a week in wireless

New best friends

Anyone over here in the UK keeping an eye on the new Tory-LibDem coalition government in anticipation of its likely approach to the communications sector would have been interested to see this week that new Prime Minister David Cameron’s first order of the day was to ban mobile phones from cabinet meetings. The Informer has no idea what kind of usage Cameron fears would interrupt his weekly governmental chinwags; perhaps he’s worried that his new deputy will forever be tweeting about electoral reform.

A more immediately relevant coalition leadership team was being established across town as the merger of the UK arms of Orange and T-Mobile begun to take formal shape. From July 1st this year, the amalgamated entity will be known as Everything Everywhere, which seems just a touch grandiose, doesn’t it. Aspirational brands are all well and good. But Everything Everywhere? By definition that has to include the most unpleasant things in the most unpleasant places.

With this in mind it is perhaps wise that it will retain the two existing market facing brands owned by France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom. They will keep their own retail outlets, offerings and service centres, combining their infrastructure to create a ‘super network’ according to the press release that trumpeted the arrival of the new company.

There’s no such thing as a merger of equals, of course, and we might perhaps read something into the fact that Orange UK CEO Tom Alexander will be chief executive of EE, while Richard Moat, his opposite number at T-Mobile, becomes CFO and deputy CEO. They will oversee an organisation with more than 30 million customers.

Meanwhile, France Telecom is understood to be considering taking a stake in an unnamed Iraqi mobile operator. There are three mobile players in Iraq, Zain, Iraqna and Korek. The latter is the likely option for FT, given that it has openly been looking for investment. Indeed it’s been in discussions with Etisalat since 2008, according to Informa Telecoms & Media. Presumably Etisalat would be a bit peeved if FT came in and snuffled up a stake, but then France Telecom may be looking for a spat in the region now that it’s settled its differences with Orascom (which, incidentally, has previously tried to set up a JV with Korek itself).

And while we’re looking at European forays into the Middle East, Virgin Mobile has launched a Qatari branch of its MVNO. The host carrier is Qtel and it will be interesting to see how Virgin Mobile handles its marketing. The firm favours a saucy snigger in much of its marketing and publicity work which, presumably, wouldn’t be that popular in Qatar.

Not that popular back in the UK, with consumers at least, will be Vodafone’s new take on fair data usage. Well, it’s not so much a new take as a rejection of the concept in favour of an altogether harder line.

So from June 1st, Vodafone will scrap the fair usage policy on its 500MB Flexi or Value Pack offerings, introducing out of bundle charging for pay monthly customers that go over the 500MB limit. Under the new charging structure, monthly bundle customers will pay £5 for every 500MB after the first 500MB, while customers without a monthly bundle will pay £0.50 for every 10MB after the first 25MB. “The reason we’re introducing these charges is to make it fairer for everyone, and to protect our network from data abuse,” the company said.

Vodafone’s move is indicative of a growing trend and one we can expect to see more of. As Informa analyst Tony Brown noted: “The fact is that an increasing number of wireless broadband operators – across both 3G and WiMAX – are moving towards stricter download limits for subscribers and that there are increasingly few operators in the wireless broadband market that are offering unlimited packages to subscribers.”

Brown was talking about the Asia Pacific region, where this approach seems better developed by the local carriers. The Informer recently met with Tarek Robbiati, chief executive of leading Hong Kong operator CSL, which had just made the shift to speed based pricing for mobile broadband, claiming something of a world first. However, it strikes the Informer that there will always be a need for consumption-based charging, because it’s the only measurable by which operators can generate revenues. But it still seems somehow backward, like buying a bucket of mobile minutes does today.

One company that likely isn’t having issues with the mobile data boom is Telecom New Zealand (TCNZ), because its 3G network doesn’t work. This week Franco-US vendor Alcatel-Lucent was forced to pay out NZ$100m ($72.8m) in compensation over the poor performance of the 3G network it delivered to the carrier, and operates on its behalf. Alcatel-Lucent was even forced to break out the big guns, sending CEO Ben Verwaayen over to New Zealand to meet with TCNZ management.

In February this year TCNZ’s CTO, Frank Mount, and Alcatel-Lucent’s head of New Zealand, Steve Lowe, both resigned over the network’s well publicised shortcomings, which have included several outages.

Moving on to this week’s Apple news now, and the industry’s love-hate relationship with California’s king of cool. Taiwanese handset vendor HTC, well known for flying the Android flag, was definitely down on Apple. The company took legal action against the firm for patent infringement in the iPhone, iPad and iPod in the US, joined by Finnish handset giant Nokia, which put in a similar complaint with the Federal District Court in the Western District of Wisconsin. Expect this one to run and run…

Still awake? Good, because taking quite a different tack was software developer Adobe, which quit with the mudslinging and took out full page adverts and web banners in the US press and plastered them with “We love Apple” and other fingers down the throat proclamations of adoration.

