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The Perfect Storm
The Perfect Storm

This article explains why the British government is interested in wireless technology and why this represents an opportunity for technology executives, investors, and entrepreneurs to innovate at the intersection of mobile, broadband, and Internet technologies.

When Stephen Timms, UK Minister of State for E-Commerce and Competitiveness, traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area in mid-May, he was a man on a mission. In the space of 48 hours he met with 10 wireless technology companies that each play a unique and important role in making ubiquitous broadband Internet access a modern day reality.

Smart antenna systems, planar arrays, mesh technologies, and platforms to facilitate convergence of 3G and Wi-Fi networks were among the innovations shared with the Minister's team.

So, why is the British government so interested in wireless? To borrow a popular American expression, "It's the economy, Stupid!" Stated another way, it's the diffusion of information and communications technologies (ICT) and the resulting economic effects that explains why UK policymakers are interested in wireless, especially wireless technologies for unlicensed spectrum, such as Wi-Fi.

Another way to view this is to consider that within the last year the regulatory changes that gave birth to public Wi-Fi services in the UK can arguably account for a real acceleration in broadband infrastructure deployment. And, this is entirely consistent with the observation that "hotspot" statistics seem to have assumed a permanent standing in the mix of metrics now quoted to represent a national broadband footprint.

Understanding the disruptive potential of broadband wireless technologies and unlicensed spectrum contributes to UK policymakers' efforts to create the right regulatory environment for UK leadership as the most expansive and competitive broadband market in the G-7 by the year 2005.

What is of utmost importance here is that the UK government's commitment to achieving this goal creates unique opportunities for technology executives, investors, and entrepreneurs to innovate at the intersection of mobile, broadband, and Internet technologies.

But, thinking about these opportunities means thinking about how three distinct yet overlapping technology sectors come together. It means thinking about how the "synthesis" of mobile, broadband and Internet innovations, quietly underway for some time now, gives rise to the technology equivalent of "The Perfect Storm." And in the eye of this storm there is the almost silent unspoken promise of truly ubiquitous mobile broadband services (MBS).

As an emerging market opportunity, MBS could very well provide the context within which the next wave of investment in mobile, broadband, and Internet technologies is rationalized.

As Figure 1 illustrates, the innovations required to make MBS a reality involve significant scope of technical development. This means that multidisciplinary expertise confers real strategic advantage to innovators who focus on areas where these technologies intersect.

Figure 1

For example, technologists working on enterprise voice over IP (VoIP) solutions will find that VoIP over public Wi-Fi networks opens up entirely new opportunities for innovation, collaboration, and market share gains. This is supported by recent announcements from a number of vendors indicating plans to produce mobile handsets capable of supporting voice services over Wi-Fi networks (using VoIP) in addition to traditional voice services over 2.5G or 3G networks. This offers the prospect of seamless end-user mobility between wide area networks (i.e., 2.5G or 3G) and wireless LAN networks for voice services, including enhanced voice services.

And, in a similar sense, technologists working on IP mobility protocols, in development as a subset of IPv6 functionality, are likely to find that the emergence of public Wi-Fi networks provides an opportunity for collaboration with colleagues working on comparable mobility capabilities for Wi-Fi networks ­ capabilities such as those defined by the 802.11f specification. This offers the prospect of seamless end-user mobility between wide area networks (i.e., 2.5G or 3G) and wireless LAN networks for data services, including Internet and Web services.

Finally, broadband service providers may seek out xDSL and cable modem technologies that integrate wireless LAN and virtual private network (VPN) capabilities, particularly for the consumer and SOHO markets. This would provide an opportunity for fixed-line broadband service providers to offer their subscribers revenue-sharing plans if the subscriber agrees to allow their wireless access point to operate as a hotspot in the service provider's public Wi-Fi footprint.

The result is a means to monetize the broadband wireless access capacity represented by the enormous number of unprotected access points well known to anyone with a Wi-Fi sniffer. This approach would further accelerate the deployment of broadband wireless coverage and would do so with a business model having real benefits for the subscriber (reduced broadband costs), for the service provider (rapidly expanding Wi-Fi footprint), and for the Wi-Fi road warrior (plenty of Wi-Fi hotspots).

These examples show that opportunities for innovation are very much embedded in the synthesis of mobile, broadband, and Internet technologies, and serve to highlight the catalyzing role played by the combination of unlicensed spectrum and low-cost broadband wireless technologies.

The fundamental show of technologies such as Wi-Fi (utilizing unlicensed spectrum) creates diffusion of technical innovation that extends to 2.5G and 3G networks (utilizing licensed spectrum). This accidental convergence of technologies enables a practical business model for mobile broadband services for perhaps the very first time. And these examples don't go nearly far enough to illustrate the potential for entirely new categories of products and services that result from the diffusive effects of broadband wireless connectivity to Internet-based content.

For example, rather than be limited to the programming choices of terrestrial AM/FM broadcast radio, why not opt for a Wi-Fi radio with virtually unlimited choices of music and other programming derived from Internet-based content. Incorporate an MP3 player, jukebox functionality, and infrared connectivity and who could resist?

In the most general sense, wireless technologies applied to enabling mobile broadband services have the potential to ignite a new wave of synthesized and diffusive innovation limited only by entrepreneurial creativity and investor enthusiasm.

It is in this context, as a harbinger of a new cycle of technical innovation based upon public network infrastructure, that broadband wireless technologies are of particular interest to UK government officials who work to ensure that the regulatory environment conducive to this kind of innovation in the UK is unmatched by any other nation in the G-7.

Rapid acceleration of hotspot deployments, 5 licensed 3G operators, 2 million fixed-line broadband subscribers, 80% mobile penetration rates, clearance of the 5GHz band for 802.11a technologies, and modernization of the communications regulatory authority are all outcomes that are collectively representative of an environment uniquely prepared for entrepreneurship, investment, and innovation to make mobile broadband services a near-term reality in the UK. A perfect storm is developing in the UK.

About Dale E. Smith
Dale E. Smith is Vice-Consul, ICT Sector Specialist, British Consulate-General, San Francisco.

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