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Mobile appliance explosion changes broadband mobile network planning

Rising smartphone use and mobile appliance growth have created new service opportunities for wireless operators. In their mobile network planning, they must calculate how much to invest in new technology if return on investment is marginal.

For a decade or more, mobile service was synonymous with mobile voice call, and the only mobile appliance was a handset. Today, the service dimension has expanded

 The real operator issues are the creation of an alternative universal service model for mobile devices and the creation and exposure of their own service-layer assets.
Tom Nolle
President, CIMI Corp.

to Short Message Service (SMS), content and Internet services, and the device dimension has grown from handsets to dongles, eBook readers, smartphonesand tablets.

At first, service changes like SMS drove changes to mobile devices, but now that's turning around, and the consequences of the change to a future driven by mobile appliances are truly profound. That's especially true for those who plan and deploy mobile network infrastructure.

Service opportunities evolve because mobile users think of new things to do with mobile services. The explosion of interest in smartphones and their mobile applications drove the largest change in services in the history of telephony because the new smartphones and their developer programs created a flexible way of experimenting with new models of behavior support. Services make money by supporting things users want to do, and new money means wireless operators need to find and support new things.

Assessing the challenges of mobile user access to free Internet content

The challenge for mobile operators is that the appliance-driven model of mobile services creates a new risk of disintermediation. The Internet creates a kind of seamless service fabric that crosses operator and national boundaries and touches every smartphone and every Web resource. Developers use this fabric to build applications for smartphones.

While the applications may have to be tuned to the software architecture of each phone, the Web resources available to them are universal.

More mobile network planning resources

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The problem is that this universal fabric is packaged and priced with mobile data plans, and for most mobile appliances, those plans are all-you-can-eat.

When generous data plans are offered in connection with devices with Internet connectivity, they encourage the development of Web-based third-party applications to exploit the combination of devices and connectivity. Those plans boost average revenue per user (ARPU) for operators in the near term, but they may also reduce the market for a mobile operator's own specialized services.

The ability of users to get free Internet content makes it harder to sell content as an operator service, and at a minimum, it tends to reduce pricing power. That means mobile operators need to consider how to create specialized services of their own before the mobile-appliance-driven revolution proceeds too far.

Wireless operator options include cross-network app development

In assessing how to go forward in the wireless market, operator-sponsored developer programs are only part of the solution -- and perhaps the smallest part. For consumers, the best retail conduits are the ones they're already used to visiting. And at this point, handset manufacturers like Apple have a clear lead.

The real operator issues are the creation of an alternative universal service model for mobile devices and the creation and exposure of their own service-layer assets.

In the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC) initiative, many global wireless operators and some handset vendors came together to make it easier for application developers to create applications across multiple networks. The initiative was announced in February 2010 by the GSMA and recently supported by the TM Forum. WAC establishes a potential framework for cross-network applications.

Because the Internet has already created this type of cross-network model in its over-the-top (OTT) form, it is important that the WAC initiative provide operators with a kind of application framework to which they can contribute standard network features such as location-based services, SMS messaging, identity and presence.

By making the way these features are accessed universal across all mobile operators, the program increases the value to developers and users. Applications could be expected to run on any compatible mobile appliance, anywhere that WAC is supported.

Broadband service plans affect mobile network planning

The infrastructure planning issues presented by WAC and its timing in terms of the mobile broadband build-out are significant. Long Term Evolution (LTE) deployment will radically increase the data capacity of the broadband mobile network and support a larger number of data-dependent mobile appliances. This will demand a considerable upgrade in the connection between wireless tower sites and service points, which is a topic in LTE Evolved Packet Core (EPC) standards development. But it will also demand a new vision of the service layer of mobile networks to address applications built by third parties, to cooperate with handsets and to exploit mobile network features in a way that is more compatible with Web access than with traditional telco initiatives like the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS).

See Part 2: How service capabilities influence mobile network infrastructure

This was last published in April 2010

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