|Issue:||Asia-Pacific III 2011|
|Topic:||Mobile opportunities, smartphones vs PC|
|Organisation:||Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA)
Mr Chris Bruce, BT Openzone, CEO and chair, Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA)
Chris Bruce is responsible for managing BT’s public WiFi service, BT Openzone. In 2009, Mr Chris Bruce joined the board of the Wireless Broadband Alliance and in 2008 joined BT’s East of England regional board.
Chris Bruce has over 20 years’ experience of the telecommunications industry in a range of general management, product, marketing and sales in channel management roles. He has been with BT since 1991 and was responsible for business growth in the international data comms, mobile, internet hosting, global voice and now wireless broadband sectors.
Most recently, he spent a twelve-month secondment with the British Government (DTI), responsible for managing the Government’s Broadband Britain programme. Prior to this, he was vice president, channel and distribution for BT’s pan European Applications Hosting business and was a board director of Inet Spa (a publicly quoted Italian hosting business of which BT was a major shareholder). In 1998 he was sales & marketing director of Telfort Business Mobile (The Netherlands), launching the first 1800 GSM service in Holland and was previously executive assistant to BT’s Chief Executive.
Prior to BT, Mr Bruce held a number of positions in product marketing with Ericsson Business Systems, Ascom and CASE Communications PLC.
Smartphones are becoming as powerful as PCs. Like PCs, smartphones need to rely on WiFi for gaming, video streaming and social networking. WiFi, previously ignored by carriers, is now an important alternative to 3G, especially for indoor connection. WiFi for mobile use still has some important issues that need to be resolved: coverage through solid structures, power consumption, authentication, connecting to the best access point, avoiding channel congestion and using VPN security.
Smartphones are taking over from PCs – but what does WiFi need to do in order to ensure that data carriers, service providers and customers get the best from their phones?
The PC has made such a difference to our lives but it is now under threat. It came into our lives in the 80s and turned our business and domestic lives upside down. From the now laughably mundane USP (Unique Selling Point) of ‘maintaining your household accounts’, which was heavily marketed by PC and software retailers back then, to designing aircraft, these devices will have their own section in any future museum of social and commercial history… such is the mark they have made.
However, the PC has serious competition. Like the fax machine, it could be heading for that museum faster than any of us thought. It is a fantastic device, but it has drawbacks. It may be big and clever, but it is not light and it is not fully portable.
Smartphones, however, are extremely portable. Had people been told years ago ‘use these instead of PCs’, they would have laughed. The screens are tiny – although tablets are now arriving in force too. Of course, they were meant to be complementary but now that their processors, memory and storage vital statistics are putting desktop computers to shame, people do not realise how little they turn on their PCs now.
Analyst IDC estimates that 365.4m feature phones (basic smart capabilities) and full smartphones were shipped globally in the second quarter of 2011. That is up 11.3 per cent year-on-year from the 328.4m phones that IDC estimates were shipped in Q2 2010. IDC says that sales of feature phones are now actually falling, so overall growth is now being driven by surging sales of high-specification smartphones.
Within two years or so, there will be more smartphones with internet access than PCs. Already over a quarter of UK adults (27 per cent) and almost half of teenagers (47 per cent) own a smartphone, according to Ofcom’s latest Communications Market Report.
The mobile challenge
If smartphones are going to become ‘truly PC and truly mobile’, with superb connectivity, these devices will be useless without access to data. The services available via smartphones must be practical and simple to use, not just adaptations of what went before for PCs. The rise of the “app” on smartphones and tablets is significantly altering the ICT scenario, and vendors, service providers and businesses of all sorts need to re-think their operations and business models.
Home and public WiFi networks have become a critical connectivity solution for mobile devices. BT has created a significant public WiFi estate through public and dense city centre WiFi and hotspots broadcast by home and business broadband hubs. Mobile operators, once not keen on supporting WiFi, now use it to offload data from their 3G data networks. Many portable consumer devices can support both 3G Mobile and WiFi connections, each with its advantages and disadvantages. WiFi has special advantages when it comes to burgeoning activities such as gaming, VoIP, video-streaming etc. but 3G is more widespread. Ultimately, these technologies are complementary.
The unwired-data challenge involves technology and economics. Traffic growth, primarily generated in buildings may be more cost effectively served from fixed networks with WiFi than by wide area mobile networks. However, with continued data traffic growth and new mobile technologies including LTE and femtocells, the WiFi industry needs to focus on simplifying and enhancing customers’ experience over WiFi. Numerous projects within the technical standards communities for both WiFi and 3G are looking at these solutions, and we expect the fruits of these activities to find their way into the devices within a year or two. The principal issues are described below.
