a week in wireless


We’re all off to sunny Spain

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The Informer’s been getting his head down early every night this week, in a pointless effort to bank some shuteye ahead of the five-day festival of sleep deprivation that is the 2010 Mobile World Congress, which begins on Monday. Actually, some firms are starting early, trying to entice the likes of the Informer to boozy parties on the Sunday night. Because, of course, it makes sense to embark on a four-day floor-pound at the Fira de Barcelona with a ripping hangover for company.

Other firms are starting early with the news, of which there’s been a fair bit this week. Clearly many within the industry are beginning to realise that lobbing out a press release at MWC is often akin to shouting your announcement into a force-10 North Sea gale, such is the volume – acoustic and cubic – of news at the show.

You’d expect there to be a good deal of talk around LTE at this year’s event and that will doubtless be the case. So the Informer was interested this week to speak to Dan Warren, director of technology at MWC organiser the GSMA, who was punting out projections from Deutsche Bank on carrier capex for mobile broadband during 2010. The numbers were noteworthy because they actually didn’t include spend on LTE.

For the purposes of this pre-show giddy-up the GSMA opted to restrict the definition of ‘Mobile Broadband’ to WCDMA, EV-DO and HSPA. It’s an uncharacteristic move from the trade association which, like the industry it represents, loves to talk up the Next Big Thing. So what’s the thinking?

Let’s deal with the numbers first. DB reckons worldwide capex on the technologies specified will be $72bn globally this year, with Asia Pacific accounting for $34bn, North America $19bn and Europe $14bn. Collectively these technologies will account for 52 per cent of operator infrastructure investment globally this year, rising to 80 per cent in the US.

The projections haven’t been broken out by technology, which seems a little odd, as the purpose of the announcement is clearly to trumpet the performance of HSPA. Once a lowly understudy to LTE, the inevitable delays in 4G deployment (it was widely predicted that 2010 would be the ‘Year of LTE'; 2014 looks more reasonable now), HSPA has been recast by the GSMA as the mobile broadband star of the show.

Warren pointed out that HSPA emerged onto the world stage with “hardly any song and dance”. It was billed originally as an unglamorous transitional upgrade to bridge 3G and 4G but its effective performance has seen connections pass 200 million (with 320 million predicted by year-end). It’s succeeded without being the subject of great fanfare – a trick missed – and now, it seems, the overdue song and dance is being performed, with words like ‘phenomenal’ and ‘dominant’ among the lyrics.

So the 2010 story isn’t LTE, it’s HSPA. “It’s not dead when LTE comes along,” said Warren, “it will be the macro network technology that will be the next best thing wherever LTE isn’t available. And it’s our duty to tell people what’s happening because other operators, especially in emerging markets, are looking to make their own investments.” The industry’s been burned before by technology that showed a superstar’s disregard for timekeeping; clearly the GSMA doesn’t want to see that happen again. It’s all about the now!

But there is LTE news to be had if you’re so inclined. At last year’s show Verizon named its LTE suppliers as Ericsson and Alcatel Lucent. This week, almost exactly a year later, AT&T did very much the same thing. AT&T said that field trials would begin this year, with commercial launch scheduled for 2011. Exactly when in 2011 the carrier opted not to specify, giving itself maximum leeway.

Ericsson was certainly chuffed, though, in light of the tit-for-tat it’s been having with LTE rival Huawei in the contract stakes of late. “This deal is extremely important for us, and the timing just ahead of Mobile World Congress is fantastic,” Ulf Ewaldsson, vice president and head of product area for Radio at Ericsson, told the Informer. “It is important to remember the size of these operators. AT&T is an 85 million-subscriber operator. This strengthens our position in LTE because the largest operators in the world are the best suited to drive the ecosystem for terminals and so on.”

Ewaldsson also predicted that AT&T would have full, nationwide HSPA fallback by the time it makes its first LTE launches. The US carrier is motivated to improve on its network performance having suffered ignominious drops in network performance because of heavy data usage of late.

Over in Singapore, the response from Nokia Siemens Networks was a 100Mbps LTE data call in partnership with local player M1. “LTE will not only enable a rich end-user experience but also help drive new business opportunities for operators like M1,” said Ricky Corker, head of Asia Pacific, Nokia Siemens Networks. That’s a quote so spectacularly bland it would not have even registered on the Informer’s consciousness had it not been attributed to a man named Corker.

NSN was busy in Latin America this week as well, nailing a managed services deal with NII Holdings for the firm’s Nextel-branded operations in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Peru. The scale of the contract makes it the first of its kind in Latin America and is one of NSN’s largest, multi-vendor, multi-country managed services agreements in the region, the firm said.

Telefónica is one of the dominant players in Latin America and this week the firm has been making itself heard on a range of issues. The firm held a press conference early this week in which, among other things, it raised the prospect of charging search engines like Google a fee for the use of its network.

