A lot is happening in the world of mobile cellular communication these days. Service providers are testing new technologies such as Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMAX) and Long Term Evolution (LTE). The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) is auctioning the 700 MHz spectrum in January 2008. Even Google is getting involved with their Android announcement. It is difficult to assess which events are important industry milestones and even harder to determine where we are heading.
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Important Milestones in 2007
Here are some of the more important events in 2007 that we will look back upon as significant milestones.
On June 29th, Apple and AT&T launched the much-anticipated iPhone. Apple’s elegant design set a new standard for mobile devices. But Apple’s retail relationship with the customer was equally innovative. Apple allowed iPhone customers to purchase and provision the phone directly from Apple, thereby simplifying the purchase experience and establishing a customer billing relationship all at the same time.
On September 25th, Sprint, Intel, Motorola and Clearwire demonstrated a live trial of mobile WiMAX in Chicago. The trial provided download speeds of 2.5 Mbps and upload speeds of 1.5 Mbps. These speeds are significantly faster than current mobile data services and will dramatically improve the mobile cellular user experience. Sprint intends to deploy mobile WiMAX service in 2008.
On November 5th, Google and an alliance of more than 30 other companies, announced Android, an open platform for mobile devices, and the Open Handset Alliance. The Android platform will include a mobile operating system and open-source licenses that will likely result in lower cost mobile phones and new mobile applications. The first new Android-powered phones are expected in the second half of 2008.
Verizon Wireless gets the prize for packing the best one-two-three public relations punch. On November 27th they announced that they would open their network and allow customers to use any device, software, or application that meets their minimum technical standards. That is a complete flip-flop on their previous position of controlling their wireless “walled garden.” In fact, Verizon Wireless had earlier legally challenged the FCC’s open access rules for the upcoming 700 MHz auction.
Then on November 29th Verizon Wireless announced that they had selected Long Term Evolution (LTE) as their fourth generation (4G) broadband technology. This is interesting because LTE is incompatible with Verizon’s current wireless network and will result in a very costly, multiyear network upgrade. Why did Verizon make such a decision? They did this because LTE is compatible with the vast majority of mobile phones in the world that use the Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) technology, including those phones used by Vodaphone, who owns 45 percent of Verizon Wireless.
Finally, on December 4, Verizon disclosed that they plan to use the Android platform. Taken out of context, this is a shocking disclosure for a service provider that maintains tight control over what phones are allowed on their network but is a logical extension of their November 27th “open network” announcement.
In January 2008, the FCC will auction licenses for the 700 MHz band. This spectrum was originally used for analog TV but is being reallocated due to the mandated move to digital TV. The 700 MHz band is important because it has much better propagation characteristics than the higher frequency bands used by most mobile service providers. Simply put, this means that the radio signals can travel long distances with good signal quality. The 700 MHz band can be used for a variety of services including mobile WiMAX and LTE. A portion of the 700 MHz band will also be used for a public safety network. The FCC requires that service providers using the 700 MHz spectrum allow any device or application to access the network.
You may be asking yourself, “So, what’s the bottom line?” These milestone events are leading the industry to the point where service providers will be able to offer wireless service that exhibits pervasive mobility. That is, the ability to move from place to place while communicating at broadband speeds. As we head down the road to pervasive mobility, we should expect to see the following occur:
- Improved broadband performance. Regardless of whether you think that mobile WiMAX will take over the world, or LTE will become the dominant mobile cellular technology, performance will dramatically improve over the next couple of years. We can expect to see average downlink/uplink speeds in the one to two Mbps range with even higher burst speeds. And latency will drop to well below 50 milliseconds.
- Lower prices. The mobile cellular market is over 80 percent penetrated and will approach 100 percent by 2010. This means we are entering a buyer’s market as service providers work harder to grow their subscriber base and to keep their existing customers. Expect to see lower prices as service providers become more customer oriented and work harder to win your business. Try not to sign long-term contracts to avoid paying too much.
- Better Acceptable Use Policies (AUP). Have you ever read the acceptable use fine print in your mobile contract? For example, the terms and conditions for BroadbandAccess from Verizon Wireless does not allow the wireless connection to be used as a back up for private lines. Also, if data usage exceeds 5 gigabytes per billing period, Verizon Wireless reserves the right to reduce application throughput speeds to 200 Kbps. Fortunately, we have already begun to see a lessening of the AUP restrictions and expect that increased competition will cause that trend to continue.
- Broader wireless coverage. The major service providers often roll out new services such as EV-DO or HSDPA in major urban areas first, to quickly capture the greatest number of customers while service deployment in rural areas can be very slow. However, use of the 700 MHz spectrum will enable mobile cellular service to be deployed more cost-effectively in rural areas thus enabling broader wireless coverage.
- Wider selection of mobile devices. If you think you have a wide selection of mobile devices now, just wait. The open network policies of Verizon Wireless, Google, and the FCC will encourage more vendors to develop mobile devices. And the Android platform along with the Open Handset Alliance will lower the cost barrier for new device development.
- Greater security risks. Unfortunately, with the proliferation of more powerful mobile devices, faster network performance, and lower service prices, comes an increased risk of device theft, and more importantly, information theft. Mobile devices can contain customer records, financial information, or other confidential enterprise information. Enterprises will struggle to find ways to balance personnel productivity with corporate confidentiality.
The Pervasive Mobility Era
Faster networks, lower prices, new applications, broader coverage, and a wider selection of mobile devices will usher in an era of pervasive mobility. Enterprises should decide if the benefits outweigh the security risks and, if so, make plans now to take advantage of the next generation of mobile cellular services.
Paul DeBeasi is a senior analyst at the Burton Group and has more than 25 years experience in the networking industry.