a week in wireless

Deja vu

Can you remember what you were doing ten years ago this week? Were you sitting in a hot tub sipping champagne, surrounded by beautiful people? Were you kitting out your office with high end leather chairs, beer fridges and an expensive games room? Were you dreaming up a talking sock puppet mascot? Were you taking out an enormous mortgage? Were you hatching plans for a new dotcom launch that would make you a millionaire and enable all of the above?

It was a decade ago this week that the dotcom boom peaked, with the NASDAQ spiking over 5,000, the industry equivalent of the last days of the Roman Empire. Twelve months later things were very different indeed, with the NASDAQ sinking below 2,000. They were crazy times, weren’t they? The Informer remembers companies desperately trying to spend their marketing budgets so that they could ask for an increased amount the following year. He also remembers them not getting any marketing budget the next year as hinges throughout the industry wore away to nothing as people left their places of employment in droves.

When you’re the world’s richest person, these kind of fluctuations must be largely immaterial. To confirm this, of course, you’d have to ask America Movil boss Carlos Slim, who this week was elevated to this unimaginable position in the latest Forbes Magazine rich list. Time for Gates and Buffet to take a rest.

Speaking of wealthy people, the Informer’s life was enriched no end by the email he received this morning making him aware that two of the UK’s most successful businesswomen, football club owner Karren Brady and fashion designer Savannah Miller, both rely on the Nokia E72 to help them juggle their work and social commitments. The two women will later be twittering – sorry, that should be Twittering – about the phone which they are being told to claim is “an indispensable tool for the day-to-day running of both your business and social life” What are the odds they both use iPhones when Nokia’s not looking?

Nokia’s infrastructure JV, Nokia Siemens Networks, tends not to pay glamorous business ladies to endorse its products, although the Informer dearly wishes that it would. (“The FlexiBTS. When you’re a woman on the go, it’s the only base station you need.”) Instead, NSN relies on more traditional technical comparisons and the firm clearly thinks its got one over on its rivals in the signalling space. You may have spied this feature on telecoms.com in which the problem of the signalling traffic generated by smart phones is discussed.

While a connected laptop may hog more bandwidth than a smartphone, the greater number of smartphones – and the way they behave on the network – has created a different problem. In order to conserve battery life, smartphones have been designed to wake themselves up periodically to ping the network for updates (email, social network data, etc) and then go back to sleep. With this happening every minute or two across a range of applications, NSN reckons the signalling traffic generated could equate to 1,000 voice calls a day.

The firm claims it has the answer in the shape of a 3GPP software option that uses a semi-idle mode called Cell-PCH which uses the paging channel to ping the network and reduces signalling by 80 per cent. NSN says its competitors have missed this trick and is poking them in the eye as a result. “We know what an iPhone can do to an Ericsson base station,” Michael Matthews, head of strategy and business development at NSN told telecoms.com. “It can kill it.” You can read more about the issue here.

Ericsson’s not biting at the moment, opting instead to trumpet the first deployment of UMTS at 900MHz in Africa. The trial network was deployed with MTN Ghana, and deployment proper will begin sometime in the second quarter of this year.

South Africa-headquartered MTN put out some group results for 2009 this week that showed subscriber numbers up 28 per cent year on year to 116 million and revenue up 9.2 per cent to ZAR111.9bn. But the firm reported that exchange rate movements, particularly on the South African Rand and the Nigerian Naira, meant that the financials were nowhere near as good as they could have been.

EBITDA was up by 6.7 per cent to ZAR46.1bn but, the firm said, “had there been no change in currency rates during the year, reported revenues at year end would have been 11 percentage points higher, and EBITDA 12 percentage points above that reported.” Group CEO Phuthuma Nhleko, who has indicated his intention to step down next year, offered no indication as to who his successor might be, a question that some analysts and shareholders are keen to see answered.

