a week in wireless


Going underground, going underground…

On Wednesday last week the Informer had to leave his trusty boneshaker at home and get the tube to work because he had a dining appointment in the evening. Riding the London Underground in rush hour is not a pleasant experience. You have to endure a level of physical contact with strangers that, were it to occur in any other public place, would probably land you on the sex offenders register.

There’s always someone strange standing next to you, with a cat in his jacket, or something. True to form, on Wednesday the Informer was jammed up against a man who looked like he was on day release from the funny farm. He was eating a cereal bar in so cack-handed a manner that there were crumbs in his eyebrows.

There were crumbs all down his jumper, too. And, when he’d finished the bar, folded the wrapper and put it in his little rucksack (both shoulder straps on, obviously, meaning that getting the wrapper in the bag involved much twisting and unsavoury loin-brushing), he started eating the crumbs from his sweater one by one.

When these were finished he dug into his bag once more and pulled out a bottle of chocolate milk, the sight and smell of which made the Informer gag. As we pulled into the next station, and another few thousand people tried to maul their way onto the train like rugby teams in business-wear, the man began protesting that there was insufficient space. He didn’t do this with words, rather he chose to ‘moo’ at the other passengers like a cow.

This has nothing to do with wireless, of course, but we have a story here that involves the London Underground and the Informer just wanted to put you all in the picture.

Telefonica-owned carrier O2 last week launched the UK’s first large-scale Near Field Communications (NFC) trial that, if successful, could see Londoners’ mobile phones doubling as electronic wallets next year. Central to the trial is an application that morphs the phone into a contactless train ticket. The phone’s your Oyster, as it were.

From this week, 500 lucky guinea pigs from O2’s customer base will begin a six-month trial of the service that is being run in conjunction with Transport for London, Transys, Barclaycard, Visa Europe, Nokia and AEG. As well as underground tickets, the trial handsets – Nokia 6131 NFC units with the O2 Wallet on board – can be used to buy goods from various merchants, coffee shops and the like, and to interact with smart posters. They can also be used to process credit card payments.

The NFC gubbins is on the handset but Nokia’s NFC bod, Richard Humbach, predicted that, in time, the software will be migrated onto the SIM card.

Oyster cards, the contactless tickets currently used in London, are without doubt an improvement on their paper predecessors. Consumer surveys suggest that end users favour the mobile phone when asked where they might like the functionality to exist outside of their dedicated card. But people swap their phones far more frequently than they change their credit cards – and they only get a new Oyster card when they lose the old one. So what happens when people want a new phone?

The thing about these payment notions is that you need critical mass. It will only really work when NFC is on every handset and accounts are easily portable across networks. We’re not far off the point where Oyster cards could be issued as stickers, which might appeal more to commitment-shy end users.

The Informer did a little research into m-payments recently and the whole NFC/ticketing/handset proposition was rebuffed by one specialist who said: “If it was that important to people, they’d already have elastic bands holding their cards to their phones.” (He also asked his old dad for an opinion, who responded with a simple: “what’s the point?” Pater would rather have a mobile application that could find his glasses for him, which is more Near Sight Communications than Near Field.)

In other O2 news, Telefonica O2 Europe CEO Peter Erskine, one of the few men who can still get away with wearing a moustache, is doing the off at the end of next January, although he’s going to keep a non-exec position on the board of the Spanish carrier. Erskine will be succeeded by Matthew Key, currently head of O2 UK.

Staying in the UK for a moment or two, wireless broadband operator UK Broadband has had the restrictions on its nationwide 3.5GHz licence, purchase in 2004, altered to allow it to use WiMAX.

The firm, operating under the Now brand and owned by Hong Kong’s PCCW, is not exactly a mover and shaker. The most recent press release on its website is dated March 2006 and its offering is a touch ponderous. It’s got a smattering of TD-CDMA coverage around the Greater London area but offers a maximum speed of only 1Mbps, for £14 a month. Hardly competitive.

