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Hollow promises and the wireless Web

Venture capitalist Bruce Sachs writes that people are fed up with waiting for the arrival of truly "mobile broadband" access. Hint: He has a few ideas about how to speed things up.

Is it any great mystery why the world is still waiting for the "wireless Web" to become the force many thought it should have already become?

Let's face it: For most people, the wireless Web still means tiny screens with poor resolution. Handicapped by a very narrow pipe for bandwidth, it offers only intermittent connectivity and confines users to "walled gardens," where they are restricted to viewing content that's chosen by the operator.

Tailoring content to the current wireless Web is wasted energy, yet many operators are re-formatting, stripping and screen-scraping Web pages to fit on small screens. Muddying matters even further is the fact that the screens come in different sizes while different manufacturers offer varying interfaces.

What a mess.

What people want instead is the real Web, the one they experience from their desktops. They want richer, if not larger, screens. They want fatter pipes. They want to go anywhere on the Web they choose.

Many people want remote access to the applications in their enterprise. Wireless should mean mobile, and today's wireless Web cannot be described as truly mobile--not when connections get dropped simply by driving at 25mph or walking around a corner.

We need fatter pipes. Moving to 2.5G will help, but that still won't provide the equivalent of a desktop experience.
We need fatter pipes. Moving to 2.5G will help, but that still won't provide the equivalent of a desktop experience. 3G has promise, but it remains an inefficient use of spectrum for data. Also, there are technologies that offer more efficient use at a lower cost.

We also need better devices. Next-generation PDAs will, by necessity, offer higher-definition, full-color screens and be less unwieldy to operate.

There need to be elements in the network that allow private networks to be created with secure tunnels back to enterprise applications. Many businesses have bought into the value of VPNs (virtual private networks). That trend will pick up steam as the wireless Web provides better access to enterprise applications.

Operators need to start recovering their investments in spectrum. That presupposes a better ability to meter people's usage--especially to differentiate quality of service based on customer or application type. Operators must be able to count packets in real time and tie in to the billing system. Pre-paid is a sister issue to this. It's instructive that, in Europe, about 65 percent of new subscribers for voice services are coming on board as pre-paid.

In addition, operators need to retain their voice customers as data customers as well. The efficiencies of having common billing for both services will be much preferred to maintain healthy operating margins.

There are technologies being developed that presage a world where the term "wireless Web" is not the oxymoron it often is today.
Of course, before they send out bills, operators first need to develop a better sense of how much people are willing to pay for data and how they will want to be charged for it. The market will need to know these price tolerances because operators have made a huge investment in spectrum and in the equipment that needs to be added to the infrastructure. They need to start recouping that investment--and soon.

There are technologies being developed that presage a world where the term "wireless Web" is not the oxymoron it often is today. As they make decisions over the next few years about which of these technologies they are going to adopt, the large operators will very likely look favorably upon those that provide next-generation mobile data service that successfully integrates mobility and service intelligence. In other words, their customers will no longer have to sacrifice quality of service to achieve true mobility.

Mobile operators need to simplify deployment of mobile data services, react quickly to market demands, charge for innovative services, and streamline service provisioning. This will inevitably lead to an increase in average revenue per customer and a reduction in operations costs.

A purpose-built mobile broadband network is the way to go, as opposed to voice-centric, circuit-switched networks made to work for data. The wire-line service providers made the move from circuit-switched to packet-based transport and IP (Internet Protocol) services; mobile operators will likely do the same.

The reward for unleashing a true wireless Web could be the equivalent of creating a new Qualcomm. That level of ambition is not inappropriate when one considers the pent-up demand for a true "mobile broadband," not the hollow promise of what exists today.