Opting to follow the age old commercial wisdom that, if you can’t beat ‘em, then whine about how unfair it all is, Telefónica president Cesar Alierta suggested that, as the provider of the networks and customer care and transaction management that collectively enable firms like Google to reap billions of dollars in profit, carriers ought to be due a cut. As a friend of the Informer’s likes to say, Alierta’s got two hopes on that one; Bob Hope and no hope. And Bob Hope’s dead.

The firm was also reported in the Spanish press as looking to further consolidate its position in China, where it will no doubt find a warm reception for any anti-Google sentiment. Alierta reiterated his desire to increase his stake in China Unicom to ten per cent, having boosted it to more than eight per cent through a mutual investment programme in September last year.

Finally, the Spanish incumbent’s been working with SIM manufacturer Sagem Orga recently and the firms this week have revealed a new SIM card with a tiny, embedded wifi modem on board. Last week a company called BlueSky unveiled a SIM with embedded GPS, neatly opening up LBS services to users of older handsets, so this is something of a mini-trend right now.

The Sagem Orga product’s HSPA SIM can be inserted into any type of classic handset, then allowing other devices to connect via wifi and share the cellular connection as backhaul. Novatel Wireless offers a similar service with its Mifi device, although that’s a standalone cellular router and not a phone, while Palm’s latest handset models have similar functionality built into the hardware.

It’s clever stuff but you have to wonder what the usage scenarios are. What kind of services are going to be available to legacy handsets that are effectively upgraded by smarter SIMs? The UI and display capabilities are still going to be limited, after all, and these are key to the kind of services that GPS and wifi could enable.

We’ll be looking at this in greater depth on telecoms.com soon, so if you’ve got any opinions on it, tell us all about them here.

While we’re with handsets, Android got another boost this week from silicon players ST-Ericsson and Broadcom, who might argue that there’s little point adding functionality to the SIM when you can hardwire it into the platform itself. And, if it’s the developing market you want to target, ST-Ericsson reckons it’s got you covered. The firm claims its new Android platform – the U6715 – will allow manufacturers to produce HSPA smartphones capable of navigation, web browsing, video streaming and email with five megapixel cameras and touch screen interfaces with a wholesale price of less than €100. The first of these will be out before the end of June this year, the firm said. Meanwhile, US chip firm Broadcom said it will be supporting Android across its range of wireless connectivity platforms, adding support for Bluetooth, wifi, Chinese security standard WAPI, and GPS.

A well known fan of Android is Motorola, which this week was bidding fond farewell to itself. The US vendor plans to split up in early 2011, spinning off its handsets and set top box unit into one entity and its enterprise and networks arm into another. The company, which is already running the organisational equivalent of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin’s two bass line up, with dual CEOs, will place Sanjay Jha as chief executive officer of the Mobile Devices and Home businesses effective immediately. Meanwhile, Greg Brown will head up Motorola’s Enterprise Mobility Solutions and Networks businesses effective immediately. Following the separation, both entities will use the Motorola brand.

In other news, mobile browser specialist Opera has announced that it will be showing a version of its Opera mini browser designed for the iPhone at next week’s show. Whether Apple will let this in the App Store is another matter, of course…

All this talk of fancy functionality like GPS brings us nicely to a bit of location news. First up, location-based social network Gypsii, which is particularly big in China, has teamed with mapping and nav firm Telmap to improve its service offering. Telmap will introduce social networking and user generated content to its Telmap5 Mobile Location Companion, offering users access to contacts across social networks including Gypsii, Facebook and Twitter, and the ability to contribute location-aware content, share locations, read and post recommendations, videos, pictures, find friends, events, and places, and geo-blog.

“Our ultimate model, our long term goal, is advertising revenues,” said SVP marketing Shane Lennon. And new partner Telmap is clearly thinking the same way, announcing its deal with Gypsii in the same breath as a new partnership with mobile advertising agency 4th Screen Advertising. So Telmap will be able to offer ads on its own service and, presumably, provision them onto the services of its partners.

Everyone wants a slice of that advertising revenue and as more and more firms – operators, handset vendors, social networks – close in on Google Castle, so the Mountain View Mob spread their reach in return. This week Google launched a social network of its own, simply by adding a new feature to its popular Gmail service. The search firm (not really a definition that suffices any more) also announced this week that it is about to begin building experimental high speed broadband networks in the US in a bid to ensure that services the firm has planned can be delivered in the way and with the speed and reliability that it wants them delivered.

What’s the telco community – fixed and mobile – going to do about this?

You’re supposed to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. And Google’s Eric Schmidt is delivering a keynote at next week’s Mobile World Congress. Read that how you will.

Keep your eyes on telecoms.com and on our Twitter feed to find out how it all pans out in Barcelona.

Take care and see you on the other side.

The Informer


One comment

  1. Andrew Rodaway 12/02/2010 @ 4:00 pm

    Of course, there’s really only one question that needs answering at MWC – WTF is it always on at half-term? :-(

    Andrew, happily not going this year. I’m off skiing.

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