a week in wireless

Hello Dolly!

From time to time the world of wireless plays fawning host to a celebrity figure or two. At the Mobile World Congress alone over the years we’ve had visits from Robert Redford, Roger Moore, Wesley Snipes, Tom Jones, Diana Ross and Craig David (all right, that last one’s pushing it a bit). But this week the stars are taking a stand against the industry, led by none other than the First Lady of Country and Western: Dolly Parton.

Parton has written to US regulator the FCC to request a delay to the vote it’s having on whether or not to open up the spectrum that is used to buffer commercial TV and radio transmissions, thereby making it available for unlicensed usage. This ‘white space’ spectrum is used by owners of wireless microphones, among other things, and so the entertainment community is up in arms.

“As someone who uses the white spaces and knows the value of them for the work that I and many of my friends do around the country, I ask the FCC to recognize the entertainment industry’s valuable contribution to the cultural life and economy of this country,” wrote Parton, reminding the Informer that cultural life and economics only ever meet in C&W music when people are singing about poverty, recession and ruin – which is pretty apt at the moment.

“I can unequivocally confirm that the importance of clear, consistent wireless microphone broadcasts simply cannot be overstated. This industry relies on wireless technology and is in jeopardy of being irreversibly devastated by the commission’s pending decision,” she added, laying it on as thick as her make-up.

She didn’t say, as she once revealed in a TV interview, that: “If I have one more facelift, I’ll have a beard.”

Parton has been joined in her crusade by a number of entertainment stars, including Neil Diamond and Guns n’ Roses. What a benefit gig that would be. The Informer can just imagine Parton guesting on Welcome to the Jungle, perhaps stepping up to the (wireless) mic to squawk: “I wanna watch you bleeeeed!”

This unlikely confederacy is not just going up against the FCC, because the plan to open up the white space spectrum has some powerful allies. The likes of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo are all keen to see these airwaves being made available for wireless broadband services like music downloads and concert ticket ordering.

Anyway, will you look at that. We’ve done a whole story about Dolly Parton without once mentioning her famously huge brea… [Oi! That’s enough of that! Ed.]

While we’re on the topic of big boobs, the head of Intel’s ultra mobile products – Anand Chandrasekher – has been forced to apologise after a member of his team made one of his own. Shane Wall, vice president of the chip shop’s mobility group, publicly denigrated the performance of Apple’s iPhone and heaped scorn upon rival silicon vendor ARM.

At Intel’s Developer Forum, which took place in Taiwan last week, Wall was reported to have said that the iPhone “struggles” to run any application that, “requires any horsepower at all”. Wall also suggested that ARM’s chips were responsible for the Apple device’s shortcomings.

Apple is a key customer of Intel’s for desktop and laptop chips and, in this light, Wall’s comments look enough to earn him a spell in the wilderness with nobody but Jonathon Ross and Russell Brand for company.

In a bid to smooth things over, Chandrasekher issued an unctuous “these comments in no way represent the thoughts and opinions of Intel”-style clarification. He went so far as to acknowledge that Intel’s own mobile chip, the low power Atom processor, “does not yet match the battery life characteristics of the ARM processor in a phone form factor; and, while Intel does have plans on the books to get us to be competitive in the ultra low power domain – we are not there as yet.”

“We loves our Appleses, it’s our preciousssss. Nice Armses wouldn’t hurt poor Intel, would it?” he added, hopping onto a nearby rock.

The truth is, of course, that there’s no love lost between Intel and ARM and, earlier this year, Strategy Analytics forecast growth for ARM at Intel’s expense. The analyst house predicted that global sales of MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices) will reach one million units in 2008, and will continue to grow at an average annual rate of 102 per cent to reach 69 million units by 2014.

But the firm expects Intel-based gadgets to take a back seat to those powered by ARM. “Intel’s Moorestown system-on-a-chip will be critical to the company’s MID strategy,” said Peter King, director of the Connected Home Devices unit at Strategy Analytics. “But until this arrives in 2009 or 2010, ARM-based vendors will use this window of opportunity to establish market leadership positions.”

Sticking with devices for a little while, the hard times show no signs of abating at Motorola’s handset unit. At $3.1bn, Q308 sales at the firm’s Mobile Devices arm were down 31 per cent year on year, while operating losses ballooned to $840m from $248m. The firm shipped 25.4 million handsets in the period.

Although it made an effort to trumpet its recent handset launches with its results announcement on Thursday, the firm has a classic Catch 22 on its hands. If Moto wants to offload its struggling devices unit – and it seems evident that this is the case – it doesn’t make sense to prioritise it as an area of investment. On the other hand, if investment and focus are withheld, the unit will deteriorate yet further, making sale at a decent return a distinctly remote possibility.

The current financial climate isn’t helping, as Sanjay Jha, CEO of Moto’s Mobile Devices, conceded: “While our strategic intent to separate the company remains intact, we are no longer targeting the third quarter of 2009, primarily due to the macro-economic environment, stresses in the financial markets and the changes underway in Mobile Devices.”

Speaking at the firm’s Q3 financials presentation on Thursday afternoon, Jha, outlined the company’s game plan. At present, Moto’s handset business is a rat’s nest of platforms. The company has over 20 different combinations of operating system, silicon and user interface (UI).

Jha’s job is to streamline this. As a result, Motorola is to stop developing the bulk of its own operating systems. It will bin Symbian UIQ and its internally developed
Linux and Java platforms, including MotoMAGX, and is also to pay out $150m to escape a lock in deal with its own chip-shop-spin-off, Freescale, in favour of Qualcomm and Texas Instruments.

