phone design

Podcast, MP3, 28 mins, 13 MB

No Wireless Killer Applications without a Killer Environment

For quite
some time now everybody in wireless has been trying to find „the“ killer application.
It is hoped that such an application will bring the breakthrough for the
wireless Internet to be as successful as the PC based fixed line Internet we
know today. While reading a book on the history of the Google, I realized that
it took much more than just applications for the big breakthrough of Google and
the Internet in general. In my opinion, even the early Internet offered an
ideal environment for both creators and consumers which in the end triggered its
own mass market success. The same is needed for the wireless Internet. However,
the worlds of the fixed and the wireless Internet could not be more different.
Here’s why:

1. The
Creator Side:
The Internet as we know it today was shaped by creative people,
many of them being students at universities all over the world. Students have
two advantages over people working for companies. First, they are not pressured
by quarterly results and business plans but they can use their time to
investigate and develop whatever comes to their mind and whatever they find
interesting. Second, no business model crosses their mind when being creative.
Many of today’s big Internet companies such as Google, Yahoo and Excite started
off like this. This is not happening for the mobile Internet for a simple
reason: At Universities, access to the Internet has always been free for
students as it is part of the universities’ infrastructures. The mobile
Internet, however, is not freely available to students and academics in most
cases. Hence, not many of them go mobile.

2. The User
Going back 10 to 15 years in time, services that form the core of today’s
Internet such as the world wide web, FTP, HTTP and eMail were used by academics
and students for their research. Search engines such as Google, Excite,
Altavista and others were created mainly to serve this clientele. On the
wireless side however, students and researchers are not the users as the infrastructure
is not provided to them for their work. In effect, this means that a vital part
of the user base is missing. As a consequence, an important part of the feedback
loop is missing that inspires creators to expand and develop new services.

3. The
Service Side:
The Internet became a big success as most services were free for
people at schools and universities to try them and use them over a long period
of time. Services such as search, eMail and web browsing were free, as was the
use of the network. This inspired people to try them. Over time, they became accustomed
to using these services and started to appreciate the added value they brought
to both their professional and private lifes. Again, the way things happen in
the mobile Internet is quite different. While many services are also free, such
as the mobile portals and services of Yahoo, Google, Shozu and others, access to the network
is not. Therefore, potential users are not even tempted to try out these
services as from their point of view, they can’t use the services for free and
in most cases have no idea what it would cost them if they tried.

4. The
Over the past two decades, the personal computer became an integral
tool for students and researchers for both offline applications such as word
processing and calculus tools, as well as for online Internet applications. In
the middle of the 1990’s, computers became cheap enough for home use. At the
same time, people started to see the value of being connected and of being
online and thus they also became willing to spend money for Internet access at
home. Thus, an Internet connection became a logical extension for a PC at home.
At this point the Internet left its free islands, i.e. the Universities, and
became an everyday tool in people’s homes as well. Yet again, things are very
different in the mobile Internet. Here, the mobile phone is the equivalent to
the PC at home. The advantage for the mobile domain is that most people already
have a personal mobile phone which is data capable. On the other hand, the
Internet is not a „natural“ extension of the main use case of a mobile phone,
i.e. voice telephony. Instead, it creates a new range of possibilities which
are not directly linked with the initial purpose of the device. While the
transformation from offline PC usage to online usage was a natural process,
moving from the use of a mobile phone for voice telephony to using it as a
device for Internet data services is a rupture in the evolution which seems to
be hard to overcome.

So where
does that leave us?
It is obvious that even in its early days the Internet was
not free. Somebody had to pay for the computers and the local infrastructure,
and somebody had to pay the telecom companies to build and operate the wide
area networks. Universities are either funded by nations or by tuition fees if
operated privately. While it was accepted that Internet connections are a vital
resource for research and academia, the wireless Internet is still seen as a
luxury good. I whished this attitude would change to create a similar ‘creator –
user feedback loop
‘ to kick start the wireless Internet in a similar way as what
has happened for the fixed line world.  

