a week in wireless


Kramer vs Kramer it ain’t

It’s never a pretty sight watching a once happy couple slug it out in court. Compelling maybe, but never pretty. Everyone knows that the only winners in such tawdry scenarios are the bloodsuckers in the wigs. Well, everyone except perhaps Heather Mills and Henry VIII. Perhaps that’s why this week, Finnish love rat Nokia agreed a Eur200m package for the 2,300 workers facing the chop this June at its device manufacturing plant in Bochum, Germany.

The workers are being dumped in favour of cheaper Eastern European counterparts [insert your own Lembit Opik gag here]. The settlement averages out at nearly Eur87k for every man, woman and teaboy employed at the Bochum plant. Though the Informer reckons the teaboys will probably claim the lion’s share. It wouldn’t keep Mills in helicopter flights for very long, but it’s still way more than the Eur60m which the German government gifted Nokia in subsidies when the Finn originally set up shop, so that should keep the G, if not happy, at least placated.

If a potential windfall of Eur87k a pop isn’t enough to keep the Bochumites happy, then the news that they’ll be able to spend all their recently acquired spare time playing N-Gage games surely will. That’s right, Nokia announced that consumers will be able to download N-Gage games to their N81, N82 and N95 terminals. The Informer hasn’t been this excited since he downloaded a Commodore 64 emulator and reignited his Emlyn Hughes International Soccer World Cup 1988 campaign.

The big story at the start of the week though, according to the GSM Association, was that the cellular industry has announced its 32 millionth mobile broadband connection. Thirty-two? Presumably, the person in charge of keeping a count of mobile broadband connections fell asleep when the figure passed 30,000,000. Still, it’s a whopping 850 per cent higher than it was last year, so it’s probably worth shouting about.

The number of networks now offering commercial mobile broadband services has also increased significantly over the past year. The GSMA recorded a 44 per cent increase between May 2007 and March 2008 in the number of HSPA-enabled networks, with 166 networks now available in more than 73 countries around the world.

This news chimes nicely with the latest findings of the Global Mobile Suppliers Association, which this week announced that the number of 3G HSDPA devices on the market is on an annual growth curve of around 150 per cent, with 637 models now available. Apparently, the number of suppliers of HSPA-enabled devices also increased from 62 to 110 over the past year. Indeed, the number of suppliers is poised to jump up by one more according to iPhone hacker Zibri who claims to have discovered, while trawling through the code for the iPhone beta SDK, that Apple’s next gen device will use the Infineon HSDPA chipset.

The apparent boom in mobile broadband won’t come as too much of a shock to anyone who has been following announcements of this nature since Mobile World Congress, and certainly not to Kevin Russell, 3UK’s CEO, who was chairing a mobile broadband media round table event in London this week.

“Mobile broadband is exciting,” said Russell, with the unspoken assumption that it’s all relative. “This is where the industry will go and we will go faster. We’re not focused right now on content. You have to simplify your business, that’s why we’re focusing on mobile broadband.”

The Informer was presented with a 3UK USB dongle so that he could try out the plug and play all around easiness at home. Unfortunately, despite details to the contrary on the dongle’s box, the device didn’t work on either of the Informer’s iBooks. After half an hour waiting on hold on the tech support line (change your hold music guys), the Informer gave up on mobile broadband and turned on his telly to watch Liverpool knock Arsenal out of the Champions League.

All this talk of mobile broadband is bad news for WiMAX. At the media event one hack tried to tempt Russell into publicly poo-pooing the nascent technology. “So, you’re saying WiMAX is dead in the water?” asked the scribe with a wry smile. Russell, being a canny media operator, spotted the ruse. “I wouldn’t be that definitive,” he said. “However, WiMAX has been over-hyped by the vendors involved. It doesn’t have a big advantage, while 3G has a window of opportunity, it’s available now.”

Russell reckons getting muddled up in the content business presents an unwelcome distraction. He plans to focus 3’s efforts on mobile email, IM and VoIP. “These are three areas we’ll push, they’re viral, disruptive and communications-based solutions that go around the MTR [mobile termination rate], so very appropriate for 3,” he said.

All this is great news for Nokia and Ovi of course and great news for Sony Ericsson, whose executive vice president for marketing, Anders Runevad, was sitting next to Russell having just explained to the assembled hacks that his firm plans to focus more on data service application laden devices. “We don’t see customers going into a store and asking for a 3G phone. They’re asking about mobile blogging, MP3 players and web surfing”.

Runevad suggested that at any one time, someone somewhere will be ‘tagging’ a tune using Sony Ericsson’s TrackID service. The Informer remembers meeting the CEO of a music tagging firm some years ago, and being deeply sceptical that punters would pay for the privilege of such a service. Still, there’s one born every minute so they say, and presumably they’re all buying Sony Ericsson handsets.

Staying with 3 and Nokia though, and taking what some might say is a decidedly Tomorrow’s World glimpse into the future, the 3G specialist has announced the availability of a set of Geordi La Forge style wrap-around shades that enable the wearer to view N95 screen images as though they were being displayed on a 62″ screen.

Shades

The device brings to the Informer’s mind a gadget that one of his raver mates had back in the days when white gloves, glow sticks and whistles were de rigeuer fashion items down the disco rather than safety equipment for oil rig workers. Apparently, said device could be set to tune into the wearer’s brainwaves and induce a Totally Legal and Healthy High(TM). All it did though was give the Informer a bit of a headache and make him withdraw immediately to the comfort of the ambient tent. Just imagine settling down on the bus to play Tetris on a virtual 62″ screen only to be interrupted by an incoming call displaying a gigantic pixelated image of your dad.

