What If?Monday, October 06, 2008
There are a lot of “what ifs” on my mind these days and I thought I’d share a few with you so you can ponder them as well. They run the gamut from public safety, to shared networks, to devices, and applications. Let’s start with this: The people who are turning up WiMAX and the people who are planning to roll out LTE seem to believe that the Internet delivered wirelessly to devices bigger than a phone and smaller than a laptop computer will be the wave of the future.
What if they are wrong and the REAL wireless Internet looks very different? What if what people want is a smarter wireless Internet that interacts with them in different ways where searches and surfing websites are only secondary functions. What if the real wireless Internet is filled with smart devices, smart software, and smart back-ends that know what is next on our schedule and provide information we need without any intervention on our part—checking a flight, providing weather in the destination city, and watching the route to the airport for traffic problems, and adjusting the time to leave for the airport to make the flight.
Or finding the most central Starbucks (distance and traffic wise) to meet a group of friends and providing turn-by-turn directions for each of them, plotting the best route home when a number of stops are planned, providing updated information on a favorite baseball team, delivering alerts and warnings on stocks (if there is any value left in them!), and much more. Sure, we can set some of these alerts now, but we have to go to different websites and set them up manually, and then they are pushed to us. What I want is to be able to set up my profile and have the “smart” device and network keep track of where I am and the information I have asked to be provided on a daily basis. The few times I need something different, I will want a smart search that is accessible from any of my applications directly, via my browser, or via voice input.
What if the Wireless Internet Caucus (CTIA), BREW, Java, Symbian, Microsoft, RIM, Android, and Apple developer groups added services to their offerings to help the smart programmers of the world determine what types of applications and services are in demand, how to build combination applications, and find a problem to solve that has broad appeal to consumers, enterprises, and medium or small business wireless customers? What if this type of training or assistance included helping them understand the importance of ease-of-use and a consistent user interface? I bet we would see some world class applications if we simply helped point the developer community in the right direction.
What if Motorola had brought to market the speaker/microphone it had in its labs many years ago? Most first responders who use a handheld radio (walkie-talkie) have a remote speaker/microphone combination on their shoulder so they can hear the radio traffic and, without removing the device, press the push-to-talk button and respond to a message. Word has it that a number of years ago Motorola had taken one of these speaker/mics and built in a complete GSM phone including a dial pad on the back of the mic. If the two-way radio and cellular groups were not feuding, as has been the norm at Motorola, this device could have become standard issue for police and perhaps even fire departments. It would be great—a single handheld radio with cellular phone capabilities built into a speaker/microphone. Imagine what could be done with today’s wireless technology.
What if the 3G wireless broadband network operators got together and came up with a nationwide broadband plan for the first responder community with one monthly charge per person that is less than the $48.50 per user the FCC is touting in its Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM), say about $35.00. This new offering would enable first responders to have priority on today’s 3G broadband networks (many already do), and when they were out of coverage of their “home” network, they would automatically be switched to another network. During times of disaster such as a fire, flood, or hurricane, all of the units would be divided across the various networks covering the scene for load balancing, and since the back-ends would be tied together, there would be complete interoperability.
This would be the first step toward true interoperability for the first responder community. Today, many have devices that work only on GSM/UMTs networks or only on CDMA networks, but there are many new laptops and soon PC Cards and USB devices that will enable customers to move between AT&T and Verizon, say, Sprint and T-Mobile, or US Cellular and pick one, and all of the above. I know of at least one company that could write software for this type of fully interoperable system that would be smart enough to move customers from one network to another. Then, by adding gateways between the first responder’s own networks and the commercial networks, the level of interoperability could be notched up and we would have even better communications, at least at the command and control level, and perhaps even at the scenes of incidents.
What if this type of system was already available and provided interconnections with networks in not only the United States, but Canada and Mexico as well? What if this company had its own area code block so every first responder in the country could have the same area code, dramatically diminishing the chance of fraud, and the system could be even more transparent? And what if this company had its own back-end, hardened and proven, and did not care whether it billed the first responders or if the network operators did the billing and retained the customer relationship? And each device shipped to a first responder organization would be pre-registered on the network and activated automatically?
What if the commercial and public safety community did get together and take this first step, taking the pressure off the 700-MHz D Block auction so we could spend more time “getting it right” instead of throwing three auctions together to see what happens? What if the FCC Commissioners recognized that there will be major changes in the FCC and Congress after January 20 and decided that the best course of action was no action at the moment, but recommending actions to the incoming Commission and Congress based on what this FCC believes?
What if we go ahead with the auction, the incumbents decide not to take part, and Clearwire, Intel, or Google ends up winning a nationwide license for 24 MHz of spectrum in the 700-MHz band? How would the incumbents deal with this new threat to their own plans for LTE on 700 MHz? And what would this really mean for the first responder community—a new network that does not have a fallback set of technologies (UMTS/EV-DO) and was only available to first responders as it was completed in each area? The winning bidder has fifteen years to build it out—do we have fifteen years until the next major incident? This would only serve to continue today’s situation where the only progress has come from the first responder community itself, and it does not begin to solve the interoperability problems.
