Last week, while on a business trip in California, I bumped into what may be the largest barrier to a wireless Internet: lack of connectivity.
San Francisco had OK coverage but the Silicon Valley, supposedly ground zero for the Internet revolution, seemed to lack the proper infrastructure. At any moment, your connectivity is jeopardized and a move of a few feet can make all the difference in the world between connection and lack thereof. All and all, a sad state of affairs.
However, it was perfectly understandable, considering all the hills and valleys covering the area. What is more worrisome is that I have yet to find someone else addressing this issue. In the last week, I have talked with several people in that area and most of them looked at wireless internet access as somewhat of an oddity. All the people I talked to are actively involved in the Internet industry, either as I-builders, content developers, or software manufacturers. All of them took it for granted that bad cellular coverage and lack of reception was a fact of life. A lot of them were involved in wireless development.
What does all this mean? It means that we are dealing with people developing applications without really using them. Is that good? I doubt it. From my point of view, one can only make truly revolutionary advances in a field if he or she lives within that environment.
So the progress will have to come from somewhere else. Last year, I warned of Europe potentially becoming centerstage to the Internet revolution; This year, I am starting to see proof of that.
In Finland, Nokia has already connected most of the country with a very impressive WAP network. 65% of the people have cell phones and most of those are WAP enabled. Want to check a movie time or restaurant reviews, you can do so, using WAPit, one of the largest portals in the world for WAP applications (unfortunately, most of the content is in Finnish so if you dot know the language, is pretty difficult to use).
Most people over there send short e-mail like messages over the SMS protocol. At 160 characters per message, you cannot say much but is enough for “Meet you at the movie theater at 7pm” or “Lunch?”
In Spain, Motorola and Packet Video recently demonstrated wireless video over a GPRS ( the next generation of high speed GSM) network. For the Barcelona exhibition, both streaming and live video content are being provided from the Internet and a selection of web cameras, and transported across the Motorola end-to-end GPRS solution to the end-user device. The web cameras are situated at PacketVideo’s headquarters in San Diego, at the Barcelona congress centre itself, and at the Invisix centre of excellence in London, a Motorola/Cisco joint venture says the press release.
In Japan, the revolution is in color. A recent survey by Nikkei Market Access showed that over half of the Japanese phones produced this year will have color LCD screens. Those will be use to not only surf the web (in full color) but also potentially to do videoconferencing over GPRS.
Why is progress happening outside to the US? Quite simply put, because they have agreed on a standard (GSM) and are now all working on building its next generation. In the US, we are crippled by a number of different proposals from each of the providers, which has crippled progress as each company goes its own way developing its own proprietary network and technology.
What is needed now is for the American wireless service providers to sit down and agree on implementing GSM. Once that first step is accomplished, they will then need to figure out a system to charge each others back for carrying a competitors traffic on their network. Here’s how it would work. At some set times, the wireless service providers would sit down and agree on a standard and a rollout schedule. Once that is accomplished, they would jointly rollout GSM networks all over the country and work on building a system that would allow anyone to use anyone else’s wireless network. The companies would then charge each others back at the end of the month for all the minutes that non-subscribers have spent on their network. The result would be increase coverage for everyone, but may be a little more expensive than the service we have nowadays.
Where phone companies would innovate is on package of new services they could offer and still on the discounting schemes they already offer.
The customers might have to pay a little more for service from their provider but they will not have to worry whether they are running on AT&T, Sprint, or someone else’s network.
Crazy concept? I dot think so. Do you worry about whose network you’re running on when you are making a long distance call on your landline? No, you do not and the kind of agreement I am talking about already exists among telcos in that space. Why should it be different in the wireless world?
You’re probably wondering why any company would agree to something like this? How about to regain a leadership position in the world market and allow to use your phone anywhere. If such a plan were to be put in place, you could technically have the same phone whether you are in the US or in another country and the wireless provider could expand into overseas markets more easily. Foreigners are already starting to get onto the American market (British company Vodafone, for example, merged its American wireless operations with Bell Atlantic). If American companies want to continue their growth, thell have to expand overseas.
Last but not least, the Internet industry will have to eventually push for something along those lines if it truly wants the wireless revolution to happen. Otherwise, the US will still remain one of the most disconnected country in the world.