Luck of the 3G draw

I guess if you're going to go down the gurgler, you really want to do it with style. And I have to say German mobile phone operator Mobilcom seems to be trying very hard to do just that.

I guess if you're going to go down the gurgler, you really want to do it with style. And I have to say German mobile phone operator Mobilcom seems to be trying very hard to do just that.

Mobilcom was lucky enough to buy one of the 3G licences -- rights to radio frequencies for third-generation telecomms services -- from the German government back in the halcyon days of the dot-com crush. Of course, what Mobilcom didn't realise at the time was that that luck was all bad. After "winning" the right to pay a reported $US8.2 billion for a licence, the company has discovered the market isn't ready for 3G just yet.

It nearly all ended in tears when partner and 28% shareholder France Telecom pulled the plug on funding -- FT, you see, is also experiencing some financial troubles at the moment, to the tune of 70 billion, and couldn't make the payments. So it's up to the German government to step in to save Mobilcom with a $US388 million bail-out package. That's if the European Union signs off on it.

Ironically, it reinforces just how happy we should all be that our piddling little auction only managed to bring in about $100 million for the rights to one day run services over the airwaves.

3G is a product or service or range of products and services (pick as many definitions of it as you like) whose time has yet to come. The idea of videophones and broadband on the move got everyone all hot under the collar for a while, but when the users realised what the telcos were really talking about was being able to work at little better than dial-up speeds while out of the office, the ardour cooled quicker than after a knock on a fogged car window. While it's as frustrating as hell for some not being able to access the company network while on the road, it's a blessed relief for many. That, coupled with the present lack of roaming data capability, means take-up rates even for the recently launched 2.5G cellular networks are slower than one would hope.

Both Telecom and Vodafone are hard at work telling customers how fast and useful their networks are, but I find it interesting that they've both settled on the "look, you can take pictures with your phone!" tactic. At least Telecom's ads do show someone using a handheld PC to send orders back to base, which might make one or two IT managers' eyebrows lift a little.

Or not. Because you might not need your 3G cellphone or your spectrum licence to do all of that.

The other side of the mobile broadband coin is the wonderfully named 802.11 family of standards. Wi-Fi, to use the marketing term, operates in the unlicensed spectrum. Look ma, no licence fees. Better than that, the advantage to the end user is a cheaper card -- a few hundred dollars for a PC card or perhaps your laptop has Wi-Fi built in already, instead of the $1100 for a GPRS or CDMA card -- and faster speeds. RoamAD, a company which surely must win the tenacious marketer of the year award, claims to have developed a proprietary version of 802 that increases the range without cooking every pigeon in downtown Auckland. If the system works and the rest of the world catches on, you can forget about hotspots of Wi-Fi activity. Whole suburbs or even towns will be covered by a cheap, fast electromagnetic cloud.

If that idea doesn't intrigue you, then what about mesh networks? The idea here is that every point in the network can added or removed dynamically so as you walk down the road to the café your device is automatically connecting to the street-area network, and passing on traffic to other devices that are also joining and leaving the area on the fly.

This kind of ad hoc, impromptu, peer-to-peer network with relatively few permanently sited towers seems ideal for an urban network and makes great use of the existing technology. You can find out more about mesh networks here.

If that sounds familiar at all, it should. It's a very similar idea to that proposed by mystery Christchurch company IndraNet, although there the idea is taken one step further again with the processing power distributed and mobile as well as the network infrastructure itself.

This is probably the prime opportunity to tout New Zealand as a cheap efficient and effective place to trial new wireless technology either with or without a licence -- it seems we're streets ahead of the Europeans without really meaning to be.

Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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