Defining mobile broadband

Defining mobile broadband

This piece appeared in RCR Wireless earlier this month.

The Vision

Mobile broadband is the network connectivity environment, where networks of different shapes and sizes collaborate to provide users unfettered access to the information they seek, the content they want to engage in, connect people in new and exciting ways, where time and distance are all but collapsed to provide access to anyone and anything, faster than the speed of thought. At least, that’s the vision.

In 1991, the late Mark Weiser of XEROX PARC, considered the father of ubiquitous computing, dreamed of an always on, always connected world in which humans and computers are seamlessly united. In 2002, my friend and coauthor Dr. Yasuhisa Nakamura, then CTO of NTT DoCoMo wrote in our book that his vision of mobile broadband is when wireless infrastructure becomes indistinguishable from air – omnipresent. It is just there without us consciously searching for it. Here we are in 2009, where the FCC is engaged in the noble task of defining broadband and various players are quibbling over a few kbps speed requirements. But as the national debate on broadband reaches a fervent pitch, one has to come back to the task at hand and figure out what defines "mobile broadband."

Defining Broadband

FCC’s current definition of broadband is stated as "The term broadband commonly refers to high-speed Internet access that is always on and faster than the traditional dial-up access." Faster than dial-up doesn’t really conjure up an image of a 21st century ready infrastructure, so, how do we go about defining mobile broadband, what benchmarks are meaningful, and most importantly, what factors would yield sustainable competitive advantage to service providers.

First of all, we shouldn’t mix wireless and wireline for some time. The inherent cost structures, economics, and physics of the two mediums are quite different. By expecting wireless to deliver wireline performance and pricing, we are setting ourselves for disappointment.

Real speeds, coverage, and spectrum

The speed of the network has long been the main benchmark for mobile broadband, esp. the peak rates possible using a given technology. For e.g. in the GSM family of technologies, GPRS roughly equates to 114 Kbps, EDGE to 474 Kbps, UMTS to 2 Mbps (stationary), HSPA to 7.2 Mbps, HSPA+ to 28 Mbps, and LTE to 100 Mbps (of course, there are differences in upload, download, peak, off-peak, min, max, etc.). However, the real-life network speeds experienced by average consumers are typically 40-60% of the peak rates. During peak traffic times, the speed drops even further.
We should be looking at the bandwidth requirements from the eyes of the consumer. Someone living in Bellingham, Wash., only cares about the coverage and the average bandwidth available to them at any given moment. What ultrafast networks are deployed in Washington, D.C., is of little interest to them. So, we need to measure coverage and consistency in performance across the nation. Also, one needs to keep the spectrum scorecard for we can deliver 100 Mbps but the spectrum required under current set of technologies is just inadequate. Hence, the benchmarks for mobile broadband need to be closely correlated to the national spectrum dedicated to mobile.
As a first step, we need to take the discussion away from peak rates to average rates and measure the average throughput at any given time across various markets. Any issues with the backhaul network will also be reflected in these numbers and thus will help us understand the state of the mobile infrastructure at a more granular level. Japan, Korea, and Australia are investing heavily in upgrading their national mobile infrastructure to stay ahead of demand. Progress in these countries will clearly serve as a guiding principle for the U.S. and other economies.

As we move into the 3.5G and 4G mobile network arena, latency (along with jitter) will start to become an important benchmark as well. Reduction in the time to fetch content enables better user experiences. An all-IP network introduces a flatter network architecture which in turn reduces the latency in the network. Better user experience paves the way for more usage and higher content consumption which in theory yields informed citizens and higher productivity.

We should also keep track of the average bandwidth being consumed by users on a monthly basis. By keeping an accurate measurement, the ecosystem can plan better. Some other regulatory agencies like the Hong Kong Telecommunications Authority regularly publish mobile data usage. While the task is much bigger in the U.S., some measure of the pace of growth is necessary for the ecosystem to appreciate the risks and the opportunities.

Next, we need to keep track of the average price paid by consumers for mobile broadband and mobile data consumption over time and the choice of providers available to consumers on a national basis. The above also needs to be measured from a demographics point of view by looking at the numbers for a wide variety of user populations. Additionally, these measurements need to evolve over time as our understanding of what’s important to the consumer changes.

Intelligent Platforms

Finally, while the debate is focused on how to deal with the data growth, little attention is being paid to how to use the terabytes of data that is being generated. In other words, there is a lot of focus on data creation but little on intelligence extraction. Most service providers are consumed by network upgrades, move from WCDMA to HSPA+ to LTE and so on and so forth but little investment is going into understanding the consumer and their mobile data behavior – how are they consuming data? what are their preferences and unmet needs? how do you tailor content, value added services, and pricing plans at a subscriber level? how to leverage mobile as a media channel? etc.
Don’t get me wrong, carriers absolutely need to build a robust network that can stay ahead of the consumer demand but they also need to continue to innovate on several key fronts. By focusing too much on network build out and too little on building intelligent platforms that can harness the power of these networks, many service providers are leaving the door open for others to extract more value out of these network upgrades. Sustainable competitive advantage can only be built by understanding the consumer better, mobile affords that opportunity. Players who are focusing on measuring intelligence of their networks are the ones who will be able to withstand emerging business threats better than those who are investing little in building out the platform. And, intelligence is something the FCC can’t regulate but consumers will see the difference.

Chetan Sharma is President of Chetan Sharma Consulting and is one of the leading strategists in the mobile industry. He has served as an advisor to several Fortune100 companies in the wireless space and is probably the only industry strategist who has advised each of the top 6 global mobile data operators. His client list includes NTT DoCoMo, China Mobile, AT&T, Sprint Nextel, KDDI, Reliance, KTF, Sony, Juniper, Alcatel-Lucent, Qualcomm, Comcast, HP, and Disney. Chetan is also a leading authority and IP expert in the wireless industry, testifying in cases such as ITC – Qualcomm vs. Broadcom as well as the author of 5 best-selling books on wireless. He is interviewed frequently by global media and his research is widely quoted in respected publications such as NY Times, WIRED, Business Week, Fortune, WSJ, Reuters, AdAge, and MIT Technology Review. Chetan serves on the advisory committees of several startups.