Mobile data transmission

Mariano Cabestré de Nicolás. Consultancy Manager for Major Clients at Telefónica Móviles España

25 November 2003

An industry professional analyzes the history of mobile telephony.

For some time now, we have been desperately seeking a replacement for that old mobile telephony killer application – voice calls – yet are unable to identify it. Why? Has our ability to predict personal tastes dimmed? Is there no demand for data transmission on the move? Or is it simply that the original application was identified, not by a few wise men in the solitude of their laboratories, but by a wide group of mere mortals attempting to improve the way they made a living, and who found that mobile telephony was of inestimable help to them?

Let’s review the evolution of mobile telephony. This boom of the last 10 years has not taken place in isolation. Over the last 80 years the fixed telephony monopolies have undertaken many marketing campaigns nourishing the idea – innate in mankind – that communicating between two very distant points is necessary . Mobile operators added the aspect of liberty to this message, freeing it from the cord that tied it to the wall of a building, adopting appropriate standards, lightening and perfecting the terminal. Phrases such as “communication between people, the rest is technology,” made lots of sense. Nowadays, voice calls only face one entry barrier: cost per minute. If Marx were to raise his head today, he would want to nationalize mobile telephony.

For mobile telephony has triumphed. The question now is: what about teledata? Let’s examine the parallels between data and voice.

In order to link two points, the first thing we need is a network. In both cases, this exists. Apart from the network, we also need ideas to transmit:

 For voice, operators’ figures for billed calls are the best proof that this need exists;

 In fixed data communications, electronic mail (a way of sending written ideas to others) supports the idea that sending data has an application;

 The success of SMS messages shows the demand for data transmission on the move.

Where then does the difference lie? For voice, the application is very simple: the hardware we all possess – mouth, tongue, teeth, larynx, etc.; – and the software we learn at an early age – known as language.

Fixed networks

In data transmission over fixed networks (returning to the electronic mail example), elements such as Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes “Windows model” exist which have become facilities: tools that enable data to be created and managed in a swift, intuitive manner.

But what about data needs on the move? The market is starting to see versions of software which create a mobility layer in a straightforward and simpler manner, but their integration with clients’ systems has to be customized. For hardware (the terminals), sufficient variety is starting to become available. Nonetheless, the process of identifying the most appropriate terminal, and configuring it to use the communications of one specific client, calls for some analysis. In these times where usability is an important parameter when adopting new habits, unlike voice, there is no standard supporting a minimum common configuration, and enabling clients to be able to use it, despite customization possibilities and new features offered by each individual terminal.

Therefore, the new entry barrier for the mass adoption of mobile data transmission is gaining control of these applications and the user interface (the terminals). For us, mobile operators, the big challenge lies here.

As regards applications, each operator attempts to resolve this dilemma in several ways: through investee companies, by providing areas that facilitate generation of applications for those with good ideas, or by establishing alliances with giants in the software and integration sectors. Initiatives like MovilForum, promoted by Telefónica Móviles España, seek to provide a test area for companies who believe they have a mobile solution applicable to a certain sector, thus ensuring that solution will be compatible with the network that will later support the service.

This means an important role is again being played by the operator’s subsidy of the cost of terminals, to lower this entry barrier. In this case, the terminal is the window through which clients see the services and the key to perceiving the user’s experience. What is sought is greater involvement on the part of the operator in designing terminals, so they can better fulfil customer expectations. As a result, terminals are starting to come on the market with the operator’s brand name, at competitive prices, boasting numerous features and easy use.

We are thus witnessing creation of the critical mass necessary for explosion of data transmission on the move. For this hydrogen bomb to go off, we must first prime the process with an atomic bomb. Or, to use a less violent example, before a continuous flow can be drawn from a well in the country, the pipes must first be primed progressively with water after starting the motor.

Figures for the increase in mobile data traffic are starting to reflect those for its big brother, voice traffic. In 2003, growth is expected to be over 300 percent. It is true that the sector needs to pick up speed again, but growth in mobile data traffic should not be held liable for this recovery.

The most important thing is to identify the barriers. Once this is done, it’s a question of tenacity and the time needed to break them down. We, mobile operators, are making tremendous efforts to reduce any barriers that exist, and thus facilitate this explosion.

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