The mobile lack of vision

Europe is dropping behind on mobile data, and it's hard to see what can be done about it.


Just look in the window of any mobile phone shop and see what's being advertised. Is it all-you-can-eat data, or email on your phone? Or is it 500 minutes a month, a free handset and double text messages?

The perception is that most European operators have lost interest in developing new revenue streams such as mobile data, and are focused only on squeezing out cost from their existing voice and SMS services.

OK, so data services do get launched - all the UK operators now offer 3G data-cards for example - but most data tariffs are still a complete rip-off compared to the US. There's a few pitched as including unlimited data, but T-Mobile's Web'n'Walk has Ts&Cs prohibiting its use with a laptop (even if they're reportedly not being enforced), and 3's excellent-seeming X-Series is also intended for handset-use only.

Talking to Actix CEO Rob Dobson recently, he reckons that a big part of the problem is the general lack of vision and understanding, in particular in terms of building services that people will want to use - and be able to use.

"BlackBerry succeeded because it had a defined purpose," he says. "Most people struggle with their phones - it's not clear how to use them to do things."

He adds though that it is not just a failure of vision, it's also an inability to provide the technological underpinnings that new data services need.

"It's a vicious circle," he says. "The operator launches a half-baked, rushed or inadequately resourced service, customers try it but are disappointed, so the service fails, and the operator claims it's because customers don't want that service.

"A lot of network operators think about operating a network, not delivering a service. Just because the network says it's working doesn't mean the users are able to use it."

Of course, he has an axe to grind - Actix sells software that helps operators optimise the performance of GSM and 3G wireless infrastructures. But that means the operators' lack of vision frustrates him just as much as it infuriates those of us who would like sensibly-tariffed data services, for example.

"You can make a network perform better," he explains, "but you need to know how you want to improve it, for example do you want it for bursty data or streaming data?

"Ultimately, it goes to self-adapting networks - that's our goal. The key to it though is knowing what you're aiming for. For example, on a 3G network it's a balancing act between voice and data users, and between different kinds of data, as they all have different characteristics.

"So you could optimise for high speed data but at the expense of coverage, because to get the data you have to shrink the cells. It's not really practical to do it dynamically but you could do it proactively, based on daily traffic trends, say - some operators do that already."

The problem is of course that you still need to convince the mobile network operators to put management effort into developing those new revenue streams, and that looks hard to do - for now, too many of them are only interested in using wireless performance engineering to cut costs so they can offer yet more voice minutes per month.

Dobson points out that it is possible to build working data services, if an operator has the vision - and the economies of scale.

"This stagnation is mainly a European issue," he says. "The US operators now have a lot more scale after three to four years of consolidation - Cingular and Verizon have 50 million subscribers each."

He adds, "If the 3 X-Series programme is successful, customers might vote with their feet. I'm hoping it will ignite some activity in this field."

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