Wednesday, 26 January 2011

O2 announces plan for new public WiFi hotspot network...but how long until WiFi starts to creak?

O2 has announced the launch of a new network of (initially) 450 "premium managed" WiFi hotspots available to be used by customers of any mobile network. Access will be free although customers will have to sit through some adverts. It plans to make it the biggest WiFi hotspot network in the UK. To do so it'll need to outstrip The Cloud's 22,000 hotspots and, arguably BT FON's 2 million, although they might argue reasonably that that's a different thing entirely.

This follows on from the all-very-meteorological announcement that Sky is in to buy The Cloud, which had previously been O2's partner for WiFi connectivity. If Sky is to make a serious play as an MBB MVNO it needs some differentiator (and some way to avoid paying wholesale fees for all the traffic consumed) so picking up The Cloud's extensive network of hotpots seems a good move.

So, as predicted by me last year, offloading is the only game in town and mobile players are jockeying to have a service differentiator (in the form of superior throughput in areas of high demand) and cost reduction tool (WiFi's "cheaper" than WAN connectivity because the spectrum's free).

The cloud (pardon the pun) on the horizon is that the unlicensed spectrum in which WiFi works could soon be clogged up. Just because it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it won't. It's a finite resource and it's shared with all sorts of other technologies (DECT, Zigbee, Bluetooth) and other ISM applications including microwave ovens and car alarms. Offloading to WiFi is all very well in the home where there's are only ever likely to be a handful of users sharing the spectrum. In key public pinch-points like railway stations or airports there could be problems. Issues of lack of licensed spectrum can be overcome by the operator through frequency re-use. Drop the power and put in another transmitter or two. With public spectrum there is no incentive to act so responsibly.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Frustrated with mobile customer service?

Elaborate and funny (wait for the bit right at the end) prank played on Mobistar in Belgium, sending up their infamously bad customer care.

As spotted by Benoit Felten on his Fiberevolution blog.

An outsiders view of India telecoms: mobile broadband

Since I'm just back from a couple of months in India I thought it might be worth sharing a European's perspective on using mobile communications in India. First off, the mobile broadband.

I picked up a Tata Photon stick in Delhi for about EUR30 including 1GB of data. The other main option was MTS but I was promised that national coverage on Tata was better. It's a CDMA 1x EV-DO product and I was intrigued to see what the quality was like. The answer is: excellent. Compared to the mobile broadband I've used in the UK the speeds were tremendous. It was occasionally temperamental authenticating to the network but once it was up and running it was delivering 3-400kbit/s which I thought was pretty good. At one point it stopped working and I called customer care to complain. It turned out that I'd used up the whole 1GB in just a few days (well, there was a whole series of The Inbetweeners to catch up on!). There was some initial misdiagnosis of the problem and a bit of miscommunication due to (according to the call centre rep) my accent being very strong. Also, if I hadn't known what I was talking about the whole process of dealing with this hitch may have been more difficult than it was.

The next issue was recharging. No-one in any of the phone shops around my hotel (and there were A LOT) seemed to know how to do it. So I headed off to Connaught Place, where all the top end shops are and where I'd bought the laptop. No-one in Croma, the electronics store, could help with top up, so I set off to find the Tata shop. I didn't find it but I did find a broom cupboard store where they could top it up with no problems. According to them any of the top-up merchants who sell Tata Indicom (i.e. their standard mobile brand) credit should have been able to do it for Tata Photon too. So either that's true and Tata needs to do some big work educating its channels, or it's not true and they need to do some even bigger work GETTING some channels. I was also glad I was in Delhi at the time. If I'd been in a backwaters it's doubtful I would have been able to manage to top up.

Top up was pricy. EUR20 for an unlimited plan consisting of 10GB of data with a fall-back to 128kbit/s once all of that was used up. That's only a smidge cheaper than it would be in Europe. But the Indian operators need to keep the price high to protect what is still relatively scarce capacity.
From then on, it was pretty much plain sailing. Indoor coverage was excellent. Even on the trains around Delhi and Agra it was great. Ditto by the sea in Goa. The only patchy bits were on the bus heading from Hampi through to Pondicherry, where we were going through some fairly sparsely populated places, and in Auroville, near Pondicherry, where I spent my last week. Apparently in the latter the service hasn't been upgraded to EV-DO so I was stuck creeping along at about 40kbit/s.

According to the friends I was staying with (who used the older generation Tata 1x service) Tata still demonstrate the usual pain-in-the-ass customer care that seems to prevail in India. That's unfortunate because the quality of the service is such that MBB should be able to establish itself as the only option for broadband, even with BSNL and others investing in fibre deployments. Good customer care should be a differentiator from state dinosaurs like BSNL, but it seems that currently it's not.

The other interesting thing was the apparent co-branding of Tata with Qualcomm. I'm not sure if Qualcomm's branding is regularly used on products and services in emerging markets, but it certainly was by Tata...

Monday, 24 January 2011

The 4G's a bit like Appletise(r)

I've been watching the whole "what is 4G" argument from afar for a little while. The announcement (or rather dribbling out of the information) that HSPA+ etc would henceforth be included in the definition of 4G was astounding. Using my overdeveloped analogy skills, hard-earned through years as an analyst I was put in mind of...Appletise.

Back in the 80s there was a drink called Appletise. Not Appletiser, Appletise. But most people seemed to be incapable of calling it by its real name and called it Appletiser. I would characterise these people as idiots. Unfortunately, such was the wilful ignorance of the British public that Appletiser became the name used in common parlance. What did the company do? Did they stand up and say to the British public "stop, the name of our product is Appletise, please refer to it as such"? No they didn't. The company showed eel-like backbone and changed the name to Appletiser. This might not be exactly what went on in the boardroom but it was certainly how it seemed to me as a pedantic teenager.

The ITU has, if anything, been even weaker in its approach as it wasn't one born of consumer pressure. No-one was refering to this stuff as 4G before. It was entirely pressure from telcos. Pathetic.

NB - As a little addendum, I checked and the drink's originally from South Africa where it was always called Appletiser, so all you South Africans are forgiven and can call it 4G if you like.

Welcome back to the Wireless Noodle

Over the last couple of years I've been actively blogging about the changing world of mobile broadband on my Future of Mobile Broadband blog. However, since kicking off my new venture, Machina Research, I thought it best to switch back to the old Wireless Noodle as I'm planning to talk about much more than just mobile broadband.

Machina Research is a specialist research and consulting firm focusing on the global opportunity for M2M, IoT and mobile broadband (I'm not abandoning the MBB stuff altogether). Today is my first day full time on the project and I'll have lots of exciting news to share.

First job is to gear up from Mobile World Congress. If you're going to be there and are interested in meeting up, drop me a line.