a week in wireless

The half life of ideas is converging on zero

The Informer feels like he’s just got back from the future. He’s been attending the inaugural Wired event in London, which is sponsored by Telefónica O2 and serves as a tank for some of the tech and art sectors most interesting brains to swim around in.

He’s heard about the origins of the digital universe from George Dyson, collaborative consumption from Rachel Botsman, and immortality from Richard Seymour, seen 3D printing in action and watched unmanned drones and robots zip about the place.

Telefónica O2
chairman and CEO, Matthew Key, was on hand to talk about new venture Telefónica Digital, which sounds like an incubator for start up ideas. Telcos are often regarded as unwieldy, slow moving entities, and Key said the point of Digital was to pool the company’s assets and create new business models out of them. “The biggest factor in this mindset shift is that we have to move into the future and not protect the past,” he said. “We can’t operate in a walled garden, we need to create the right products for people,” he said, acknowledging that there was a trade off between short term and long term gains with potential new wave products created by the unit eating into traditional revenues of the group.

So rather timely was the announcement that O2 UK is trialling a VoIP technology offering to a select group of customers, allowing smartphone users to use voice and text services over wifi networks from their normal mobile number.

O2 Connect will initially be available on all iOS and Android handsets and will subsequently roll out to other devices, the service has benefits over existing services such as Skype as it doesn’t require the user to set up a separate account or ID, and they can use their existing phone number instead.

The Telefónica Digital pitch was well placed at a conference where the Informer observed about 50 per cent of the audience were running their start ups from the auditorium seats while the presentations were taking place.

But Key also had some concerns about the UK’s competitiveness, given that Ofcom this week delayed the country’s 4G spectrum auction yet further. Ofcom said that it received a number of “substantial and strongly argued responses” to its initial plans and will undertake a further round of consultation, pushing the auction out until the final quarter of 2012, at the earliest. “I worry that UK PLC will be behind the 4G curve,” Key said, referring to the large number of European companies that have already distributed 4G spectrum.

Over in the US, Sprint finally confirmed the industry’s worst kept secret – yes it will launch LTE in the 1900MHz band, but the news was that it will do it by mid-2012 and complete the build out before the end of 2013, a good two years earlier than expected.

The Informer actually chatted with Stephen Bye, chief technology officer of Sprint, pretty much straight after the news broke, and the man was keen to play down the importance of this latest announcement when compared to that of the Network Vision project launched at the end of 2010.

“October 7 wasn’t the ‘now let’s begin’ point of our network upgrade. A lot had already happened by then, work had been going on for months, to develop the roadmap for the technology and make sure there was a device ecosystem,” Bye said. “In fact, a much bigger announcement was the Network Vision initiative that came out almost a year ago.

“This is the real network modernisation plan. We’re rebuilding the network with multimode base station capabilities. This is what really laid the foundation for us, so the LTE announcement is really just the next chapter of that, the next step along that continuum,” Bye said.

An overhaul of the operator’s basestations packs more equipment into a smaller space and replaces ageing, signal degrading coax with fibre. Multimode cabinets allow Sprint to use different RF technologies on different frequency bands, so the firm can have a combination of CDMA, LTE or WiMAX across different radio bearers, be it 800MHz or 1.9MHz. The idea is to make the addition of new technologies much smoother, but Bye is careful to avoid the term “rip and replace” for the network upgrade.

The company said it had concluded trials of its multimode technology and is on course to complete its deployment by the end of 2013 – two years sooner than originally scheduled. Network Vision could cost up to $5bn but is expected to deliver $10bn to $11bn in net economic value to the company between 2011 and 2017.

Sticking with spectrum issues now and Neul, the UK white spaces player that says its technology will revolutionise the M2M and local broadband sectors, has revealed its hardware partner as Carlson. Carlson is a US firm that designs and develops products to deliver high-speed internet and voice connectivity to rural communities using more than 100MHz of white space radio spectrum in the UHF band. Volume shipments of the new system are planned before the end of 2011, with samples and development equipment available before then.

A firm that likely won’t be dealing in volume shipments of its Galaxy Tab 10.1 device is Samsung, which was hit by an injunction won by Apple this week, blocking sales of the unit in Australia.

The device was already temporarily banned pending the court ruling, and the ban has now been upheld until a full patent trial is held next year. Strewth!

Samsung had initially offered to modify the software on the device to counteract the injunction, but Apple’s argument stated that the device also copies the design of its iPad and iPhone products. Samsung had appealed the decision to get its device in stores during the lucrative Christmas period, but Apple said it was concerned that if consumers bought the Galaxy Tab might, they may never choose to buy Apple products again.

Samsung recently lost the rights to sell its Galaxy Tab in Germany, after Apple won an injunction to block the sale of the product, alleging that the device infringes patents held by Apple. The company is now seeking to block the sale of Apple’s iPhone 4S in several markets, including South Korea.

On that note, when the Informer wondered past the O2 store on Oxford Street this morning, he noted only about 20 or 30 people queuing up outside to get their hands on the iPhone 4S, which launches today. The lines were significantly shorter than those he’d seen at previous events. The queues of people waiting to download iOS 5 from Apple’s servers were considerable longer however, with plenty of users complaining that they couldn’t get on to Apple’s infrastructure to download the update. The Informer has also heard that some iPhone 4 users have had a less than stellar experience with the upgrade itself, which has caused glitches on some devices.

Meanwhile, while swigging cocktails, courtesy of Courvoisier at the Wired after party on Thursday night, he got his hands on a new Samsung gadget which looks for all the world like a slightly larger Nexus S, and sports what looked like Android Ice Cream Sandwich. It was very, very nice, and all the Informer can say is that we might hear more about it next week.

Bad PR award of the week has to go to RIM, for the persistent outage of the BlackBerry service this week. The Informer is sure many of you are suffering from the problem, which prompted founder and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis to go on YouTube and apologize to users.

The outage initially affected users in Europe, the Middle East and Africa but has since spread to affect users in Asia and South and Central America as well. According to Lazaridis, the BlackBerry service is now “approaching normal levels of service in Europe, Middle East, India and Africa.” Apparently, the disruption was caused by a server issue at one of RIM’s datacentres in the UK town of Slough.

RIM’s CIO Robin Bienfait added: “You’ve depended on us for reliable, real-time communications, and right now we’re letting you down. We are taking this very seriously and have people around the world working around the clock to address this situation. We believe we understand why this happened and we are working to restore normal service levels in all markets as quickly as we can.”

UAE mobile operators Etisalat and Du have both announced that they will compensate BlackBerry users for the recent disruption to their services after a failover did not function as previously tested, Lazaridis said.

Ovum analyst Nick Dillon was sympathetic to the company, citing the outage as the first major disruption to the BlackBerry service since 2009, during which time the number of BlackBerry users has doubled. However, he acknowledged that this period of sustained downtime will again call into question RIM’s reliance on its centralised network architecture.

“While the disruption to the BlackBerry service is an unfortunate event for RIM, there are wider and more important issues which the company faces. These include capitalising on its growth in the consumer market, maintaining its stronghold in the enterprise, and updating its software platform to cope with increasing competition from Apple, Android and Windows Phone,” Dillon added.

Maybe there’s a lesson about eggs and baskets there.

Take care

The Informer


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