a week in wireless


Style, substance and spectral efficiency

Given the industry we all work in, milestones are a common occurrence. There’s a world first this or that on an almost weekly basis and the occasional reminder of the still green but fast growing roots. Today is the 20th anniversary of the world’s first GSM call (on a commercial network, for the pedants), which was made between Finland’s former prime minister Harri Holkeri and vice mayor of the city of Tampere, Kaarina Suonio. The network was built by Telenokia and Siemens for local operator Radiolinja.

Things have changed an awful lot in those last 20 years. Telenokia and Siemens are now NSN, Radiolinja is known as Elisa and we have seen several firsts for 4G networks. Around the time that first GSM call was being made and the nascent UK mobile market consisted of the analogue offerings of Cellnet and Racal, Charles Dunstone started flogging car phones from his flat in Marylebone and one Rory Sutherland had just started his career with Ogilvy.

Fast forward to this week and the Informer was listening to the reminiscences and observations of both at the Google Think Mobile conference in London. It was a cracking event and Sutherland’s presentation was peppered with philosophical insight, not least the notion, which the Informer is sure we are all familiar with, that our adoption of technology has leapt ahead of our understanding of it. “Over the next ten to 15 years we will see a slowdown in technological progress,” Sutherland said. “I don’t think it’s true that all things technological progress at an exponential rate – instead there are bursts of change punctuated by periods of relative stability, with perhaps a small level of incremental improvement.” A refreshing and thought provoking concept the Informer thinks, given the day to day force feeding of technological improvements that lead to everything being Bigger, Better, Faster and More, with the result that the industry hype machine is now bloated like a foie-gras goose, sweating from the gavage.

The Informer agrees with Sutherland when he says he’d like to see the discussion move away from what is technologically possible, and towards what is the proper human use to be derived from these technologies. Take for example, some of the very cool but so far useless stuff coming out of the labs in Mountain View. One of the tech demonstrations at the Google event showed how a user could take a photo of an incomplete Sudoku puzzle with Google Goggles after which the great Google brain would just go ahead and solve it for you, saving you all the trouble and no doubt, time, that can now be put to some more useful application.

We all know that it’s sometimes difficult to feel genuinely happy for other people’s fortune. Consider lottery winners and very young, very successful people for instance. Well the Informer felt just a little bit sick when one Amanda Rosenberg took to the stage at Think Mobile. At all of 25 years old, she is Google’s mobile business development manager for the EMEA region. She is also a genuinely nice person, funny with it, and delivered a killer presentation. If it sounds like the Informer has a new crush it would be a difficult thing to deny and he’s pretty sure that he felt the two people sitting either side of him slump back into their chairs with the same sigh of blissful resignation. So capable was she that the Informer almost suspects Mountain View is growing its employees like some kind of hot house babies.

Right, enough of that. It’s been a busy week for the Informer who also attended the Cambridge Wireless Future of Wireless conference in er, Cambridge. It was another good event but held on a terrible day with the mercury soaring past the 30 degree mark – not the most receptive environment for heavyweight discussions about backhaul needs and spectrum allocation.

However the Informer did witness a truly amazing performance from the legendary Ed Candy, house music pioneer and technology strategist at 3 UK, during the group discussion on “Networks under Stress – Capacity, Resilience, Accessibility and Performance.” With little in the way of air con, Ed’s head started to nod at one point (don’t worry though, you weren’t the only one Ed) but like a trooper he snapped back to attention during the debate and delivered an algorithm for calculating the backhaul needs of a nationwide LTE network without missing a beat. Then again, he might have been up late rolling out HD voice to 3’s network. The UK operator tapped up NSN to improve voice quality, which should encourage people to make more calls because they can hear all those little nuances that are usually lost through compression. You’ll still need a capable handset though.

NSN was having rather less success in its search for a willing buyer for a stake in the ailing JV, which now appears to have staggered to a halt, with reports emerging that Nokia and Siemens have agreed to rather invest more of their own cash in an effort to revive the partnership’s fortunes. On a more positive note the Finnish firm’s handset unit continued its divestment of non-core assets with the offloading of its operator branded messaging business to Synchronica.

Nokia formed the messaging unit with the acquisition of Oz Communications back in 2008 and has services deployed with around 80 operators worldwide. Synchronica will acquire ten North American mobile operators as customers, servicing more than six million active end users and will add to its portfolio Nokia’s email, IM and social networking gateway and client software and associated patents.

