Realizing the Promise of Mobile Broadband ... Everywhere

While 3G wireless broadband has been hyped for several years by analysts, vendors and operators alike; the real world subscriber experience has yet to match the promise. Recent advances have resulted in hopeful signs that expectations will ultimately be realized, however.

This article reviews some of the factors that have impeded progress, recent advances leading to the improvements in user experience, and identifies trends on the anvil that will further the subscriber's mobile broadband experience.

There are three fundamental ingredients which all have to excel individually and collectively to deliver a rich mobile broadband experience to the user. These ingredients are devices, applications and networks. Since they are all part of the same ecosystem, especially from an end user perspective, any lack of capability in one of these areas will impact the others. In fact, it is shortcomings in one or more of these components that inhibited expected growth in consumption of mobile broadband, until recently.

For instance, 3G was rolled out in the earlier part of the decade in Western Europe, but limited applications and poor user interface held back the adoption of 3G services. This led to operators being reluctant to build out more broadband coverage.

According to application and device vendors, it is the lack of ubiquitous mobile broadband that's been inhibiting innovation. These interactions resulted in the industry muddling along for the better part of this decade and delivering an underwhelming user experience with mobile data services. It is only recently that the cycle has been broken and a positive cycle is being established where all the elements needed to deliver the full potential of wireless broadband are falling into place.

Capable Devices At Last
One of the major impediments to realizing the potential of mobile broadband was devices. The first and second waves of smartphones in the earlier part of this decade were largely limited to voice and e-mail in practice—hardly the mobile utopia promised by industry pundits.

This cycle was broken by the iPhone and now we have a new generation of smartphones available from all the major vendors that are capable of delivering voice, streaming video, email, location-based services, and a full Internet experience. Some of the capability improvements that smartphones have seen include:

  • Processing capabilities - recent announcements from traditional smartphone processor core vendors like ARM and companies like Intel indicate that the distinction between computers and mobile devices is blurring at least from a processing standpoint.
  • User Interface & OS enhancements - Conventional wisdom was that this would limit usage yet there is a lot of innovation around this area. Recent smartphones have seen introduction of technologies ranging from touch sensitive screens to an optical mouse. Due to these improvements today's smartphones are practical for applications beyond voice and e-mail.
  • Display & multimedia - Smartphones today are rapidly improving in terms of screen sizes, resolution, picture quality etc, promoting users to consume streaming video from sources like YouTube, MobiTV or Verizon's VCAST.
  • Connectivity - Smartphone manufacturers have done an excellent job on delivering on the latest 3G flavors ranging from W-CDMA, 1xRTT to HSPA and EV-DO. They are also beginning to bundle in alternative radios like Wi-Fi. Unfortunately the user experience with alternative radios is not great on most devices and this is an area where some additional software improvements are needed.

    Compelling Applications
    The second factor that was holding back consumption of mobile broadband was lack of compelling applications. Today there are many applications available, ranging from enterprise vertical applications and Software as a Service (SaaS) delivered from cloud computing infrastructures, to consumer applications using shared location information, like Loopt.

    This is all good news, and the number of compelling applications is poised to increase dramatically because the mobile OS and business models are opening up to 3rd party application developers. Some recent product launches and announcements that point to this trend include the following:

    - Apple launched the iPhone SDK and a store where users can download applications; - Research in Motion also announced similar plans; - Google announced the open source Android platform; and - Nokia declared its intention to acquire Symbian and make that OS open source.

    In a short time, 3rd party applications have started addressing needs of users in many segments and niches while rapidly creating applications that deliver users value.

    Networks Are Catching Up with Expectations
    The third ingredient which is necessary for delivering a great wireless experience is a capable network or networks. As device capabilities and compelling applications become available, consumption increases in terms of time and data, and expectations for coverage also increases.

    Ubiquitous coverage is particularly challenging considering that a considerable amount of usage is indoor. Poor network coverage affects simple phone calls as well as broadband data, but impact on the latter is typically the greatest, because of factors like frequency. Moreover, as consumption increases, capacity in the 3G radio network, which is shared among all users in a cell, starts to diminish, providing lower speed connections.

    Fixing this requires more 3G infrastructure that can be very hard to justify economically. In short, operators struggle to viably deliver their promise to subscribers with a traditional 3G-only approach. The users, on the other hand, demand ubiquitous, secure, and economical wireless broadband that is easy to use (as shown in the figure below). In a sense, the best mobile broadband service network is one you never have to think about. It needs to be pointed out that users typically only want access to their applications, and are not usually concerned about the underlying radio technology used.

    A cellular network enabling smartphone users to connect over the best available wireless network and seamlessly roam between them.

    As broadband adoption reaches saturation and competition between operators heats up, ubiquitous mobile broadband coverage is an area where operators and vendors are working hard improve the user experience. The basic strategy is to leverage short range wireless technologies like Wi-Fi and so-called Femtocells (small in-home cellular stations), working in conjunction with fixed broadband networks, to improve indoor coverage and improve network capacity.

    Wi-Fi is a widely accepted mainstream wireless network technology today that is found almost everywhere and offers high-speed network access. The challenges with leveraging available Wi-Fi networks have been the mobile device connection manager software.

    Providing a seamless service offering while using two different radio networks requires more 'smarts' in the smartphone or mobile device connection manager than has historically been available, but this is changing quickly.

    Network operators are also pursuing Femtocells to improve network coverage and capacity, but while they are not currently deployed on a large scale, femtocells offer coverage improvements for both voice services and 3G data services. Handover between femtocells and wide area macrocells is handled by existing mobile network mechanisms, so no special mobile device connection manager needs to be developed.

    Making Wi-Fi and Femtocells a seamless part of the overall wireless access are helping improve mobile broadband coverage to users at the minimum cost. From a user point of view, lower cost delivery means lower data service subscription fees, greater "unlimited" data volume caps, or both.

    Wi-Fi or femtocell short range wireless networks, in conjunction with innovative multi-access session management gateways, and improved mobile device connection manager software will ensure that subscribers get what they want: any service, anywhere, all the time. With a new generation of fundamental ingredients, the true mobile broadband experience emerges: the broadband service is always available, the application and content experience is consistent, and users are always connected.


    wireless, 3G, carriers, 4g