Connection managers on many WiFi devices can create a barrier to customer usage. Smartphones can fail to prioritise between different WiFi access points. This may be mitigated by using connection manager software. However, customer credentials must be entered into the devices and this process has to be repeated for all devices and WiFi networks. This process must be automated wherever possible.
An advantage of the existing WiFi technology is that it mostly exists in indoor locations where most data is generated. However, varying building construction can lead to varying coverage levels. Using IEEE 802.11n standard equipment can improve this, with more sophisticated and expensive solutions giving yet better range.
AAA – Authentication, Authorisation and Accounting
There is a wide array of WiFi authentication methods and credentials. This has been automated for certain devices through the use of WISPr clients. The roll-out of IEEE 802.1x allows a range of alternative credential mechanisms to be used (e.g. digital certificates), along with more automated provisioning systems being possible. This solution is currently being analysed. Taking this further, the Wireless Broadband Alliance is now developing and trialling specifications for the Next Generation Hotspot using the recently established IEEE 802.11u specifications.
At present, BT’s WiFi estate utilises unencrypted access for customer convenience, consistent with global public WiFi networks. Openzone provides VPN client downloads for PCs, Macs and Apple iPhones and iPads on the Openzone Portal to provide fuller protection. This is prominently promoted but usage is limited. The industry needs to do more to promote these solutions. WiFi protocol 802.1x provides air-interface security, and is beginning to become used on public WiFi networks (it has been rolled out to 90 per cent of BT premium hotspots) but open access remains important for ad-hoc users or in free-to-end-user public WiFi services.
Once connected to WiFi, maintaining connectivity can be challenging. WiFi devices assume that all access points issuing a given SSID (Service Set Identifier) are part of the same local area network. As a result, devices may switch access points depending on detected signal strength. From a customer’s perspective, their device is connected to WiFi but cannot be used. The 802.1x and newer IEEE standards help to alleviate this. In future devices may simultaneously connect to both networks, perhaps to provide different services across each bearer.
Enjoying the Experience when Connected
WiFi can provide a great customer experience. It often offers higher speeds and low latency compared to 3G, to make it the preferred network for services such as video streaming and on-line gaming. However, further improvements are required to ensure this is consistently achieved. WiFi uses unlicensed spectrum at 2.4GHz. This spectrum can suffer from interference caused by both WiFi and non-WiFi devices, such as video senders, baby monitors, as well as other neighbouring WiFi access points with overlapping coverage.
WiFi access points and the connected devices share usage of a common channel to transmit and receive data. Devices implement a variety of 802.11 protocols, from the slower legacy 802.11b to the latest fast 802.11n on the same channel. In addition, devices near the edge of coverage generate longer retransmissions due to weaker signal strength. This combination of factors can result in congestion of the common channel and poor throughput for all customers on the access point. There is a variety of emerging techniques to address these, but progress is limited by the adoption rate of device manufacturers.
WiFi is perceived as power hungry technology and is often turned off. Crucially, WiFi consumes more power than a mobile equivalent during stand-by mode. For 3G devices, the 3G radio must be left on even when WiFi is on, increasing power drain further. Improvements in silicon design and implementation of newer standards mean that WiFi is now no worse than 3G for data transmission. In fact, some experts, such as Apple, say that it can be more efficient. Possible interim solutions include connection managers that switch off WiFi when the handset is outside the coverage area.
Apps – the opportunity for retailers
Retailers of both ‘clicks’ and ‘bricks’, who are not already doing so, need to explore urgently the potential that smartphone apps can offer. A simple download for customers can enable retailers to engage with customers through special offers, online shopping, price comparisons, coupons and loyalty programmes. Links from apps to social networking sites can provide brands with arguably the most powerful brand channel – word of mouth, so retailers who are already using apps must also ensure that social networking is part of their smartphone strategy.
WiFi capabilities are widespread and they provide customers with a valuable proposition for accessing data and applications wirelessly. Whilst current WiFi is not a substitute for wide-area mobile due to its limited coverage footprint, it has a significant role in providing a full customer experience.
There are areas where this experience could be enhanced with respect to usability in order to reduce barriers to adoption and thereby improve the commercial potential. In combination with broadband, the WiFi service could provide a significant competitive advantage in serving the burgeoning Smartphone/Tablet market sector.