It will now focus on just three handset platforms – Android, Microsoft Windows Mobile, and its own proprietary OS, P2K, which is used on devices such as the RAZR. This means Motorola’s portfolio will shift to the higher end of the handset tier, although the company is gambling that over the next few years, the Android and Windows Mobile platforms will filter down through the mid-level so it can still address the mass market.

Jha said the company’s first Android handset will be out by Christmas 2009, with Windows providing support for its mid-range portfolio towards the second half of next year. Jha admitted that this strategy will reduce the number of phones that Moto will launch, and may also mean the company loses yet more market share early next year.

“We are reducing investment in platform development to focus on innovation,” he said. “This should save $600m in 2009.” The plans will also see Motorola focussing principally on North America, Latin America and parts of Asia. “We won’t address every geography equally,” Jha said.

Up in the Nordics, Swedo-Finnish JV TeliaSonera and Norway’s Telenor had results of their own out this week. And while they weren’t what you might call positive, they at least both remain in profit.

On Tuesday TeliaSonera reported a 13 per cent drop in Q3 profit to SEK5.4bn (Eur541m), compared to SEK6.2bn in the same period last year. But, despite the global turmoil, the company still managed to boost revenues for the three month period by four per cent to SEK25.8bn.

TeliaSonera’s total subscriber base reached 127.9 million at the end of the third quarter, following the addition of 1.2 million new subscriptions in majority owned operations and 3.8 million in associated companies. In late September, you might remember, the carrier snapped up controlling stakes in two more mobile operators; Spice Nepal and Applifone in Cambodia.

Telenor, meanwhile, announced on Wednesday that it has agreed to buy 60 per cent of Indian mobile licensee Unitech Wireless, for just over $1bn. Mobile start up Unitech has spectrum licences for all 22 of India’s telecom circles, and plans to launch services mid-2009.

It needs the growth. For the third quarter this year, Telenor reported a decline in profit after tax, which fell to NOK3bn (Eur349m), from NOK5bn in the same period last year. Revenues grew slightly, however, to NOK27.6bn from NOK26.5bn last year. During the quarter, the carrier’s mobile operations added six million subscriptions, reaching a total of 159 million.

There was further bad news for Telenor this week as its Russian woes continued and its shares in VimpelCom had been frozen by a court in Siberia. The details of this endless saga are too numerous to list in this paragraph, but you can read all about it on telecoms.com, here.

Vodafone might want to get some advice from Telenor about operating in that part of the world, now that the UK-headquartered mega-carrier has struck a partnership deal with leading Russian operator MTS. It’s a big move for Vodafone, takings its brand into Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Armenia.

It’s not an equity deal, rather one of the strategic tie-ups that Vodafone favours where it can’t get majority shareholdings for one reason or another. And it will give MTS access to products, services and devices from the Vodafone group. MTS will also draw on Vodafone’s know how for building and developing 3G networks and mobile broadband products, as it rolls out its own HSDPA networks. MTS launched its first 3G services in Russia in May, and plans to 3G-enable 14 cities during 2008 and a further 40 cities through 2009.

Vodafone-branded products will be made available to a further 87 million subscribers, including more than 60 million MTS customers in Russia.

Vodafone’s French competitor Orange (owned by France Telecom) lobbed out some results this week as well. Worryingly for the firm, which is stepping up its emerging market investments, its performance in this arena has been on the wane. Q3 growth in MEA and CEE slowed to seven per cent from 8.3 per cent during the first half of the year, which FT blamed on economic conditions.

European telecoms analyst and sector strategist at the Daiwa Institute of Research, Michael Kovacocy, applauded FT’s recent moves into non-Francophone Africa, such as the company’s acquisitions in Uganda, Niger and Kenya, and a renewed interest in Ghana, but said that industry watchers would: “Continue to be wary of pan-European, non in-country consolidation, scale moves from the French powerhouse.”

While we’re in Africa, it came to the Informer’s attention this week that pan-regional carrier MTN has a special offer in Cote d’Ivoire called the Didier Drogba pack. Drogba is an Ivorian footballer who plies his club trade at London team Chelsea FC. The Drogba pack consists of an Alcatel mobile phone, pre-loaded with pictures of the player. The hallmark of the deal, which will surprise nobody familiar with Drogba, is that the service tends to go down eight or nine times every 45 minutes.

And finally this week, we’ll be closing with a special AWIW section called: “I’m On A Train“, which features rail-based cellular buffoonery. The Informer simply had to tell you about the passenger on the French Train Grande Vitesse whose mobile phone fell into the toilet during his journey on Sunday evening.

Gamely thrusting his hand into the bowl to retrieve the device, the man became trapped by the suction-based flushing mechanism. He had to be cut free from the cubicle by the fire brigade – causing a two and a half hour delay to the train – and was escorted from the train with the toilet still attached to his arm, presumably trying desperately to explain over his shoulder to horrified onlookers how the situation had come about. And if that isn’t indignity defined, then you can tell me what is.

Unfortunate this man may have been; foolish even. But educationally sub-normal he probably wasn’t. That descriptor must be reserved this week for the stupidest mugger the Informer has ever heard of – in England, at least. This man robbed a teenaged train passenger of his handset with the accompanying threat of one-sided knife play and, when the victim asked how he was supposed to function without a phone, the mugger gave him his own handset in return. This made him pretty easy to trace.

Now you might plead in mitigation that this was an act of generosity; the kind of civic-minded, responsible thievery that we try to encourage in this country. More likely is the fact that the miscreant in question is an outright moron, fascinated by his own drool, and probably more of a danger to himself than the rest of the population.

Take care out there

The Informer

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