Simon Clayton-Mitchell, Global Crossing VP for Wireless Services Exchange


The Challenges for 3G in a Fully Converged World

Within the developed world, IP connectivity is a reality for almost anyone that wishes to connect to the Internet. And within developing countries, cost-effective solutions are being sought to provide increased Internet access to communities as a way of enhancing and supporting communication, commerce, health care and education.


The communication protocol we refer to as IP has already had an enormous impact on the way people all over the world conduct business and their personal lives. Yet still greater change will come as wireless technology continues to evolve from its current nascent capabilities, and much of the attention today is focused on 3G technology and the word “convergence” – whether it be the device, service, fixed or wireless.

In trying to add intelligently to this debate, I am reminded of a comment made by Bill Gates in the 1990s to the effect that he tended to overestimate the short term and underestimate the long term when considering the impact of technology. It is fair to say that the impact of 3G has already been overestimated - the pertinent questions for now are:

  • what might convergence look like for end users?
  • what is the future of 3G in a fully converged world?
  • what are the challenges for the various technology providers – from operators to content providers?

I have no doubt that if I were able to travel forward in time 10 years, I would find a world where wireless technology was integrated seamlessly into so many devices that it has become commonplace to exchange information through the airwaves from our cars, while on the train, on planes as well as while sitting in parks, without giving the slightest thought to the access technology. Anyone who has travelled on the train system in Tokyo (or, as I am assured, Seoul ) will have little trouble agreeing with this vision and might argue that the future is much closer than we realize.

Yet the focus is still on different access technologies: Wi-Fi in a café, 3G to my mobile phone while roaming away from a PC, and Bluetooth for device-to-device communication such as synchronizing a mobile phone's database with a laptop. Promises of higher bandwidth come with HSDPA and Wi-Max. Yet to the end user, the key issue is the experience of the service on offer, not the underlying technology that supports access. And it is now that we are starting to see useful applications evolve to take advantage of the existing technology: for example bar-codes that can be photographed by a mobile phone camera and sent, via MMS, to retrieve data such as the current schedule for a bus route. It seems clear that the symbiotic relationship between applications and the edge access devices that they run on will shape the path that convergence takes over the next few years.

Consider the following scenario: While users will own many devices that utilize wireless technology, I find it hard to imagine anyone watching a full length movie on a screen much smaller than a paperback. Consequently, I believe people will use a broadband access device, much like today's laptops, to download and view media-rich content such as movies, news and sports while away from home (at home they will use the latest in home entertainment systems that are increasingly available). While out and about, smaller devices similar in size to today's PDAs will provide convenient access to applications such as email, MMS, and data downloads.

Additionally, people will use different styles of device depending on the time of day. During the working day, the PDA-sized device provides email and voice communication, with access to Internet-based information. During the evening, a person may pick up another, slimmer device that is used primarily for voice. For the style conscious, this is likely to be as much about status as functionality (consider the success of the iPod). It will have the ability to display text information on the discreet LCD screen that is on the side, providing real-time updates – some of it information fed in real-time from the broadband device or the home computer. However its prime function will be as a telephone.

People will want their devices to communicate intelligently and seamlessly. For example, someone may initiate a search for information on their broadband device while sitting in a café, the results of the search may be communicated to the PDA-style device while the person is walking around. The two devices might communicate in an intelligent manner to provide a guided tour of a city, with the broadband device (now in a back-pack) caching much of the data, and sending only the information that is necessary (e.g. turn right at the next traffic lights) to the smaller mobile device. Once the user is at a location where they can access the broadband access device, they will be able to view a host of rich multimedia content relevant to their journey.

Additionally, end users will want their devices to be able to “understand” which device is being used currently – I come home at the end of the day and drop off my PDA and broadband access device and go out for dinner with my smaller, sleeker phone. The transition of devices should be as seamless as possible - at the touch of a button at the most. While much of this technology exists today, the challenge remains to provide inter-operability between the different devices. Applications need to work in an intuitive way, providing us with the right information at the right time in the right format based on what we are doing and where we are. I may be happy to sit and watch a 10-minute video on the history of Notre Dame on my broadband device or PDA while sitting in a Paris café. However, while walking round the back streets of the city I want simple instructions sent to a device I can hold in one hand and access almost without thought.

And all of this functionality will occur without the end user giving a second thought to the underlying access technology. Companies that today provide mobile phone access using 2.5G and 3G technology will need to embrace other access technologies including Wi-Fi and Wi-Max (or the equivalent technology). Existing PTTs will look to expand their reach to the end user via wireless technology. Both these trends are evident today to varying degrees. The demands for real- time content – for example, news, financial, and live sports – will also drive demand for exceptionally reliable high-performance IP networks, capable of carrying the data across countries and regions.

While attending the GSM congress in Cannes in February, I was struck by the difference in booth size and advertising spend of equipment manufactures compared to content providers. It did not look as if the content providers were benefiting to the same degree from the promise of 3G. For mobile content to flourish, content application providers need to have economic incentives to create new content, allowing them to experiment with different applications. Yet many mobile network operators (MNO) fear a fate similar to that of the fixed line operators - as wireless IP pipe providers - and consequently control access to content to ensure a larger piece of the profits. Yet this control tends to limit the growth and evolution of mobile content and applications.

The NTT i-mode platform is one solution, providing an environment for different application providers to set up shop in the mobile space for a given mobile network provider, with access to the MNO's billing engine for payment. An extension of this solution could, I propose, come from the network companies currently developing solutions to support and deliver thigh payload, real-time data between countries. Open content platform and delivery systems would provide the ability for different content applications to be supported and delivered to multiple mobile network operators. The benefit of this type of service, coming from an independent network operator without any affiliations to an MNO, is that the content system is accessible to all MNOs that access the system. Such scope allows for greater usage of each application by the end users of all MNOs that use the system, which in turn creates new opportunities for further content development.

The economics of making content work in a way that benefits both content providers and operators is a critical part of the convergence question that must be answered if 3G and wireless technology is to deliver on the imagined promise. One scenario that can be imagined is differentiated pricing, based on what is being requested and location. For example, broadband access through Wi-Fi in a café might be cheaper than the same bandwidth through a 3G phone in a congested cell area. However, the economics of usage have to enhance the seamlessness of access as much as the applications and devices, and end users worrying about price based on access technology are unlikely to work.

Man's ability to imagine is almost unlimited and the array of current technologies available make it that much easier to for us to dream near endless scenarios for the future of wireless technologies. The challenge will always be in providing useful applications that take advantage of the technology as opposed to pushing new technology because it is new. Witness the success of the iPod and iTunes, both perfect examples of building the correct application on top of the existing technology. This type of success needs to be replicated within the mobile access device. Then the problem may well become one of not enough wireless bandwidth!


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