Tech Industry

Making sense of the wireless Internet

When the Internet burst on the business scene five years ago, several companies were criticized for "not getting it" and not moving their businesses to the Web fast enough. Just as we are gaining a better understanding of that dislocation, a new one has emerged asking many of the same questions: the wireless Internet.

I'm just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood
--Eric Burden and the Animals

When the Internet burst on the business scene five years ago, several companies were criticized for "not getting it" and not moving their businesses to the Web fast enough. Just as we are gaining a better understanding of that dislocation, a new one has emerged asking many of the same questions: the wireless Internet.

Unfortunately, in many ways the wireless Web is more complex and confusing than its wired brother. This article will attempt to simplify this world in two phases. First, I will walk through an overview of the current infrastructure from a global perspective. Then I will discuss what I see as the five most important issues that confront the business executive when thinking about a wireless strategy.

Perhaps the most discussed issue with regards to the wireless Internet is the fact that the United States trails both Japan and Europe in terms of innovation and progress. Many executives in the United States, particularly those involved directly with the wireless industry, will debate this issue, but in the end the numbers speak for themselves.

Leading the world is NTT DoCoMo, with its i-mode wireless data service in Japan. The number of i-mode subscribers is quickly approaching 10 million from a standing start in February 1999. In addition, the features and functionality of the company's phones far outweigh anything available here in the states. Europe is probably closer to the United States than to Japan in terms of progress, but is still somewhat ahead. The primary innovation in Europe is SMS, which is a cross-carrier cellular phone version of Instant Messenger. SMS users are expected to top 50 million by year's end, and the number of SMS messages per month exceeds 1 billion.

Why is Japan ahead of the United States and Europe? The main reason is that they were the first to implement a "packet-switched" infrastructure (as opposed to "circuit switched"). In the United States and Europe, data transmission is accomplished by connecting via a normal phone call to a bank of modems that handle data transmission. The differential is almost identical to the difference between using a dial-up modem vs. connecting directly to the Internet via a corporate LAN. Packet-based networks are ideally suited for bursty data, or burstable packets of data, and result in a better "always-on" user experience and a lower cost.

Although Europe remains circuit switched, it still has advantages over the United States. First and foremost, the carriers in Europe have been far more accepting of common industry standards. All the carriers use the same underlying GSM technology, which results in much better interoperability and allows for equipment innovations to be shared. This standardization philosophy also enables inter-carrier functionality such as SMS. (We still don't have interoperable instant messaging on the wired Internet in the United States.) The other primary European advantage is cell phone penetration, which is well above 50 percent in some countries.

Another interesting difference pertains to email. In Europe and Japan, many people obtain their first personal email addresses through their cellular phones. We all know that email was one of the original killer apps of the Internet. Well, that same phenomenon is driving the acceptance of the wireless Internet overseas. The cell phone has become the primary email device for most consumers.

If you read about wireless, you are likely to encounter the letter G used to describe different evolutions in wireless Internet technologies. This can be much simpler than it sounds. 2G refers to today's technology. With the exception of NTT in Japan, this means dial-up connectivity with a maximum throughput of about 9.6K. 2.5G, expected to launch in 2001, represents the implementation of packet-switched networks with a maximum throughput of just over 100K. 3G, the current Holy Grail, will of course be packet switched as well and will support speeds up to 2MB. 3G should launch in Japan as early as 2001, but don't expect broad rollout elsewhere until about 2003.

When thinking about the wireless data infrastructure, keep these two things in mind. First, the move to packet switched is more important than raw speed; therefore, 2.5G is more important than 3G. Also, watch out for the word "up-to"--the first 2.5G implementations will be well below 100K. Second, for all practical purposes, it looks as if Japan will extend its lead, and the United States will continue to follow. NTT DoCoMo will clearly be the first to implement 3G and is well in front in terms of understanding business models and customer NPVs (net present values). The United States must overcome interoperability issues and needs some help from the government, which has been slow to clean up spectrum issues that could hinder 3G rollout locally.