What if the companies entering the iPhone Killer Market (IPK) really understood that in order to be an IPK they have to provide a complete ecosystem, not simply enter the market with a slick touch screen device? RIM with its BlackBerry proved this model first—end-to-end email, a great device, and an out of the box service that made the device more valuable. The iPhone entered the market with an ecosystem that had been proven over time with the iPod and got off to a good start. Apple has added developers to that end-to-end experience, but it is the complete ecosystem that makes the iPhone the iPhone and, while it is still not what I would consider a corporate contender, in the consumer space it is doing for consumers what RIM did for corporate shops. Nokia is close with its back-end ecosystem, but the rest of the IPKs are simply nice standalone devices and customers are left having to build their own ecosystem instead of using an existing one and then expanding it.
What if instead of trying to provide Rural America with broadband to their businesses and homes via 2-GHz wireless that requires a lot of cell sites and backhaul, someone at the FCC or in Congress put two and two together and figured out that the D Block and 700-MHz public safety spectrum is not only a good way to help first responders, it could also be used to provide broadband services at affordable prices for many in Rural America, and that some of the money for this could come from funds already established by the Federal Government that are currently being doled out piecemeal.
What if those who lust after spectrum to provide free or almost-free broadband access to 95% of the U.S. population actually opened a spreadsheet and ran some numbers? Dr. Peha, from Carnegie Melon, who has joined the FCC staff, recently released a document stating that his estimate (with the input of a number of people and sources) to build the 700-MHz network to cover 95% of the population would be $10 billion, and using the iWIN system it would be $6 billion. There are only two things wrong with these estimates—first, the $10 billion is far too conservative in my mind and second, how do you use a network that does not exist (iWIN) to help defray the cost of a network? The numbers I ran for the AWS-3 block to provide 95% coverage to the U.S. population came in at a ten year cost of $40-43 billion. It would be interesting if M2Z published its cost to build and operate numbers. Since its venture companies have put in a lot of money, these numbers must exist. While M2Z keeps saying my numbers are far too high, it hasn’t provided any figures of its own.
What if Google and the other Internet companies are successful in having the TV White Space allocated for unlicensed broadband and it turns out there is interference? Who fixes it and who pays for the fix? This also applies to the AWS-3 spectrum that could interfere with T-Mobile and the other AWS-1 spectrum holders. What if the FCC actually learned something from the Nextel re-banding effort that is way over budget, way late, and won’t be completed for many more years?
What if now that push-to-talk and push-to-X services are being reborn on the Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T networks, someone came up with a way to provide PTT service across networks? Sprint and Nextel already do this, at least at the moment, and another company claims it can but it doesn’t provide anywhere near the fast PTT response of existing PTT deployments, so it would have to be on a network by network basis. If this is possible, I think it would help grow the PTT and push-to-X market. AT&T’s existing PTT system is connected to several others in other parts of the world, but to my knowledge, not to any in the United States.
What if those from outside the wireless industry who believe wireless broadband is the future spent some time with people from within the wireless industry and continued to hire, and listen to, those who know about wireless? What if they stopped listening to the promises from the software and cognitive radio companies and groups and realized that managing spectrum can be accomplished most effectively from the network side. Perhaps devices can help a little, but it is the network and the network of networks that must be managed. What if there was more discussion between the Internet and wireless communities—not at the CEO level, but at the “people who get it done and maintain it” level?
What if more wireless wide-area networks understood that data roaming is too expensive and joined the few network operators that have recognized this and offer pricing by the day, week, and month? Use your CDMA/UMTS notebook in the United States and pay a monthly fee, take it to England, turn it on, and it finds a UMTS network that charges by the day or week (around $12.00 for 24 hours?), and all you have to do is enter credit card information or better yet, it would recognize your phone number and set up billing by your home operator.
What if other network operators decided to follow Sprint’s lead with its Xohm pricing model? Buy data by the day, week, month, or contract, one person pays one fee for multiple devices. Why do my laptop and phone count as two separate devices with each requiring a data plan? Does it really matter that there may be times when I am using both at the same time? With a multi-device pricing plan, I could buy consumer products with embedded wireless and simply go to a website to activate them for no additional fee.
What if the CTIA put together a pre-D Block auction group to work with the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) to exchange ideas and craft some first steps for using today’s 3G networks and interfacing them with the existing public safety networks? What if these two groups could come together and agree on what is needed and what is possible, and make recommendations to the FCC?
And finally, What if our industry worked together to promote wireless broadband access and educate those who use wireless voice phones about this whole new world of wireless out there just waiting to be discovered?
There are many more “what ifs” I ponder from time to time, but I think these are enough for one Commentary and to stimulate your thinking. If you have some of your own “what ifs” you would like to share, please add them in the comments section of this Commentary or send them to me via email.
Andrew M. Seybold