So where
to take the money from?
Well, I guess it’s already been spent on other things.
Just imagine: Five years ago the German government alone got 50 billion euros
as a result of the 3G frequency auctions. Paid in cash!!! Only 10 percent of
that, 5 billion, spread over 10 years would mean that there would be 500
million euros in Germany
alone each year that could be invested in research and development of wireless
technologies, services and applications. That’s 1000 euros for 500.000 students
to buy hardware and network access every year. I am not even sure if there are
that many students in Germany who’d want to benefit from this. Staggering numbers, just imagine what the
number would be when you count all the license fees paid in Europe and over the world. So what happened to the money? It was used to reduce
the huge budget deficit instead of being partially reinvested into the future.
Well done, German government and others, that’s how we keep our technical

Some figures on Mobile Operator OPEX

Sometimes I find it really strange that a large part of wireless networks is everything but wireless. The only part which is really "wireless" is the radio channel between the user and the cell tower. Behind the base station data and voice is transferred over copper or fiber cables, or microwave links in some cases.

Kevin has come up with an interesting whitepaper on the evolution of the transmission network behind the base stations which is required to adapt the networks to the increasing demand for mobile data. Among many other things the following figures were quite interesting to me, especially when combined with an earlier post of mine on data usage of a mobile PC user and potential revenue generated per base station:

  • Cost of Running the Network: The percentage for running the network from the total operational expenditure (OPEX) is around 30%. On the other hand, 43% of the money goes to Marketing, Sales and Administration… (see figure 2 in the whitepaper). I wonder if (and where) the salaries of the various top executives (CEO, CTO, CMO,…) are included in the OPEX!? 😉
  • Backhaul Line Rental: On page 4, the whitepaper says that the line rental for a 2 MBit/s E-1 link used for most UMTS base stations today is about € 250.- per month. This amounts to about 1/3 of the 30% spent from the total OPEX on network operation.
  • Cost for Technical Personnel: The costs for technical personnel to run the network amounts to another third of the network operation costs. This is 10% of the overall OPEX. Not very much compared to the 43% for Marketing, Sales and Administration…

HSDPA backhaul over ADSL

Kevin Evans has put a post on his blog on HSDPA backhaul over ADSL. At first, it seems like a pretty good idea he says but has some second thoughts:

Kevin says Internet Service Providers (ISP) would probably be less than happy to connect HSDPA ADSL links to their  backbone. I agree! Cells where HSDPA is used heavily will pretty much use most of the bandwidth of an ADSL link for a considerable time per day. Consequently, such links would substantially increase the load of the ISPs ADSL backbone.

He then goes on to say that the alternative for mobile operators is to do their own ADSL backhauling. He thinks this is also not a good idea due to having to build an overlay network for backhauling next to the E-1s currently used for real time voice traffic. But why is it such a bad idea for operators to put their own ‘mini’ DSLAMs in central offices and have a little fiber there for backhauling? There is cost whatever you do, E-1, microwave, etc. so why not ADSL?

Some operators might have already decided to do this (speculation on my part). O2 Germany for example has said that they want to become an integrated fixed- and mobile telecommunication company, providing both high speed fixed line Internet access via DSL and high speed mobile Internet access via HSDPA. If they decide to build their own ADSL network, they can use it for both purposes.

As an alternative, Kevin suggests to use Ethernet for carrying both real time voice traffic and non real time background and streaming traffic generated by web browsing, podcast downloads, etc. But what about the distance you can cover with commercial Ethernet equipment today over phone cables?

When I first read about HSDPA over ADSL backhaul it immediately made sense to me due to the fact that ADSL has become a cheap technology to bridge larger distances than what is possible with other technologies. Have new long distance Ethernet technologies caught up in the meantime?

Whatever operators decide, I hope they decide quickly as HSDPA over 2 MBit/s E-1s is not going to make people happy.

It’s time for some mobile privacy!

I am sure that not even one person in a thousand has ever attempted to manage web browser cookies on the PC. I have to admit that I’ve been one of those 999 until recently. However, leaving the browser on its own to collect and send cookies as requested by web sites leaves the door wide open to advertisment companies and other institutions who love nothing more than to spy on where users are going in the web and what they are looking at. So I’ve set my cookie options in Firefox to only allow cookies from a few select web sites so I don’t have to log in everytime I go there. All other cookies are automatically deleted whenever I close the browser.

