FORUM: Fixed internet vs mobile internet

How will telcos and players such as Apple and Google operate when mobile broadband subscribers vastly outnumber fixed line subscribers?

According to the numbers cited by a Huawei executive at the company’s Auckland conference recently, by 2020 there will be 5.5 billion mobile broadband users and 1.5 billion fixed broadband users.

If those figures are correct, by the end of the decade it will be three times more likely that the internet will be accessed using a mobile device than using a PC or television.

This makes sense when you consider that a home will have one fixed line connection, but every member of its household is likely to own his or her own mobile device. Then there are the developing countries in which copper wire fixed-line connectivity is not ubiquitous and it is only through mobile devices that large numbers of people are able to afford a phone connection for their families.

So is the internet the same via a mobile connection as it is via a fixed line connection? Or is there developing a ‘mobile internet’ and a ‘fixed internet’?

Judging from the rhetoric, and their behaviour, the telcos and the ‘over-the-top’ players such as Apple and Google intend to operate differently in a mobile world.

Let’s start with the telcos. At every technology supplier conference I’ve attended in the past two years they’ve waxed lyrical about smart networks. Put simply, it means the telco is able to provide a customer with a better service if they pay more. This can take many forms. For example, it might mean that iPhone users are provisioned more bandwidth on the presumption that as high-end smartphone users they will download more data, so it is important to ensure they receive a better experience.

Or it could be that mobile users who pay extra to visit Facebook are guaranteed a faster experience. Mobile operators track where their customers go on the web. Vodafone New Zealand chief technology officer Sandra Pickering says the most popular websites accessed by their mobile customers locally in October were the New Zealand Herald, Facebook, Trade Me and Google.

She says people are going to visit fewer sites, but they are visiting them more often. So bundling price, connectivity and content is achievable for mobile telcos because a large majority of users are accessing the same websites again and again.

Technology vendors such as Huawei and Amdocs are also touting real-time applications that enable customers to instantly upgrade to a faster connection if they want to access video content on their smartphone. The charge is then added to the mobile bill.

As the Huawei executive put it to his prospective customers “there is value beyond price”. LTE technology – the next step beyond 3G services enabled by the acquisition of 700MHz spectrum — will help telcos provide customised billing. When they introduce these services the telcos will probably claim they are innovative. But are they really just a new way for a telco to clip the ticket?

Then there are the over-the-top players. According to Rob O’Callahan, who runs Mozilla’s Auckland office, developers are tending towards writing apps for mobile operating systems, rather than for the web.

O’Callahan says: “If the centre of gravity switches completely to these closed platforms, particularly with closed app stores; Apple and Google will decide who can publish what. They can decide what technologies you’re allowed to use or not to use. That’s antithetical to what we think of as the open web. If developers, applications and content all move there, then the open web will have failed.”

The ‘fixed internet’ has largely been able to resist colonisation by a few companies – whether it be telcos or content suppliers. Let’s hope the ‘mobile internet’ goes the same way.

O’Callahan, by the way, is speaking at the ITEX Business Technology Show on ensuring an open web platform in the mobile era.

Also on the programme is Brent Ayrey, vice president of product innovation for Netflix in the US. Now there’s a company that changed the game – for less than $10 a month its customers can download as many movies as they want. If New Zealand got a Netflix-type offering as the Ultra Fast Broadband network is being deployed that could blow Sky TV’s business case out of the water.

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