Defining the ubiquitous network

BARCELONA – There’s more to the ubiquitous mobile broadband network than geographic coverage. In fact, the meaning of the ubiquitous network is different in differing social contexts, according to executives at the Mobile World Conference.

“Mobile voice has penetrated the world in a way no one could have imagined,” Carl-Henrik Svanberg, president and CEO of telco equipment supplier Ericsson said Tuesday. He called mobile voice “the first revolution” in networking; fixed broadband was the second. Mobile broadband is on the cusp of becoming the third revolution.

And there’s demand, according to Ericsson’s surveys. Half of consumers asked said having broadband access everywhere is important, and 48 per cent agreed that computers are essentially worthless without the Internet.

Sol Trujillo, CEO of Australian wireless carrier Telstra, pointed to a number of social trends influencing mobile broadband. Families are fragmenting geographically, a “voluntary diaspora” driven by the search for work and affordable housing. “It’s a fact of modern life,” Trujillo said. A desire for simplicity is affecting handset and service design.

“It’s a direct response to what consumers have not done,” Trujillo said. They’ve largely stuck with voice and SMS despite the number of services available, because those services have been too complex to use.

“More people are working away from the fixed office environment,” Trujillo said, driven by the need to work across time zones, concerns about the link between commuting and global warming, and increasing traffic congestion in downtown cores. The need for competitive education, real-time entertainment, time-efficient navigation, and several other factors are driving the ubiquitous network. But what is it?

“It’s about a network with a set of services that’s available anywhere, on any device,” and seamlessly, Trujillo said. But that’s just a starting point for ubiquity. Svanberg said “it takes a lot” to build the ubiquitous network: solid infrastructure, usable handsets, inspired services, and realistic and well-thought-out tariffs. But he pointed out that the barriers are more commercial than technological. For the first time, he said, major players in North America, Europe and Asia are united behind LTE (Long Term Evolution) technology as the 4G future.

But “we’re only at the beginning” of the process of developing business models that pay for carriers. On the other side of the coin, simple, transparent pricing regimes are necessary. Insecurity over data roaming costs makes people uncomfortable about using services in foreign environments.

Ask Paul Jacobs, CEO of chipmaker Qualcomm. Jacobs returned from a recent multi-country business trip to a $12,000 data services bill. “Was that really a ubiquitous network?” he asked. For that matter, he continued, for someone whose phone call gets dropped in an elevator or tunnel, or someone who’s paying much higher rates for the same services outside of his or her home experiencing a ubiquitous network?

Radio link improvements are actually slowing down, he argues. Moore’s Law has allowed hardware and software tricks to squeeze more speed out of the network, but at the cost of increasing spectrum demands.

A metropolitan network might have shadows and blocked areas within buildings, which must be filled in with microcells or femtocells (essentially repeaters to extend signals within buildings). This mixture of transmitters can cause interference. But from the perspective of a developing nation, the ubiquitous network might mean something else entirely. Ericsson’s Svanberg pointed out that the GSM Association predicts four billion wireless users by 2010.

“The huge majority of these people are living in emerging markets,” Svanberg said.

Manoj Kohli is the president of Bharti Airtel, India’s largest integrated private telecom services provider. India has wireline penetration of about three per cent, he said, and less than 20 per cent mobile penetration. There’s a huge rural-urban divide; about 70 per cent of the country is rural.

“There are 600 million to 700 million people who have never heard a dial tone,” he said. They’ve never used the Internet or seen a TV.

“We see ubiquity in a very different way,” Kohli said. “We’re trying to do in the next five years what the rest of the world has done in the last five decades.”

The industry in India struggles with heavy competition, low tariffs (as low as two US cents a minute), high usage, minimal available spectrum and low GDP.

“Innovation for us is not an option…it’s a necessity,” he said. Since 1995, Airtel has reached 4,500 towns and 300,000 villages in India with a network of 60,000 base stations.

“We’re getting into villages where there are no roads. Trains might not go there,” he said.