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    Mobile gets down to business


    With 3G data services now available in the UK, Bryan Betts takes the enterprise view of the ways in which mobile technology is shaping up to the challenge of providing services which drive real business benefits

    3G data has reached the UK at last. Hutchison’s 3 network may not be able to come up with anything more exciting than watching football clips or home videos on your mobile, but Vodafone has now launched its 3G data service and the other UK licence holders are getting ready to follow suit.

    The question now is what sort of applications will these services support and, of course, how much will it cost to mobilise your enterprise?
    Orange is preparing to launch a 3G data service during the second half of this year, for example. Its business solutions marketing director Clive Richardson says it is trialling all its existing mobile data services and products, such as email and sales and service applications, with a 3G data card.

    “The key thing for any business user is access to email and other personal information such as a diary. The second thing is access to VPNs, and then it’s web browsing and so on,” he says. “Most people who use GPRS find it works but it’s infuriatingly slow. The 3G experience is like moving from a modem to broadband.”

    For early adopters, the killer application is undoubtedly going to be email, notes David Aminzade, EMEA head of cellular sales at security company CheckPoint Software. “What’s going to grow the business is that we’re all addicted to email and experience terrible dislocation when we’re not connected,” he says.
    The first challenge for the networks is how to make it as transparent and simple to use as possible — it has to “just turn on and connect,” as Aminzade puts it. Their next problem though is how to spread 3G data usage outside that predominantly white collar, early adopter segment.

    This is a major challenge for a group of companies which have, in the past, shown relatively little sign that they understand anything beyond the consumer appetite for mobile voice telephony. One manifestation of this, according to some who have researched the area, is that they still want to be seen as more than a pipe for data.  “It seems to me that they’re all trying, to a greater or lesser extent, to force you to use services they provide rather than simply providing connectivity,” commented one potential customer for mobile data. “All in all, what a dreadful industry to have to do business with.”
    Leaving the door ajar
    This is leaving the door ajar for competitive mobile data services based on other technologies, whether it be WiFi, WiMax or something else, says Dean Bubley, the founder of research firm Disruptive Analysis.

    “The network operators’ desire to do more than provide a pipe is a bottleneck,” he says. “Do you want people jealously guarding their spectrum, or do you deploy over other wireless technologies and then not have to deal with the egos in the telecoms industry?”

    The problem also feeds through into tariffing, which is where attempted analogies with wired broadband rapidly run out of steam. “The insistence on per-MB pricing has hobbled GPRS,” Bubley says. “Yes, with flat rate you put a cap on your earnings, but do you want a large revenue from a small group or a decent and known revenue from a large group?”

    And he adds that he is really surprised  that there have not been more enterprise-focused mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), along the lines of Virgin Mobile or BT Wireless, targeting the corporate appetite for data. “There is a huge opportunity for people who understand IT to sell mobile services,” he says.
    Tariffing is an area where North America is ahead of Europe for once, says Derek Evans, EMEA general manager for Canadian data card developer Sierra Wireless. He decries the operators’ attempts to sell content rather than connectivity as being too consumer-led, and highlights US flat-rate GPRS tariffs as a big vote winner.
    “At the corporate level it’s about information exchange, so then it’s what speed and user experience can you provide. Not many apps benefit directly from higher speed but it makes life easier and less frustrating,” he says.

    “Since we’ve introduced higher speed data in the US, customer acquisition has increased four-fold, but it’s not just speed, it’s more the known cost — put the two together and it’s very strong.”
    He adds that it also ties in strongly with US corporate culture, which has become very email-centric where the UK has been more voice-centric. “We are now acting more like they do — email-centric is more productive, but it changes how you manage your life.
    “Once you get a device that gives access to text and voice, your productivity goes up and your ability to manage your time goes up — but how much does it cost to run?”
    “We had to look at the tariffing,” says Vodafone’s data solution exec Paul Stonadge. “The proposition hasn’t changed that much but it now allows a richer experience — the one comparison our customers make is with broadband.”

