Let’s get it always-on

We are witnessing the fourth major evolution of wireless telecommunications in the always-on IP network, communications analyst Mark Lowenstein told a gathering of Rogers AT&T Wireless employees

and customers Wednesday.

Lowenstein, the manager director of Wellesley, Mass.-based Mobile Ecosystem, said the always-on network follows the move from car phones to portable phones, the transition from analogue to digital and the introduction of “”one rate”” plans in the maturation of mobile communications.

The always-on movement is embodied by the Research in Motion Ltd.’s push Blackberry technology, SMS messaging and 1X and General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) networks, like the one Rogers has just completed.

“”The main common denominator here is that the network is always on,”” said Lowenstein, who also founded the Yankee Group’s global wireless practices.

Lowenstein expressed confidence in the wireless industry, saying perceptions of its future have been dragged down by the telecom slowdown and the related drop in telecom stock prices. Tuesday’s revelations of inflated earnings (to the tune of US$3.8 billion) by WorldCom Inc. will likely exacerbate the slump.

But Lowenstein pointed to the increasing share of global traffic owned by wireless communications and the fact that 380 million handsets were sold last year as proof of the sector’s resilience.

“”The industry is very healthy. Subscribers are growing by 20 per cent per year,”” he said. “”Wireless on a global basis accounts for 20 per cent of traffic, as opposed to five per cent three years ago.””

While annual industry growth has slowed from 30 to 40 per cent to 15 to 20 per cent, he said users are eagerly anticipating the applications the next generation networks promise.

“”As soon as you have the broadband experience in your home, your expectations for what you want out of wireless increase,”” Lowenstein said. He added surveys show two-thirds of Fortune 1,000 companies that have yet to go mobile are either planning to do so or are looking seriously at the option.

In Canada, providers have been moving to meet the demand. Bell Mobility and Telus Mobility have launched 1X networks, while Global System for Mobile communications (GSM)/GRPS networks are used by Microcell Telecommunications Inc. and Rogers, which announced Wednesday that its GSM/GPRS network now reaches 93 per cent of the country’s population.

“”Coverage is the No. 1 issue, bar none,”” Lowenstein said. “”If you can’t get coverage, there’s no reason to go any further.””

“”It means that you have always-on access to advanced digital service in every part of the country,”” added Rogers AT&T Wireless president and CEO Nadir Mohamed. “”It means that you have access to next-generation multimedia applications as they are developed.””

After coverage, Lowenstein said what counts with next-generation networks is throughput — the speed at which data can be transmitted. Though some carriers claim their 1X and GSM/GRPS networks are third generation (3G) because they reach the 144 Kbps benchmark in the lab, “”in the real world it is in the 50-70 Kbps range,”” Lowenstein said, making these networks 2.5G. 3G speeds can rival that of broadband service, while 2.5G is more comparable with dial-up speeds.

Still, dial-up speeds make mobile data applications — from corporate network access to games —worthwhile. Dany Breton, business partner manager at St. Laurent, Que.-based Symbol Technologies Canada Ulc., said the speed of a GPRS network makes it feasible for its Portable Data Terminal to use public networks as well as local area networks to send and receive data. The terminals, used by truckers, hydro technicians and other field workers, also allow users to hang up their cellular phones.

“”Because of the bandwidth, you can have voice and data on the same unit,”” Breton said. “”You replace the phone.””

Along with speed and coverage, cost is, not surprisingly, a concern. Lowenstein said most 1X and GSM/GPRS carriers have chosen a packet-based billing approach, making the always-on promise easier to fulfill.

In the future, in what Lowenstein called the “”context age,”” filtering and personalization tools will be used to ensure we aren’t paying for unimportant megs.

“”It might be terrific to see 75 e-mails a day, but what about wrapping context around that?”” he said. “”If you’re being charged on a usage basis and someone sends you a PowerPoint file, do you want to pay for that download?””

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