But changes to the licence will allow the firm to offer connectivity to portable and mobile devices and render the licence technology and application neutral. Mobile WiMAX might be in the offing. Then again, it might not.

The same can be said of the US, of course, where last week Verizon Wireless announced that it is to open up its network to any device or application that customers want to use – even those not offered by the carrier itself.

Verizon is going to publish tech specs next year with which developers will need to comply in order to design products that can latch onto its network. The move jumps the FCC gun on the open access auctions slated for early next year in the US, where spectrum holders will be obliged to let anyone use anything on their networks, provided certain standards are met.

Meanwhile, the carrier’s co-owners – Verizon and Vodafone – announced that they are to embark upon a 4G LTE deployment plan in the US, with trials beginning in 2008. Vendors involved in the trial include Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia Siemens and Nortel.

So does this nail Voda’s colours to the LTE mast? It may well prove something of a disappointment for the WiMAX Forum, which counted Vodafone’s decision to take membership this year as something of a coup. But Voda has publicly declared its technology neutrality going forward, and it plays in an awful lot of markets, so nothing can be ruled out. Certainly a joint LTE forward plan would settle the long-nagging problem of technology mismatch between the UK firm and its US investment.

And if Verizon sets a precedent by opting for an evolutionary strategy that carries the GSM crowd standard, we might actually one day see a scenario in which all networks are on the same technology. Apart from China, probably.

Verizon is a CDMA player of course, and the technology’s trade association, the CDMA Development Group announced last week that there are now 421.4 million cdmaOne and CDMA2000 subscribers across the world. This led the CDG’s head man, Perry La Forge, to say the following in a press release:

“The CDG is pleased to witness the continued rapid growth and strength of CDMA. Due to its industry-leading telephony and high-speed broadband connectivity, low-cost device availability, and substantially lower total cost of network ownership, it has become the technology of choice in emerging and developed markets alike.”

Now, the Informer appreciates that 421 million is quite a large number, and that you have to be positive in these kind of press releases. But “the technology of choice”? Informa Telecoms & Media, the disappointed, reproachful parent of A Week in Wireless, reckons that global mobile penetration broke the 50 per cent barrier this week, which means that there are somewhere in the region of 3.3bn mobile subscriptions in the world today. Not subscribers, mind, because there’s a lot of multiple account-holding about.

Nonetheless, it equates to around half the world’s population. A swift calculation reveals that the CDG’s figure gives it just under 13 per cent of the world mobile market, which hardly makes it the technology of choice, does it.

Back to Vodafone and it emerged this week that, following its acquisition of Indian carrier Essar, the big V is looking for partners in the Indian market with which it can share the pain of network costs. In South Africa, meanwhile, the firm is after gaining full control of Vodacom, which it co-owns with market incumbent Telkom.

The power struggle over service provision and customer ownership took another turn this week, as Vodafone and Telefonica joined forces to invest in mobile advertising firm Amobee Media Systems. The size of the investment was undisclosed, but described as a minority. Amobee has commercial operations with several operators, with Vodafone among them in its Greek, the Czech and Spanish operations.

In handset world, Korean vendor LG was fighting PR fires this week when reports emerged from its home territory that one of its phones had exploded in the shirt pocket of a quarry worker, killing the poor chap. The melted remains of the handset were found on the body of the man in question. LG was understandably displeased by such an association, and was quick to jump on subsequent reports that the man’s death was an industrial accident, with the handset combustion a consequence rather than a cause.

Meanwhile, thrilling news for all those celebrating St Andrews’ Day last Friday, boffins at the University of Glasgow have developed an interface that lets users tell how much battery life remains on their phone, or how many unread messages they have, from the sound the handset makes when they shake it. Battery life could be represented by the sound of water sloshing around, while messages could be the sound of ball-bearings in a jar. Useful.

The Informer reckons it would be better if you shook the phone and it made the sound of a hundred weirdos mooing on an underground train.

Take care,

The Informer


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