    However, it certainly appears that the UK networks plan to tariff 3G data merely as a faster version of GPRS, with broadband-style flat rate tariffs not on the agenda. For example, Vodafone’s tariffs all work on the basis of a set amount of MB per month, with any extra downloads charged at a higher run-on rate. “All-you-can-eat tariffs sound interesting but not everyone has the same profile,” Stonadge says. “A bundle still gives predictability once you understand your usage profile — it is very predictable within an organisation. Allied to that, we give a time period for the user to understand their usage profile and pick the right tariff.”

    The other issue, as Stonadge acknowledges, is that not all applications will run satisfactorily over 3G, or GPRS for that matter. Those currently being recommended and trialled by the network operators are all existing services which were developed specifically to run over mobile networks, and not standard enterprise applications that might otherwise run over a LAN.

    This should be no surprise, according to those who work with enterprise software, and the reason is latency — the time it takes for a message to cross a mobile network. “Everyone talks about headline data rates of 384Kbps but that’s not as important as issues of latency,” says Joe Barrett of wireless broadband developer, Flarion Technologies. “Gaming needs sub-50millisecond latency for example. GPRS is 800ms to 2seconds, and 3G is 250ms and upwards. “It’s also critical for enterprise applications — apps like Outlook grind to a halt once you add latency, because it sends lots of small messages to and fro when it starts. Certain actions on SAP always fail if you have latency over 150ms.”

    “Latency is still high on wireless networks, it comes from how far into the datastream you have to look to decode it. It will be a problem for 3G and GPRS alike, though not for WiFi,” concurs Nat Kausik, president and ceo of Fineground Networks, a company which develops technology to make web applications usable over high latency networks. “Products like ours will be a possible solution, but the market is not there yet for web applications over wireless,” he adds. “There are some wireless applications out there, but they are proprietary client-server.”
    Broadband option
    Another option is a wireless broadband network, says Barrett. Flarion’s technology is intended as an add-on to a 3G base station, using spare radio spectrum to provide an IP-based 3Mbps pure data service. It is being tested by several networks around the world, but is not part of the 3G spec or service.
    For the moment then, most experts agree that 3G will still need specially developed client software that overcomes the limitations of the wireless link. In many cases, this means software that periodically synchronises with a central server rather than running online and in real-time.
    “The apps in use today include field service, deliveries, email, telematics and some web browsing,” says Dean Bubley. “Some enterprise apps are becoming mobile, but it requires a specific client or a big integration project.”

    He believes it is unlikely that mobile will ever enable us to do the same things we do over ethernet. “Certain things will always be better wired. By the time WiMax gets here, we’ll probably have three or five megabit DSL for example. The challenge is how the mobile domain can interoperate better with the fixed domain.”
    Given software designed for wireless data, 3G will bring benefits, says Chris Leffel, a senior mobility consultant with Extended Systems which develops mobile applications for enterprise use. He warns though that, as yet, it does not add much to what’s already possible.

    “We have been testing our OneBridge software over 3G to see if it will add value,” he says.  “Speed is a positive aspect if you’re on the M4 corridor, but it won’t be a big selling point until we get national coverage.  “National coverage will probably take 12 to 18 months, and even then it won’t cover remote areas. Even today, GPRS is not available in some areas — it falls back to GSM data of course, but the user sees a vast change in what’s available.” He adds that there are positive and negative aspects to the handsets too. “There are two chief drawbacks, the first is the availability of 3G devices — there’s not many out there, and some are not business-friendly — for example, 3 has focused on sending video clips to your friends. Plus, their battery life is like stepping back a year or two.”

    On the plus side, GSM devices can only do one thing at a time —  either voice or data — whereas 3G will be able to do both simultaneously. “That will make it more transparent to the user,” Leffel says. “It’s not too far away, but it needs a network software update.”