SOMETHING IS CHANGING the world over. After all the hype, consumers are at last enjoying true freedom in the world of technology. Whether they are e-mailing, sharing photos, downloading music or surfing the Web, they are beginning to enjoy multiple applications on a single device as they switch seamlessly from one network to another. And it is in Asia and Europe where consumers have seen the most progress. The convergence promise depends on simplicity, security and standards-based interoperability. But if North Americans are to benefit from this new era of convergence as much as consumers elsewhere, service providers and operators will have to make bigger commercial leaps in making their respective networks work together.
Ive always found it ironic that while communications is all about breaking down barriers, industry has been busy creating them. Consider that, until recently, wired and wireless devices were exclusively dependent on separate networks: phones were tied to cellular networks, laptops to Wi-Fi, PDAs to Bluetooth. Consider the single-minded focus of wireless operators on their substantial 3G investments in the last five years.
So what are the reasons for change? Its partly the arrival of new network technologies, such as Wi-Fi and WiMAX and the uniting forces of IP and unlicensed mobile access (UMA) all of which are disrupting the traditional landscape and breaking down silos.
The consumer also has had an impact: Users demands for mobile multimedia at the best price with the best connection and from one vendor have encouraged industry leaders to break with tradition and invest in multiple networks.
Device manufacturers have responded quickly to the new world order. These last six months have seen new devices from major handset manufacturers that incorporate numerous radios and antennae to support multiple networks. The combination of EDGE, GPRS, 3G, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi is now commonplace.
Finally, some though not all network operators have responded with radically different strategies, investing in multiple networks. Not only do they value the new revenue of multimedia applications, but they benefit from the lower costs of delivering existing services over converged networks.
Wi-Fi technology has set a fine example as a catalyst for convergence. Technology developers have continued to increase Wi-Fis data rates, and the IEEE soon will ratify the 802.11n standard to increase bandwidth by four times. But Wi-Fi also is moving beyond ubiquity in the laptop market and breaking into new realms. Wi-Fi/cellular convergence has taken a foothold among key operators this year. There are now more than 15 cell phones that have been Wi-Fi CERTIFIED, in the first major step in communications convergence.
The Wi-Fi industry also is breaking into the consumer electronics market, recognizing that the home of the very near future will support the sharing and exchange of multimedia content between devices. Why download music via your laptop when you can download directly from the Web to a wireless media player? Why offload your full camera memory to your PC when you can upload it directly to your personal Webspace though a wireless connection?
Something must be up when Wi-Fi tops iPods for popularity. But thats exactly what a recent survey of U.S. consumers demonstrated. Iconic products stage major breakthroughs and change our perceptions of technology and leisure. But as standalone products with surprisingly limited uses, they can have their limits. In a world of convergence and multiple use devices, it is perhaps no wonder that eight out of 10 Americans would give up their iPods any day over their home wireless networks. A similar number also would prefer to live without their home phones than without a wireless computer network.
If we are to look for further inspiration for convergence, it is becoming clear that we have to search beyond North America. Recent figures from Infonetics Research reveal that 49 percent of global dual-mode handset revenue growth came from the Asia Pacific region in 2005 while 27 percent came from North America and 22 percent from the Europe and the Middle East region. In China, a combination of the worlds largest mobile phone population and the existence of 10,000 wireless hotspots provide a positive foundation for the development of integrated services. If Asia leads today, Infonetics expects European dual-mode growth to have the greatest impact by 2007.
So what is required to ensure that U.S. consumers benefit from the promise of convergence? Above all, standards-based interoperability is crucial and without it consumers cannot be sure they are buying devices that can go from hotspots to home networks to the office environment. So while it is understandable that the sheer speed of change occasionally will result in pre-certified products reaching the market, the long-term aim for all OEMs must be to preserve the best possible user experience by certifying products and adhering to industry standards.
Security and simplicity also must be assured. To enhance security, for instance, the new WPA2 certification now is mandatory for all Wi-Fi CERTIFIED products. Meanwhile, the Wi-Fi Protected Setup program later this year will make setting up secure home Wi-Fi networks even more straightforward and quick. Research for the Wi-Fi Alliance shows that the average setup time for wireless computer networks at home is currently one hour and eight minutes.
However, there is only so much that standards, simplicity and security can do. Despite consumer demand, the availability of new technologies and the innovation of consumer electronics manufacturers, some service providers seem reticent in their commitment to convergence. Virtually all have invested in Wi-Fi, but not all have announced plans for providing mixed portfolios of converged fixed, mobile and broadband services. It is now time for that final push from network centricity to consumer centricity. It is time for operators to focus less on protecting their own networks and more on making all networks work together. If they succeed, consumers in North America can enjoy the benefits of being always best connected, everywhere they go.
Frank Hanzlik is managing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance, the worldwide trade association for the Wi-Fi industry. With close to 20 years of experience in the wireless and communications industries, he is responsible for leading strategy, business development and operations for the organization and driving worldwide growth in the $5 billion-per-year Wi-Fi industry.
|Infonetics Research www.infonetics.com
Wi-Fi Alliance www.wi-fi.org