Patents seem to be a staple item in AWIW these days and usually only mentioned in some tit for tat dispute. It seems that most business is done via lawsuits these days, with the various players shafting each other over alleged infringements. Whatever happened to making stuff? Going back to Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland for just a moment, who also talked about the idea of comparative advantage: If you have two islands and one island is better at growing corn and still better at making bicycles than the other island, the best way to maximise the commercial value of the whole ecosystem is for the one substantially better island to focus on making bicycles, while the other country grows corn. The idea is that they should focus on not just what they are good at, but what they are remarkably good at. Is it actually conceivable that one island could be remarkably better at suing than the other? Perhaps.

Not wanting to disappoint, the bunfight for Nortel’s patent chest concluded Thursday, with Chief Strategy Officer George Riedel’s announcement that “following a very robust auction”, the winning bid came from a buyer too big for even Google to take on.

Following months of speculation and a $900m kick-off bid from Mountain View, the booty has gone to a consortium that reads like a Who’s Who of the tech industry: Apple, EMC, Ericsson, Microsoft, RIM and Sony. Even with names like that in the mix, the $4.5bn price paid is still pretty eye-watering or, as Nortel’s Riedel preferred to put it, “unprecedented.”

On a similar note the patent dispute between Apple and Samsung escalated another few notches as Samsung seeks to ban imports of Apple devices into the United States. The South Korean manufacturer has filed a complaint with the patent litigator’s favourite court – the US International Trade Committee (USITC) requesting “relief in the form of a permanent exclusion order prohibiting entry to the United States of all Apple products in violation of Samsung patents.” In the US, the International Trade Commission has become an increasingly popular stage on which telecoms rivals hammer-out patent-related grievances. Apart from the fact that it’s perceived to offer speedier resolutions, its power to effect import bans is seen as part of the attraction for companies looking to get one up on a competitor.

Speaking of one ups, embattled LTE startup LightSquared’s woes appear not to have put off prospective customers, as the company announced a new customer in the shape of VoIP provider netTalk, which joins Sprint, Best Buy and Leap Wireless as a wholesale customer of the telco.

According to LightSquared, the VoIP company will “develop its own branded voice and high-speed mobile data services” using the wholesaler’s spectrum on a multi-year agreement. But the announcement of the deal with netTalk coincided with an announcement from the New York City Fire Department that it had joined the Coalition to Save our GPS group. The Coalition, apart from sounding like something that fights for the rights of an endangered wildlife species, is opposed to LightSquared’s planned LTE network, claiming the wholesaler’s technology interferes with GPS. The company has until today to report back to the FCC with results of a testing programme into the claimed interference. While the results have yet to be fully disclosed, early indications are that the proposed technology does interfere with a variety of public safety devices – something that LightSquared strenuously denies.

On the subject of strenuous denials, a controversial consortium of companies led by Neul, Microsoft, BBC, Nokia, BSkyB and Samsung are pushing ahead with a test program in the UK to discover if unused TV spectrum – white spaces – could be re-appropriated to create so called “super wifi hotspots.”

There are plenty who don’t think the idea has legs, not least Ericsson’s Hans Vestberg as well as Bengt Nordstrom, founder of industry consultancy Northstream who recently told Telecoms.com that “It’s highly unlikely that a start-up company will have its technology approved as a standard for white space usage…The road to recognised and approved radio access technology standards is paved with interesting but unsuccessful start-up company initiatives”.

Still, on the 27th of June, in the jungle of Neul, in the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool, he was splashing enjoying the jungle’s great joys (when Horton the elephant heard a small noise) when CTO professor William Webb, defended his company’s technology, saying it allowed “access to spectrum that is owned by others without forcing them to give it back.”

Well, Neul et al may be hoping to get their SexyBack but will MySpace, which has just been flogged by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. for a pitiful $35m – a far cry from the $580m Murdoch paid for it in 2005. Ouch. The buyer is Specific Media, which the Informer supposes is better than non-specific media, and is a consortium counting Justin Timberlake among its investors. As part of the deal, Timberlake becomes MySpace’s creative consultant.

On the subject of social networking, and for some reason the Informer just can’t seem to get Google out of his head, the search giant took another stab at Facebook with the launch of Google+. The offering, which follows in the wake of the failure of Buzz and Wave, changes tack slightly with a focus on third party developed game and apps, just like Facebook. But unusually for a social network, it’s invite only at present.

Still if history has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is a given and the incumbent’s position is never secure. As Charles Dunstone said during his presentation, in the last three or four years the incumbents in the mobile market have squandered the opportunity, and the key players are now the companies making operating systems, rather than those which run networks or make the hardware.

There’s something to think about,

Until next time

The Informer.

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