Year in Review: Mobile makes haste, slowly

Mobility is one of the two cornerstones of telecommunication in the early 21st century. The other, broadband, I'll have a look at next week in the last issue.

Mobility is one of the two cornerstones of telecommunication in the early 21st century. The other is broadband.

Last year was a year of mostly quiet achievement in the mobile space. Without all the hoopla and flash of broadband, mobile phone numbers have slowly and steadily ramped up. Vodafone has overtaken Telecom as the largest provider of mobile connections and the two companies have almost switched tacks in their approach to the market.

In the old days it was a simple division. Telecom was the business choice, even if it had boring, boxy phones that couldn't do anything but voice. Forget text messaging, forget compatibility across the network, forget battery life, innovation, style. Forget security. But then the old analogue network gave way to the digital and everything was crushed under the juggernaut of Vodafone's international marketing experience.

Vodafone -- which tended to the consumer end of the market anyway -- simply had the better technology. Better phones (and better suppliers of phones), better capability, better advertising. When Vodafone bought BellSouth it dumped the appallingly stupid text messaging price structure and introduced flat rates for messages. The kids went wild. With phones as cheap as $199 in the supermarket (who buys a cellphone from a supermarket? Quite a lot of you apparently), it was a stocking filler this time last year.

2003 saw all of that change.

This time round, Telecom has the better technology. CDMA 1x is faster than Vodafone's GPRS. The phones are almost all equally capable and, now we've become used to the Asian manufacturers' stylings, they're a little easier on the eye. Telecom is gunning for the personal user market and has pulled out the stops, like capped text messaging and cheap entry-level phones that are all as capable as the rest.

Vodafone, on the other hand, is busy targeting the business community, trying to get the message out that it can compete on bulk deals, on coverage and can deliver a business-grade solution. At the same time it's launched Vodafone Live, a multimedia option which splinters its personal user market and has yet to deliver the goods. I don't believe end users want to pay $1000 for a phone that can take bad photographs. I have to suggest that Vodafone has damaged its marketing mantra (any phone, any where, any time) by introducing Live as a premium-only brand. It's still too slow on GPRS to be as cool as the ads suggest and the kids can't convince mum and dad to shell out for the handsets.

Of course, Vodafone's latest local numbers say it's increased its prepay user base and in doing so lifted its average revenue per user (ARPU) ever so slightly, so it may be that the market doesn't particularly care what I think.

Why the two telcos have changed places in the dance -- and whether the gambit pays off -- remains to be seen.

Of course, this time next year we could be seeing TelstraClear join the fray and we might even have roaming capability between the carriers. Then maybe we'll see some real price movements. As TUANZ has pointed out all year long, we appear to have a cosy duopoly rather than a fully competitive environment. That has to change if either company is to convince users to actually make use of 3G.

I think we can also bid a fond fare-thee-well to Econet Wireless. The big question of course is, how do we get our $5 million back?

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