|Issue:||Europe I 2009|
|Topic:||Mobile and wireless – not just voice and entertainment|
|Author:||Dr Georg Serentschy|
|Organisation:||RTR-GmbH the Austrian Broadcasting and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, Telecommunications Division|
Georg Serentschy is the CEO of RTR-GmbH, the Austrian Broadcasting and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, Telecommunications Division. Previously, Mr Serentschy was Managing Director of Arthur D. Little’s operations in Austria and Central Eastern Europe. His main fields of activity in top-management consulting were marketing issues, strategy development and finance for fixed and mobile operators as well as Internet service providers. His professional experience of more than 25 years brought him to various industries, such as satellite communications, research in the energy sector and software development. Before starting his industrial career, Mr Serentschy worked as a nuclear physicist in basic research. Georg Serentschy graduated from the University of Vienna, Austria, and holds a PhD degree in nuclear physics and mathematics.
The telecommunications industry is witnessing a fundamental transformation in the way people use the Internet. The shift from fixed to mobile telephony has already had a great impact throughout Europe, and mobile broadband promises a new revolution in the region’s development. Austria is among those European countries where the use of this technology has made the most impressive advances. There are many opportunities arising from mobile broadband that we must seize so our new knowledge-based societies can benefit and grow.
Mobile broadband In recent years, the use of new information and communications technologies (ICT) has brought about radical changes in society and in business practices. While voice communication via mobile telephone is now part of our everyday lives, this is only true of data communication to a limited extent. For more than a decade, text-messaging services (SMS) have enabled an extremely successful – but technically simple – form of data communication. The next logical step is mobile broadband, a means of communication which will change our outlook drastically. Retrieving and sending data using mobile devices will soon become a common occurrence. The availability of this technology will not just benefit individuals, it will also enhance productivity and competitiveness in business. Society as a whole will profit from the ability to obtain and exchange information anytime, anywhere. Another key development is already becoming visible today: The Internet of Things, the wireless, self-configuring (ideally) networking of objects used every day at home or when out and about. While this may still seem fairly abstract and far-fetched to some, it is already common practice to access various household devices via the Internet, such as answering machines, video recorders, or the home heating system for status information. This type of infrastructure is very useful for second homes, for example as a means of detecting heating system failures in time and preventing potential damage. In any case, we can expect more and more devices to communicate with one another especially using wireless technology in the near future, with connections to local area networks (LANs) and wide-area networks (WANs) being established through both fixed-link and mobile infrastructure. Development To place current developments in context, it is useful to look at their origins. In GSM networks, GPRS made it possible several years ago to transmit data at speeds comparable to that of a fixed-link modem connection. Although this technology was available, it was hardly used for mobile Internet access. At the time, the mobile communications industry relied on specially developed pages in the form of WAP services. However, this service did not provide access to the World Wide Web, so consumer interest was limited. Access to the Internet, although technically possible, was seldom used due to its high cost. Then too, manufacturers have only recently developed smart phones that can display normal web pages in an appealing manner. The introduction of Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) did very little to change this. Austria did not see signs of a boom in mobile Internet access until early 2007, after the launch of High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) boosted maximum speeds to more than 384Kbit/s and providers had begun to offer more attractive prices. With rates starting around 20 euros per month for one gigabyte of data, mobile Internet usage also became a viable option for retail customers. This was supported by the availability of reasonably priced modems, typically with USB interfaces. Since then, mobile penetration in Austria has reached 120 per cent (Q1/2008; per RTR Telecom Monitor 3/08). A substantial part of this penetration is due to the approximately 700,000 mobile broadband connections in Austria. In comparison, the number of fixed-link broadband connections reached approximately 1.69 million at that time. Mobile data and the digital divide In addition to enabling mobile Internet access, mobile broadband can play a significant social role, as a tool to bridge the digital divide – the unequal distribution in many societies of access to the Internet and the information and communication possibilities these bring. Access is heavily dependent on social and economic factors and lack of access aggravates existing social disadvantages. The high cost of fixed-line broadband infrastructure required for each subscriber (e.g., local loops) raises access costs, but wireless broadband – including mobile – customers use a different type of shared infrastructure for Internet access. Since wireless access infrastructure – except for the customer’s broadband modem – is shared and costs are only incurred when the broadband service is used, providers can charge less. Prepaid offers of one to two gigabytes for just 20 Euros, to be used within one year, are possible. Such low entry prices for wireless fixed-link as well as mobile access have opened up new possibilities for lower-income groups, which were previously unable to afford Internet access. Wireless can also provide access in areas where fixed-line broadband Internet access via coaxial cable or DSL is not practical. In Austria, mobile broadband (UMTS/HSDPA) now covers more than 90 per cent of the population; when slower