Friday, February 27, 2009

"I'm on the plane!"

Brilliant. Just brilliant. Now I'm not a fan of budget airlines and I make no apology for that. I like to do my online check-in, have a boarding pass and choose my seat. If I wanted to feel like I was taking the bus somewhere, I'd take the bus, not fly.

And if RyanAir wasn't already a traumatic experience enough, now I'm going to have to put up with booze Britain in the seat next to me, yelling down his mobile about his holiday conquests while I try to stave of DVT by getting some sleep.

We've all known that the safety reasons against using your mobile phone while on a plane are largely fictional (though I appreciate putting it down and listening to the safety briefing is a minimum requirement), but that's not really the point. Who actually wants inflight mobile phone coverage?

Inflight broadband, fair enough (although please block Skype!) ... but making calls? No thanks.

Oh, and while I'm at it ... it costs HOW MUCH? Low cost airline maybe, low cost phone calls they certainly are not.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Engineers v Consumers

Back from MWC away from the hype, you need to cast around for a sense of perspective that helps put it all in place. It's all too easy to get caught up in the excitement, the buzz, the group think that sweeps the Fira. So occassionally you have to take a deep breath and ask that all important question: "So what?"

Arguably none come bigger that femtocells when it comes to hype. If all you hear is the industry press, there's a tendancy to take as read all the vendor promises and operator trials and see them as indicating that all is rosey in the 3G garden.

However, a great post on the blog Is this thing switched on? got me thinking. Is the user being forgotten about in all this hullaballoo about indoor coverage, RAN off-load and a mobile broadband future?

Who are the important people - the engineers who come up with this stuff, or the subscribers who have to use it?

From a consumer perspective, do they really want yet another box in the front room? The WiFi router guys are way ahead, as you'd expect, in terms of design and making the kit 'living room friendly' and considering it as a piece of furniture and not just a piece of networking equipment. But that took how long for the design gurus to wrestle control out of the hands of the engineers?

It's not enough for femtocells to solve a technology problem - that's an operator issue. To win over the subscriber and work their way into the home, they need to do more than just provide better coverage, or cheaper faster data. They need to fit into the home and into the modern digital lifestyle.

Friday, February 20, 2009

MWC wrap-up

So that's it for another year [sound of loud sigh reverberates around the room]. The annual mobile industry love-in is over and normal hostilities can be restored.

Overall impression on the show? Well, the word we all agreed on as we stood in line at the airport waiting for our Easyjet flight home was "solid". Sure, overall attendance was down on both the delegate and press side. But the number of meetings held solid, and the quality of the meetings actually seemed higher. If you were relying on stand traffic then you'd have been disappointed, but quite frankly if you're relying on 'drop-bys' it just means you haven't done your pre-event legwork.

There was some big news coming out of the show ... Verizon saying it was full-steam ahead on LTE, only a day after the FT claimed LTE plans were being put on ice by European operators; Telstra announcing (together with Ericsson, Qualcomm and Sierra Wireless*) that it's HSPA+ network was capable of 21Mbs and that they are targetting 42Mbs; and of course, the solar-powered low cost handset from ZTE*.

That all said, there was also a sense of deja vu about the show. It felt a little like an industry bracing itself for a storm ahead and realising that now is the time for doing real business, not just hyping a future.

* Sierra Wireless and ZTE are AxiCom clients

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

MWC - Day Two

I'm confused. Seriously confused. Either that, or everyone is telling porkies. You read the papers and all the headlines talk of doom and gloom. But today I've asked everyone of my clients how business is; how are they coping in the maelstrom that is the world economic meltdown.

Well, apparently, very well thank you very much.

The consistent answer seems to be that business is still strong. The sales cycle may be a bit longer, but fundamentally business is still good.

But then on the other hand, everyone is preparing for the worst. Being cautious with expenditure Battening down the hatches for a stormy year ahead.