But it’s not all puppies and butterflies. Adobe dishes out a backhanded slap with the finishing paragraph: “What we don’t love is anybody taking away your freedom to choose what you create, how you create it and what you experience on the web.” Take that Apple. The Informer looks forward to more playground scuffles between the two. It’s more entertaining than the patent disputes anyway.

The man from Cupertino has got his hands full at the moment, gearing up for the launch of the iPad in nine countries beyond the US on May 28. Pre-ordering started this week for eager consumers in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Switzerland and the UK.

But for consumers who can’t wait that long Irish operator Cubic Telecom has launched what it says is Europe’s first SIM card for the iPad 3G. The device takes an unusual sized micro SIM card, so users who have purchased an iPad in the US with the intention of using it elsewhere before launch have been SOL until now. Brilliant, eh? That’s just what we need; a different sized SIM. Stupid, self-serving and ultimately, if as some suggest it is designed as a means of locking the device to a network, likely to fail.

Meanwhile, the online media was also squeezing the last drops of news out of the Android versus Apple conjecture, suggesting that US carrier Verizon Wireless is collaborating with Google on the development of an iPad rival. But this wasn’t some spurious rumour kick started by a tech blog, these words came from the mouth of Verizon CEO, Lowell McAdam during an interview with the Wall Street Journal. Well, kind of. What McAdam actually said was that Verizon is working with Google on an Android tablet, to see what Google has to offer that could really lift the internet tablet experience.

Pretty soon iPad ‘rivals’ will be ten a penny, if they aren’t already. The device is, after all, just a glorified e-reader. The Spring Design Alex and the Archos 7 spring to mind as Android-based rivals that do the same job, and in the broader scope of Android’s adoption, Google’s part is negligible.

What’s often forgotten is that Google and Android are two separate entities and it’s important for the industry to perceive them as such. At the moment, much of the operator community’s fear (real or perceived) seems to stem from this idea that Google and Android are one and the same. True, Google owns Android the company, but Android the operating system is released – and mainly developed by – the Open Handset Alliance (OHA), an association of 60 plus companies of which Google is only one. The Android OS in its entirety is released under the Apache open source licence, allowing anyone to take the code and modify it without releasing the changes back to the community.

So Google’s own flavour of Android, as seen on the Nexus One, is really Google’s own OS under the same name, just as China Mobile’s OPhone platform is Android under a different name. Heck, the Nexus One probably wouldn’t even exist if Google thought the industry was swallowing Google’s perceived attachment to the Android platform unreservedly. So, if Verizon does release an Android powered tablet device, it doesn’t necessarily put Google in any position of power because the device will likely be running a Verizon customised or generic version of Android.

Sticking with Android, a team of Maemo hackers working with Nokia’s home grown Linux platform have successfully ported the Android platform to the Nokia N900 internet tablet, replacing the original Maemo 5 OS. Working under the NITdroid project – for Nokia Internet Tablets – the coders have got Android version 2.1, known as Éclair, up and running on the N900. The port is a long way of being usable however, as many of the drivers for telephony and wifi to mention but a few, are still missing. Last week telecoms.com reported that IPhone and Android platform hacker David Wang had got Android running on the iPhone 3G, and it’s looking pretty good, although audio hasn’t made it across yet.

Nokia meanwhile was doing some hacking of its own, implementing another structural and managerial shake-up designed to improve its performance in the high end smartphone segment as well as its growing services portfolio. In a move that signals the firm’s concerns in the top end of the handset market, where it is losing ground to Apple and Android, a new unit has been created to oversee the production of smartphones and mobile computers. The Mobile Solutions unit will be headed by Anssi Vanjoki, a Nokia veteran with nearly 20 years’ service. The rest of the company will be split between two other new units: Mobile Phones and Markets.

Nokia said that the reorganisation, which will become effective on July 1st this year, will “increase competitiveness and deliver a stronger and more differentiated consumer experience.” Last week, speaking to shareholders at the company’s AGM, CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo pledged to regain ground in the lucrative smartphone market, conceding the firm’s recent shortcomings.

“We are working hard to reclaim leadership in high-end smartphones and mobile computers,” he said. “It is critical that we improve the customer experience with the usability of both our devices and our services.” Over to you, Mr Vanjoki; everybody’s waiting.

Take care

The Informer


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