There can be only one thing worse, the Informer reckons, and that’s settling down on the bus to play Tetris on a virtual 62″ screen only to be interrupted by an incoming call displaying a gigantic pixelated image of your dad, and then being able to smell him. But that’s a future which Japanese carrier NTT DoCoMo envisages.

If this one had come out last week, the Informer would probably have ignored it as an April fool. However, it seems NTT Com and its mobile unit DoCoMo will be conducting a pilot test on what is effectively a radio-controlled air freshener.

The Fragrance Communication package features a device that has been loaded with a cartridge of essences, or base fragrances, which is controlled by an i-mode site accessible by mobile phone. Users can select recipes for specific fragrances or access Fragrance Playlists, which are then mixed and emitted from the unit as the user watches AV content played back on their phone.

And just when the thought of a fully connected life couldn’t get much worse comes news that the European Commission has given the green light to in-flight mobile calls. We all saw this one coming, but it’s still a bit depressing to realise that flights are set to get even more tedious and uncomfortable. So far Vivian Reding has been firmly on the side of the roaming consumer. One can only assume that Reding and her cohorts spend their time zipping to the Continent on the Eurostar.

Speaking of which, that’s exactly what the Informer did this week in order to catch up with Chinese tech giant ZTE. The Shenzen firm was in Paris to talk about its strategy for Western Europe. When ZTE first appeared on the wireless scene, it was often portrayed – like its domestic rival Huawei – as a company that had little to recommend itself other than the low cost of its products. But as more operators, crucially in the upper tier, have given the firm trials and deals, writing ZTE off as a cheap alternative is no longer acceptable.

Scale built at home and in emerging markets is being used by ZTE to push into advanced Western markets. It’s fair to say the firm as big ambitions, none perhaps bigger than becoming a top five handset vendor by 2010, with targets of 100 million units sold worldwide. This is a big jump from the 30 million units shipped in 2007, but achievable nonetheless the firm’s director for mobile terminals, Wu Sa, told the Informer. “Two years ago when we were talking about growth I couldn’t believe the projected numbers, but we achieved those,” he said, “ZTE is trying to pull itself out just being an infrastructure provider. We want 50 per cent of our revenues to come from devices.”

The Informer suggested that a strategic acquisition might offer immediate top five status, but Wu downplayed any buy-out speculation. “Sometimes people consider acquisitions as a short cut, but sometimes they can bring with them their own risks. It is not something we’re thinking about doing.”

Of course, even if there was a chance of ZTE buying, say, Motorola’s device business, it’s unlikely that they’d tell the Informer. They know only too well about his tendency to gossip down the pub and send 20,000 weekly emails to the wireless community. One man they might come clean with, though, is ex-AT&T chief David Dorman, since he’s just been elected as non-executive chairman of Moto’s board.

The news follows the announcement earlier in the week that everyone’s favourite corporate raider, Carl Icahn, finally got his wish. William Hambrecht, founder, chairman and CEO of WR Hambrecht + Co. and co-founder of Hambrecht & Quist, and Keith Meister, a managing director of Icahn Investment Funds and principal executive officer of Icahn Enterprises, will be nominated for election to Moto’s board of directors.

Staying Stateside, and in further bad news for WiMAX, both of the big winners in the 700MHz auction, Verizon and AT&T, have revealed that they intend to use all that lovely new spectrum of theirs for LTE services. The former reckons it’ll have something in the marketplace by 2010, while the latter reckons 2012 is more likely. Still, according ZTE, Sprint customers will be able to get their hands on ZTE-made dual mode mobile WiMAX/CDMA handset early next year.

Meanwhile, there was some brighter news for open access networks fans in the UK, where Ofcom has confirmed plans for the nation’s largest ever single release of radio spectrum. The regulator said it intends to release the spectrum in the 2010-2025MHz and 2500-2690MHz bands, more commonly known as 2.6GHz band, on a technology and service neutral basis.

A total 205MHz will be made available and the regulator said it expects to start the auction process in the summer. The spectrum would be suitable for a range of mobile broadband and advanced wireless services delivered using WiMAX and 3G technology, Ofcom said.

All licences will be tradable and Ofcom said the release of this spectrum is part of a wider programme to release around 400MHz of prime spectrum to the market over the next few years, creating opportunities for new innovation and new competition in wireless services.

Finally, coming in the same week that a local borough council in England admitted to using counter terrorist surveillance techniques on a family for two weeks in order to make sure they weren’t telling fibs about their school catchment area credentials, is the news that privacy advocates are claiming that the UK’s Information Commissioner has “green lighted lawbreaking” with regards controversial internet ad-targeting platform Phorm.

The Information Commissioner’s Office said it was happy that the, “system does not allow the retention of individual profiles of sites visited and adverts presented, and that they hold no personally identifiable information on web users.”

However, the Foundation for Information Policy Research reckons the ICO has not gone far enough and Nicholas Bohm, general counsel for the organisation claims that, “the illegality stems not from breaching the Data Protection Act directly, but arises from the fact that the system intercepts internet traffic. Interception is a serious offence, punishable by up to two years in prison. Almost incidentally, because the system is unlawful to operate, it cannot comply with Data Protection principles.”

It makes the Informer wonder just what it is these privacy campaigners have got to hide.


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