So is what we read in the papers real? Or is it just a media invented storm? Of course it's real (very real if you're a banker) but the way in which it is contaminating the rest of the economy seems to be as much mental as anything else. Confidence is shot. Everyone is told to expect a meltdown so they trim expenditure. And guess what, reduced spending means we end up with ... yep ... the promised meltdown.

Maybe it just is that telecoms is a bit protected from turbulence. The industry had its own recession only a few years ago so is already relatively lean. The mobile phone is no longer a luxury, but instead an essential. And as one client put it, whatever the state of the economy three things will remain intact ... health care, petrol (hell, even at $150 we still filled our cars) and the need for people to communicate.

So, if it is a case of "I'm alright Jack" ... just make sure you keep communicating it, because then we'll all end up OK. Or drinking petrol from a hospital bed.

Monday, February 16, 2009

MWC - Day One

Well it all got off to a slightly downbeat start in Barcelona today. Normally, when you arrive and see there's no queue it would be a cause for celebration. But the lack of any first day morning queue at the registration desk was a dead giveaway that this year numbers are down.

It wasn't then helped by the Financial Times running a front page story predicting that LTE rollouts will be delayed until 2012 because operators just don't have the CAPEX available.

The thing is, while the GSMA may think they've been terribly clever in creating a branding campaign around 'mobile broadband', what they've actually done is negate any need for the consumer to be aware of LTE, 4G, or anything of the sort. If it looks like mobile broadband, it is mobile broadband. And operators don't need to spend billions to get to it.

The announcement by Telstra today, together with QCOM, Ericsson and Sierra Wireless*, of the launch of the world's first HSPA+ network shows just why operators can afford to wait for LTE for a while longer. Peak downlink speeds of 21Mbps (so about 7Mbps in a real world deployment) are undeniably broadband. In fact, compared to my woeful Tiscali DSL service at home, its the stuff dreams are made of.

Now ok, LTE may be more spectrally efficient and, if the operators are actually successful in driving up data usage, the HSPA+ radio network and backhaul will soon creak, the cost/performance ratio will start to become inverted and operators will have no choice but to throttle bandwidth and enforce tighter policies ... but in a world where CAPEX is hard to come by ... well, it's easy to see why HSPA+ is being seen as a real option.

* Sierra Wireless is an AxiCom client

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A new dawn?

Two days to go to MWC and themes are already emerging... HSPA+ is going to be big, with commercial deployments delivering speeds that may question just why is there such a rush for LTE. However, one theme has emerged which has seemingly come from no where ... solar-powered handsets!

With Samsung set to launch its 'eco-phone' dubbed 'Blue Earth', one could be forgiven for burying your head in your hands, shaking it in despair, and cursing Al Gore for unleashing a storm of eco-everything as companies jump on the bandwagon.

However, rumours abound that ZTE* will be launching the first low cost solar-powered phone at MWC.

Now, this really is a different story from the Samsung play. This isn't about making celebs feel better about themselves by giving them a trendy (and expensive) solar-powered phone that will only work if you live in the sun drenched Beverly Hills.

Bringing solar-power technology to an ultra-low cost handset will arguably do more to connect the two billion people who live in areas with limited or no electricity than anything else.

Watch this space ...

* ZTE is an AxiCom client at Mobile World Congress

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Boiler broken? Call the Cisco plumber

News that Cisco has gone to the debt market to raise $4 billion has got tongues wagging and minds thinking. Not only is its ability to raise finance in this environment newsworthy in itself in this economic climate, but it is innevitably prompting speculation that it is ready to launch M&A raids.

The NYT has highlighted the "usual suspects" of EMC, Red Hat, Sun, BMC or NetApp in the enterprise space, but pointed a possible finger towards Skype given Cisco's stated desire to get more into consumer electronics. Start embedding Skype in set-top boxes or WiFi appliances to and you start to get an idea of how it might play in them a household's (internet) plumbing.

