a week in wireless

Here we go again

It may be a new year but nothing much has changed, has it. For example, the Informer – as is often the case – is struggling to think of a second sentence for this week’s edition. At least that problem’s solved now, anyway. Really, though, 2009 feels like more of 2008. Maybe that’s what life’s like when you hit a certain age but, either way, it doesn’t feel much like we’re leaping forwards into the glorious and thrilling unknown.

Nonetheless, this week both Chinese kit vendor Huawei and instant messaging outfit Neustar issued their predictions of what will unfold in 2009. It turns out there’s a thin line between forecasting and, well, hope. Neustar expects “Mobile IM to drive social networking” and “Mobile IM to dominate the Italian market”. Good job it’s in the IM space, then. It also took a long shot on “Mobile Internet to close gap on PC-based Internet use.” Some people just love the thrill of gambling, don’t they.

Meanwhile, Huawei’s ancient soothsayer avoided punishment by telling his lords what they wanted to hear. Tera-scale networks, single RAN architectures and acceleration of the move to all IP will all be big news in ’09, said the seer, nervously, before relaxing as it became clear that this chimed perfectly with Huawei’s product roadmaps.

He wasn’t able to shine much light into the perpetual darkness of the Chinese 3G licence question, however. This week reports from within the People’s Republic offered a glimpse, though, as it is believed the licences have now been issued.

It might well have more subscribers than any other mobile operator on the planet, but that didn’t stop China Mobile (CM) getting dumped on by its Governmental overlords, who decided to issue it with a TD-SCDMA licence. Anyone who’s ever received something useless, disappointing or embarrassingly ill-chosen for Christmas will know exactly how CM feels. And you can bet it still made a decent attempt to look and sound enthusiastic about it.

Actually, according to the haruspices at Ovum, there may be good reason for CM to feel upbeat. The analysis outfit pointed out that, while nowhere else in the world will have TD-SCDMA, the Chinese market – and, specifically, the lion’s share of it that CM controls – is large enough to build a scale business. Not only that, the government has made such a costly fuss of developing its own 3G technology that it will no doubt be ready to assist the carrier in making it successful. China Unicom and China Telecom got WCDMA and cdma2000 licences respectively.

If only India could enjoy the kind of 3G licence expediency so readily apparent in China. There’s been another delay in India, with January 30th now believed to be the next date from which licence allocation will be postponed. This week India’s Department of Telecommunications (DoT) rejected a proposal from the country’s finance ministry to double the reserve price for a national 3G licence. DoT felt this could risk damaging enthusiasm among foreign investors and result in higher prices to end users. However, the final decision rests with the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs. So we’ll have to wait and see.

Any hike in licence price will also affect proponents of WiMAX in India, who this week would have had mixed feelings on reading the thoughts of Nomura analyst Richard Windsor. While he predicted that ’09 will “see WiMAX find its place in the spectrum of radio technologies” – which, let’s face it, could be positive, negative or neither – he stressed that the technology’s success will likely be restricted to the fixed arena.

“Fixed-Mobile [802.16d] has seen the vast majority of deployments to date and is the only application that I think WiMAX will be used for in the long-term,” said Windsor. “In mobile, WiMAX is up against LTE where the only advantage it has is its commercial maturity. I have long believed that real demand for 4G is unlikely to materialise much before 2014/2015 and by then WiMAX will have lost this edge.”

Any mobile WiMAX networks that steal a march on LTE deployments, said Windsor, will likely migrate to LTE once that technology – and all of its scale benefits – comes online.

Ask WiMAX poster child Clearwire whether or not there is any intention to one day migrate to LTE and you’ll probably get a terse response. The firm pushed manfully on this week with the launch of a commercial service in Portland, Oregon. Under the ‘Clear’ brand name, the home internet service costs $30 per month and the mobile internet service is priced at $10 per month. And like the Xohm-branded service launched by Sprint in September 2008 in Baltimore, there is a daily access rate priced at $10.

Clearwire says it is aiming to acquire 25 percent of the 1.7 million users within its WiMAX network coverage area across Portland. Despite the Portland launch, Clearwire’s investors have still felt the need to write down some the value of their WiMAX investment. This week, Intel announced it would incur a $950m charge in its 4Q 2008 results (published 15 January) to reflect the decline in Clearwire’s value.

Time Warner Cable
says it expects to incur a charge of $350m related to its Clearwire investment while Comcast, another cable operator investor in Clearwire, says it is also planning to take an impairment charge. The extent of Comcast’s writedown on Clearwire has yet to be disclosed.

On the downside for the WiMAX camp, Nokia this week squashed its sole device for the technology. It might be that the drag on WiMAX deployments has cooled Nokia’s already mild interest in the sector and, although it hasn’t ruled out reintroducing WiMAX product in its terminal portfolio in the future, there’s not much of a game to play in at the moment.

Far more important to the Finnish handset vendor at the moment is the appearance in shops this week of its first touch screen mobile, the 5800 – or ‘Tube’. Nokia has lagged a number of manufacturers in producing a touch screen device not reacting with to the iPhone with a comparable interface as other vendors have done. So with all the extra time it’s taken, it will be hoping that the Tube might make Apple crumble.

The 5800 boasts a full VGA, 3.2″ widescreen display, with a 16 by 9 aspect ratio and 30 frames-per-second playback. Taking advantage of touch screen technology, Nokia has streamlined the user interface to make use of commonly accessed applications and contacts, as well as the Ovi platform and, of course, the Nokia Music Store.

Under the hood there is HSDPA connectivity, GPS, 8GB memory, a 3.5mm jack and surround sound stereo speakers as well as a 3.2 megapixel camera. The web browser notably supports Flash Lite 3. And one thing the Tube has over the iPhone is a full QWERTY keyboard as well as the touch interface.

Much more the Informer cannot tell you, although he has been promised a Tube on review. If he gets one – promises are so easily broken, after all – he’ll have a good fiddle and let you know all about it.

In other handset news, US handset manufacturer Palm attempted to catch up with the leading lights of the mobile world this week with the unveiling of its own web-enabled platform, and an accompanying gadget.

Jumping on the cloud computing bandwagon, Palm webOS allows consumers to pull their contact, calendars and personal information down from the internet on any device, wirelessly. A bit like what Apple, Nokia, Google and to some degree RIM, are already offering.

A key feature of the Palm platform is synchronisation of information between multiple services. So if the same contact is listed in the user’s phonebook and on their social networking sites, both contact details are pulled into the same interface. Likewise with multiple conversation platforms such as text message and email.

The first device to support the webOS platform is the Pre, which will be available exclusively from Sprint in the first half of 2009. Packing a slide out keyboard and touch screen interface, the Pre will be available with either HSDPA or EVDO connectivity, wifi and GPS. It boasts 8GB of storage and a 3 megapixel camera and probably a handset first in the shape of an inductive charging unit.

And finally in the handset space this week something we’ve never seen before. A counterfeit product released to the market with no original to copy. There have been reports recently that Apple is considering an ‘iPhone nano’; a smaller version of its iconic mobile. Nowhere have these reports been taken more seriously than in the Far East, where vendors of moody gear got so excited that they faked something that didn’t exist, filling stores with counterfeit iPhone nanos.

This raises an interesting point. While clearly these firms are counterfeiting the Apple logo and livery, can they be accused of forging the product itself if the product itself doesn’t exist? Hmmm. If not then, should Apple actually release an iPhone nano, and should it look like the one the counterfeiters built, they might be able to claim some kind of IP over the design. That would be hilarious.

Take care

The Informer

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