From Africa to India, where reports have been circulating this week that Qualcomm is looking to pull together a consortium to bid for Broadband Wireless Access (BWA) spectrum when it is sold off after the long-awaited and much-delayed 3G spectrum auctions. The reports, from local press citing local sources, have drawn no comment from Qualcomm but suggest that a team from the Californian firm are already on the ground in Mumbai making plans.

The BWA spectrum is thought to be reserved for WiMAX, which is not a technology in which Qualcomm has a great deal of interest. Nor, apparently, does Cisco, which was once a champion of the alternative 4G standard. Cisco has choked off its WiMAX base station business, issuing the following statement: “After careful review of our mobility strategy and investments, we have decided to discontinue designing and building new WiMAX base stations.” The firm continued: “We are committed to continue with our current service provider mobility strategy to provide a radio-agnostic approach to focus on the packet core and to also focus investment in radio technologies such as femtocell and wifi.”

Carefully worded, no doubt about it, but it doesn’t look like good news for the WiMAX camp, which ever way you cut it. The move raises some questions over Cisco’s $330m acquisition of WiMAX kit maker Navini Networks in 2007. Texas-based Navini develops smart beamforming technologies with MIMO (Multi-Input Multi-Output) antennas, making it a strategic player in the Mobile WiMAX 802.16e space. But Navini might be just as at home in Cisco’s edge technology portfolio where it extends the company’s wifi and wifi mesh portfolios to include WiMAX.

Motorola’s big on WiMAX, of course – a piece of information whose only purpose is to serve as a link to the next story – which concerns the US vendor’s (dare we say ‘resurgent’?) handset unit. Moto has struck a global deal with Microsoft that will see the software firm’s search engine Bing and associated services deployed on Moto Android handsets. The first of these will launch in China this month, with others to follow across a range of markets. As part of the deal, Motorola users will get a pre-loaded Bing bookmark on their mobile browser and an enhanced search widget with Bing integration. There will also be a focus on Bing powered map functions on the Android-based devices. Devices that are already in market will be able to pick up the updates over the air.

Motorola said it is opening the doors for increased personalisation and empowering its end users – a comment which may draw some fire in light of this week’s launch of the Android-powered AT&T Backflip in the US. The Backflip runs a crippled version of the Android-platform, which does not allow users to install unofficial applications. There are also a handful of AT&T specific apps installed on the device which cannot be removed by the user. Then again, the Backflip is not a Google-branded device so perhaps this is par for the course.

Sticking with handsets as we wrap up this week, let’s have a look at Apple, whose Developer Program License agreement – hitherto a closely guarded document – was published this week. This agreement has to be signed by anybody wanting to develop an app for Apple’s App Store. But the first rule about the contract is that you can’t talk about the contract. This has made its contents somewhat of a mystery, until now.

Privacy advocacy group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) managed to get a revised version of the document. When NASA recently released an application for the iPhone, the EFF used the Freedom of Information Act to get a copy of the agreement from NASA, one that the organisation was not obliged to sign.

The EFF says the publication of the contract is particularly timely, given the imminent launch of the iPad and the US Copyright Office’s deliberation over whether the DMCA should apply to jailbreaking of the iPhone.

Most of the clauses seem pretty run of the mill “don’t mess with our proprietary technology” stuff, but there are a few that stand out. If a developer builds an iPhone application using the iPhone SDK, which is really the only way to build an application, then that app can only be distributed via the official App Store. It can’t be distributed via something like Cydia.

Apple can also “revoke the digital certificate of any of Your Applications at any time,” and apparently, for any reason, even if the application meets all the requirements. A kill switch for enabling this was discovered in 2008.

Most interestingly, Apple will never be liable to any developer for more than $50 in damages. So if Apple botches an update, accidentally kills an application, or leaks a developer’s entire customer list to a competitor, the contract caps Apple’s liability at $50.

Still, with a few hundred thousand registered, if not active, iPhone developers and over 100,000 apps available in the App Store, Apple must have a market proposition that is attractive enough that it outweighs the restrictions of the developer agreement.

Take care

The Informer

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