The FT takes a similar stab in the dark and reports that Cisco is on the hunt for consumer video, virtualisation software, cloud computing and data centre technology.

As everything moves inexorably into the 'cloud', the network is the computer so anything that supports that trend is bound to be on their hitlist... and with $4 billion, you've got to figure there's quite a long list of possible targets.

Monday, February 09, 2009

It's more than just a matter of grammar

As we enter the death-throws of the final run-in into this year's Mobile World Congress, it's almost innevitable that we see the obligatory speculation about Microsoft and their great play to seize the mobile market. Afterall, they monopolised the desktop, so why not extend that dominance to the mobile device?

Rumours now seem to be focused on what is more than just a grammatical battle between the iPhone (Apple) and MyPhone (Microsoft). If VNUnet is right, we'll see the launch of an online app store. Well hoo-bloody-rah. Just what the world needs, another app store. Or not.

M$ has had what can best be described as a mixed track record in the mobile world. They've lost the mobile email battle to Blackberry; the mobile OS war is no nearer conclusion with Android and Linux all now weighing in; and some of the smartphones have been, well, of mixed quality, shall we say.

Where Microsoft seems to struggle is in the belief that they can simply replicate what they did on the desktop in other markets. But with mobile operators already forcing handset vendors to play by their rules and use their User Interface etc., it's not really a Microsoft-style market. It's not a market they can define and monopolise. OK, so they're picking up some mobile search deals, but you've got to imagine there are some hefty backroom deals being done on the commercial side.

And I guess that's the difference ... Apple comes in with the iPhone and it's the operators bending over backwards, surrendering the margins, to win the exclusive rights for their market. Microsoft, meanwhile, is still stuck playing catch-up.

So, MyPhone or iPhone? Well, one may be better grammar, but sadly for Microsoft they don't teach grammar at schools anymore.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Testing! Testing! One! Two!

The 'digital dividend' is back in the news again with OFCOM apparently planning to make a wider band of spectrum available for mobile broadband services than originally proposed. Predictably, mobile operators are in unison applauding the announcement because it will in theory kick-start mobile broadband by harmonising spectrum across Europe and so lower equipment costs.

However, DJs, social clubs and rock bands are set up be up in arms as sound checks the length of the country end up being silenced (and with it about £100m worth of kit) as their spectrum is taken.

While the case for harmonising spectrum across Europe makes sense, it does still beg the question as to whether the available spectrum is being used as efficiently as it should be. Already we're seeing the timetable for the switch-over to digital TV being driven by the need to free up spectrum for mobile services.

Planning and optimising the spectrum is a perpetual challenge that is only going to get harder for operators as the plethora of mobile technologies in the RAN become ever more complex.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Let it Snow!

A bit of inclement weather and the country grinds to a halt! I mean, seriously, the worst snow in 18 years and suddenly the whole national infrastructure falls over.

And I mean the WHOLE national infrastructure ... even the mobile phone network!

OK, so I expect the websites of the rail companies to struggle with the traffic (I mean, if they can't run a train network, why should their IT network be any different), but getting a "network busy" signal on my mobile when I tried to make a call? Well, that's just not on.

It seems ludicrous that the mobile phone network can't cope with spikes in traffic, but then when you consider the complexity of planning a radio network and the fact that for many operators the management of it is still not automated and maybe it's not a surprise. If the network engineers can't get into work, how can they fix it when it starts to creak under the strain?

At the end of last year I picked 'Self-Optimising Networks' as a theme for 2009, and you can see why. If an operator had SON, then as soon as a cell starts to creak, neighbouring cells can turn-up their power and take some of the strain. Similarly, the network could prioritise certain traffic to ensure that voice calls still go through. Actix* is one of the companies that is leading the charge in SON and automated Network Status Management (NSM) ... and you have to say, any more snow and they'll be quids in!

* Actix is an AxiCom client