In the mobile world I would like to do the same thing. However, Opera for S60 has only very limited cookie privacy options. One can either delete all or none. Not good for me as I would like to keep some cookies like for example the one that keeps me logged into my mobile Flickr account.

Time for some action Opera!

French book on UMTS in its 3rd edition

Silently, my fellow co-worker Pierre Lescuyer has updated his excellent book on UMTS called "Réseaux 3G" (3G networks) and the 3rd edition is now available in French. The new edition contains among other additions new chapters on HSDPA, HSUPA, IMS and MMS. Previous editions are also available in English and German.

Very well done, Pierre, congratulations!

Is Yahoo the end of Three’s Walled Garden?

A couple of days ago Yahoo and Three, a UMTS operator in a number of countries in Europe, Asia and Australia, announced a partnership to bring Yahoo services to Three’s customer base. Some news organizations like here, here and here are already speculating that this might mean the end for the walled garden strategy of Three.

I am a little bit more cautious in this regard as the original announcement just mentions that access to the Internet will be possible via a transcoding service for web pages delivered by Yahoo. Well, that’s a step forward but it’s still kind of a garden with a hedge around. As long as someone only wants to use the phone to browse the web via the mobile phone that’s probably o.k. but don’t dream that this offer will be useful in combination with a notebook.

I think this could be a win-win deal for both Three and Yahoo. Yahoo definitely needs such deals with operators in order to get their software pre-installed on mobile phones which is a precondition to reach an audience beyond early adopters who are willing and capable to install software on a mobile phone or type in URLs with the keypad in the mobile web browser to get to Yahoo’s services. Three on the other hand will surely welcome the attention the Yahoo brand will bring to its network.

For Yahoo, I think this is an important step in order to catch up with Google, who’s partnered with T-Mobile recently for its Web’n Walk mobile Internet access.

Great stuff, the mobile Internet is slowly tacking shape for the masses! In the next step the hedges and prices have to come down.

1% Makes or Breaks Usability – Especially in Mobile!

A recent personal experience is yet another proof of how even small features can make or break usability in any product, no matter how good it is. I am away from home quite often so mobile technologies, the Internet and VoIP help me a lot to stay in touch. Since Skype has started to offer video telephony, things have improved even more. However, there was a catch.

We’ve had web cams for quite a while now but we didn’t use them a lot as my better half always felt uncomfortable with that "eye" (lens) staring at her even when not used. So the web cam was always unplugged and stowed away, usually not used again for a long time as it is just too much effort to position the camera and plug it in again before a call. Now Logitech has found a solution to the problem. One of their latest web cam models, the QuickCam Fusion features a lid that can be opened and closed to reveal or hide the lens. A small feature, but it makes Skype’s video service finally usable for us! No more camera positioning and plugging. After the call, the lid is closed and the "eye" is no longer staring at you! Strangely enough, Logitech doesn’t even mention this feature in their production description. Are they aware what they have done?

Now let’s take the lesson into the mobile domain: One of the small things that break the mobile Internet experience for most people is the fact that they have no idea how much it will cost them if they open their mobile phone’s web browser to go to the operator’s portal. Not a single person I asked who’s not regularly using the mobile web could answer this question. It’s unlikely this can be solved anytime soon, no matter how much mobile operators spend on advertising.

A different solution has to be found and actually, it is quite simple: How about having a button on the phone that automatically starts the web browser and directs the user to a pre-programmed page on the operator’s portal? Agreed, this already exists. However, most people hate this button because they feel it’s dangerous as they have no idea how much a press of that button will cost them. This is similar to the fear of the "eye" staring at you. So the only way to take that fear away is to make a subset of the portal free of charge. Sure, operators want to make money but to enter the shop (the portal) must be free and people must be made aware that entering the portal is free.

P.S.: Dear operators, once you do this, do this right! That means: Make the button free of charge for roamers as well!