Mobile operators are no longer merely just that. One of the big themes to come out of 3GSM is that operators are now keen to position themselves as broadband providers, whether that be mobile, WLAN or even fixed line.
First among these was Orange, whose chairman Thierry Breton outlined a vision to provide broadband access to users wherever they are. T-Mobile followed a day or so later with its "Broadband Mobile" launch, which was about integrating 2G and 3G networks with wireless LAN.
For Orange, Breton highlighted the synergies that the France Telecom group could bring between its fixed and mobile providers. This meant that the carrier would be looking to introduce a converged fixed and mobile broadband service platform. This converged platform would provide services which could then be accessed by either DSL, WLAN or mobile.
A fixed line presence?
n areas where France Telecom has a fixed line network the vision, and it is still only that, makes some sense. Breton went as far as suggesting that Orange would become a broadband brand across fixed and mobile. In France, where Orange could piggy-back on the incumbent's fixed network and WLAN rollout, that might make some sense. In other Orange territories the converged broadband solutions provider approach would mean the mobile operator hooking up with a fixed line provider, or re-selling the incumbent's DSL solution.
T-Mobile announced a similar approach, although of course it would rather one didn't accentuate the similarities. Anyway, ceo Rene Obermann said that, instead of being just a mobile provider, the operator wants to create an integrated 2G, 3G and WLAN network.
"All our experience and research tells us that 3G is vital; but it's not enough. Customers want what's best for their needs.Â If you want data, you'll want 3G rather than 2G; but if you can access pure broadband via WiFi, you'll want that. So, we are creating one multi-speed, multi-media network; integrating 2G, 3G and WiFi; and moving towards total seamlessness," explained Obermann.
Campus WLAN trial
To get to grips with providing this broadband mobile network T-Mobile has pieced together a partnership with IBM, Intel and Cisco Systems to provide wireless access networks to 100 universities across Europe. Frankfurt University has a live pilot up and running, with T-Mobile supplying connectivity, Cisco the WLAN infrastructure, IBM the laptops using Intel based thinkpads. Students are issues with vouchers for access, which is via WLAN when on campus and UMTS and GPRS when off-campus. The vouchers will also cover T-Mobile hot-spots off-campus.
The desire among mobile operators to become all-round broadband providers plays well into another mantra of 3GSM, that of mobile becoming a substitution technology. Operators are keen to point out that the future for the industry lies as much in persuading subscribers to do things wirelessly that they are used to doing in another medium as creating new activities.
To do this, there is an awareness that the pricing needs to come down to a level so that the mobility premium is not too steep. In fixed/ mobile voice substitution that could be by offering voice over IP services, in data services it means providing connectivity at speeds approaching what subscribers expect from a fixed line connection
HSDPA upgrade path
To achieve this, the vendors are insistent that operators need to be thinking now about how they will upgrade their UMTS infrastructure to the R5, IP version. This means thinking now about the upgrade path to HSDPA. The vendors from whom one hears most about HSDPA at the moment are those who have not done so well in the early rounds of UMTS contract awards.
Motorola's Laith Sadiq, EMEA strategy director of its GTSS division, said that if operators are serious about mobile broadband, HSDPA will be crucial.
"Where HSDPA comes through is being able to offer operators a real differentiation from 2.5G, and also enable them to go into mobile broadband. It will give them capabilities similar to ADSL, and enable them to offer the kind of things like flat rate charging that may start to open up this market.
"It will also enable you to improve the end user experience. If you want to encourage your users to use MP3 download, for example, on your mobile network you have to have a very good end user experience --- and if you can download within 45 seconds to a minute then users will be willing to do that and pay for the mobility. But if it is going to take two hours then they would prefer to go home to do it.
"The second thing is how much you are going to be able to charge for this kind of download. If you want to download an album for 1MB or even 2MB it enables you to compete with other providers of entertainment or music. For example, if you take a CD for Â£11 --- if you can sell that same amount of data on your MP3 for Â£5 then you've got a service substitution capability to enable you to grow the business. Consumers will spend so much and they will not go above it. What we are saying is you can grow through substitution of service."
What's your backhaul?
Sadiq also points out that HSDPA doesn't have to be used as the access technology. Operators could use the capacity to provide backhaul to their WLAN hotspots.
"Take Orange. In France it's easier for them because they've got FT as a backhaul provider --- but if they come to the UK what could they do? One thing is to use HSDPA, rather than having to hire multiple E1 links from BT.
"The R99 node B will be upgraded to R5, which has an IP capability. But it could be they want IP backhaul or IP interfaces. It may be you want to be very flexible on your backhaul, and offer MetroLAN type capabilities. We are looking at the holistic broadband capability. Rather than what does it take to introduce HSDPA it's, 'What does it take to deliver broadband and give the operator flexibility to choose the technology they need to offer broadband?'"
Who pays and how?
or Sadiq, a further question is on pricing. Broadband is not a high margin business, and the pricing relationship per megabit is not linear. This will present operators with a choice "between remaining in the high margin business or moving to broadband."
"Operators have very good margins on their SMS and MMS systems, so the important thing for them is to lower the cost of delivering broadband services to a level where we can the offer these services at reasonable margins. But many of them will have to move to broadband because they cannot keep SMS at the level they have at the moment. There's too much competition coming through from MVNO providers. Look at what's happening in Denmark, where the level of competition means all the premium has been almost wiped out."
If that serves as a warning, so does the alternative.
"If operators don't succeed in this then there will be other technologies coming in to offer these services. It's important for operators to be successful in these technologies to attract broadband, because there are thing like 802.16 which, if the delays in 3G continue, will flourish."