mobile data connections based on GSM/EDGE are included, this coverage level exceeds 98 per cent of Austria’s population. New services, new devices In addition to mobile broadband usage with a laptop and integrated UMTS modem or external card, access to the Internet directly from mobile phones is also growing. In the past, this mobile phone access was constrained by limited browser capabilities; the browsers used could not properly display many websites. Today, many smart phones let users view normal websites on their display. In coming years, the processing power of mobile telephones will reach a point where the comfort level is comparable to that of a desktop computer. In addition, the rising number of smart phone Internet users has made this market attractive to content providers, thus increasing the number of web sites that are optimized for mobile devices. The ability to display web content on mobile devices is a positive side-effect of WAI-compliant (Web Accessibility Initiative, WAI, of the World Wide Web Consortium) web sites, which specifies page designs that people with special needs can access. At the EU level, Austria has committed to implementing the relevant WAI guidelines, which are now an integral part of Austria’s e-government strategy. In addition to Internet access, an increasing number of today’s mobile phones employ assisted GPS to determine the user’s location and provide services appropriate to their locality. We can expect great numbers of innovative ‘location-based services’ in the coming years. Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags enable other commercially attractive services for mobile users. Equipping mobile devices with RFID readers makes it possible to read nearby RFID tags and to process them on the handset or transmit the RFID information via mobile networks. For example, Vienna subway passengers now buy tickets simply by holding their mobile handsets up to an RFID reader near a station entrance; this generates a text message, displays it to the user and transmits it to a central server once confirmed. The server then returns a text message that is valid as a ticket on Vienna’s public transportation network. Similarly, it is possible to use RFID chips for payment at vending machines or in retail shops, thus turning the mobile phone into an ‘electronic wallet’ for e-payments. RFIDs also have great potential for logistics applications. Another key aspect of mobile broadband is the increasing convergence of traditional broadcasting and telecommunications. It is now possible to receive broadcast signals not only via cable (DVB-C), terrestrial antennas (DVB-T) and satellite (DVB-S), but increasingly via UMTS streaming, DVB-H provides a mixed version of these services; although transmitted using traditional broadcast technology, these services are received by mobile handsets and billed by the mobile network operator. It is also possible to transmit additional information via the mobile network. The Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service (MBMS) uses UMTS streaming resources more efficiently by sharing the transmission of each channel to multiple handsets in a given radio cell. Individuals access the Internet for various reasons – entertainment, communication, information, or music and video downloads; for the government, however, the Internet means more efficient communication with citizens and substantially improved e-government applications. In Austria, the e-government portal, www.help.gv.at, has been a highly sufficient way to resolve many common questions, which the website classifies according to their significance in people’s lives. The portal’s main emphasis is on presenting information in a clear, understandable and focused manner. In some areas, the portal not only offers information, but also enables citizens to resolve certain issues online. Since 2004, it has been possible to add electronic signatures to online requests and applications using a ‘citizen’s card’ (smart card), that lets people handle official business completely online. Mobile credit card terminals provide a similar electronic solution for different applications. These terminals use mobile networks to effect payment electronically and are quite successful in restaurants, taxi companies and delivery services. Mobile/fixed partnership With all of these mobile solutions, the question arises: How will mobile communications impact fixed networks? In this context, many overlook the fact that mobile networks only use radio transmission for the last mile and therefore require the support of fixed-link networks. It is possible to connect base stations directly via microwave radio links, but when signals have to be transported over distances of several kilometers and transmission rates above 100 Mbit/s are required, only fiber optic networks serve. Rates of up to 100Mbit/s for LTE and WiMAX will soon reach the mass market. This increase in mobile transmission rates will require a denser mobile network than those currently in use. Next generation mobile broadband networks require fiber optic infrastructures to connect base stations. High capacity fixed infrastructure, then, will be required both for next generation of fixed-link broadband (next generation access – NGA) and mobile. Wireless femtocells, for example, will let consumers use their mobile handset to access the fixed-link network through a tiny base station – or femtocell – at home or at work. Connecting many mobile phones to the fixed network via femtocells lessens the mobile network’s traffic and its infrastructure can be smaller, but the fixed network’s infrastructure must handle more traffic. Mobile and fixed-link broadband applications are not separate – opposed – elements, but complementary; they will grow apace, each supporting the other, in the future. Outlook The rapid propagation of mobile broadband access and the development of the corresponding mobile broadband applications are creating new opportunities for individuals and for the economy as a whole. The mobile services of the future will be everywhere, and their diversity will go far beyond that of those today. In addition to human-to-human communication, human-to-machine and machine-to-machine communication will become increasingly important. It is up to us to assess the opportunities and risks of mobile broadband and ensure that modern information and communications technologies contribute effectively to the common good.