The Great Spectrum Hunt: Why it’s Harder Than You Think

January 7, 2011

LAS VEGAS — Just some quick thoughts on a bunch of wireless spectrum talk that surfaced today at CES; while I will try to formulate some longer thought pieces on this subject I know that if I let it sit over the weekend it might never get done. So before Virgin whisks me back home some thoughts, reactions and instant-analysis from some policy panels I attended today at CES.

EVERYONE WANTS MORE SPECTRUM. BUT WHERE YA GONNA GET IT?. It would be hard to find anyone to disagree with FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, who reiterated his earlier claims of a “looming spectrum crisis” in this country’s wireless broadband marketplace. But even as Genachowski and CEA CEO Gary Shapiro talk about “bipartisan support” for a pending bill that would authorize the FCC to conduct an auction of spare broadcasters’ spectrum, don’t hold your breath for it to happen anytime soon.

In the back of the room at Genachowski’s speech some telecom insiders were talking about the chances of such a bill passing in the upcoming Congress — “the chances are zero,” said one large telephone carrier representative. Why? A lot of the broadcaster spectrum sits in the hands of rural providers, whose Congressional representatives rely primarily on over-the-air TV to contact consituents (and run re-election campaigns). City dwellers on both coasts may want to give up the “unused” airwaves so they can have more connectivity for their iPads — but the power and numbers right now are still with the rural opposition.
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Oovoo’s Mobile Video Chat — and the Need to Measure Speed

December 15, 2010

Thanks to the fine folks at Oovoo (especially CEO Philippe Schwartz) who went out of their way last week to give us an in-person demo of the new mobile version of the company’s video chat application, which launched today for the Samsung Epic 4G and the HTC EVO 4G phones from Sprint. C/Net has a good recap of the program and some of the details of how it works. While Oovoo was nice enough to send us a demo phone pre-loaded with the app, we’ve been busy helping people play Santa so more thorough testing will have to wait.

While the proof of the application’s performance will be in the pudding — meaning how quickly it catches on in a world rapidly filling with competitive offerings — in my hands-on demo last week I did notice a telling feature that Oovoo was prescient enough to code into their app: An on-screen warning that alerts phone users if a slow network connection is hampering the video call. Since we were testing the app live in an area that kinda-sorta has 4G service and has spotty Wi-Fi, it was interesting that the best signal came from Sprint’s 3G network — and that the phone could tell us that fact.

The guess from our observation point here at Sidecut Reports is that accurate measurements of broadband speeds and capacity — and other attributes, like network latency — are going to rapidly move from the world of geek-speak to everyday conversation as mobile users expect more from the wireless networks they will depend more upon. Applications like Oovoo’s that help users understand what’s going on behind the scenes will go a long way toward easing frustration that will inevitably occur when connections are lost, interrupted or not even able to begin.

If you are waiting for your wireless carrier to provide such information, you may be on hold for quite some time. Among the major network providers, only Clearwire has seen fit to actually provide coverage maps with real-world data, like tower locations, to help consumers make accurate purchase choices. Verizon’s promise of “street level” maps for its nascent Long Term Evolution (LTE) 4G service is somewhat empty, since all it shows is varying degrees of “red” coverage in any live Verizon market, without any tower-location detail. And AT&T somehow sees fit to claim it is still the “nation’s fastest” mobile network on billboards in the Bay area, where two if not three other network providers are already demonstrably offering much faster services.

So — for the prospective mobile video chat customer, it’s buyer beware.

Our friend Evan Kaplan, the CEO of iPass, touched on some of the growing mobile workforce learning-curve in his talk at the GigaOM Net:Work conference last week, especially when Kaplan noted that mobile users are becoming more sophisticated, more demanding and more likely to consider mobile connectivity the norm and not an exception. Applications like Oovoo’s that not only exploit the ability to communicate while mobile but also provide in-depth information on network status are the kinds likely to win acceptance among the leading-edge user base, simply because the apps themselves are smart enough to help. That’s not enough, but it’s a good start.


Verizon: New Devices Wanted for LTE Network

September 24, 2010

While it’s certainly fun to focus on the where, when and how much details for Verizon’s forthcoming Long Term Evolution (LTE) network, at the Verizon Developer Community Conference in Las Vegas this week it was clear that Big Red is already taking a long-term view of its pending 4G network, putting in place the monetary, business and technical-assistance pieces to help build LTE devices that go way far beyond smartphones or USB modems.

The big question for Verizon’s internal device-developer help center — an entity called the LTE Innovation Center, which has its own physical office space just outside Boston — is whether or not Verizon can effectively team with device entrepreneurs to build cutting-edge electronics that are not only revolutionary, but also business successes as well. After sitting through several LTE-related presentations (where Verizon didn’t reveal anything it already hasn’t said) we sat down with Verizon’s Brian Higgins, general manager of the LTE Innovation Center, for some deeper-dive details.

Basically, here’s how the LTE Innovation Center will work: Companies or entrepreneurs who have networked-product ideas can pitch their plan to Verizon, which will use internal business-case and technical advisory teams to gague the probable success, much like venture capital partners screening funding applicants. Selected companies will then be invited inside the center where there is lab space for testing and development, with Verizon networking engineers on hand to provide assistance and guidance. By next summer, Higgins said Verizon hopes to have several applicants ready to “showcase” at the Innovation Center as well as at industry trade shows.

Unlike a VC fund, however, Verizon won’t require companies who join the program to pay or give up any equity for the development assistance. This is not an insignificant benefit, since VCs or investors almost always want a big piece of the startup pie, if and when you can get them to invest. Device and hardware startups are currently among the least attractive for private investment, due to the large upfront cash outlay needed for prototyping and development, and the long lag time between idea inception and an equity event, typically several years or longer for those whose devices actually make it to the marketplace. What Verizon wants to do, Higgins said, is help defray some of those expenses and winnow out the ideas with the best chance of success — without requiring the entrepreneurs to give away big chunks of their company in return.

“Whatever intellectual property you bring in the door is yours to keep,” Higgins said. What kinds of projects is Verizon looking for? If your plan is just another tweak on a smartphone or pad device, best look elsewhere. What Verizon wants — and needs, if the company is going to get to its stated goal of “500 percent” device penetration (meaning that most people will have at least five devices that connect to a network, instead of just one phone or laptop) — is a slew of devices that probably haven’t even made it off the PowerPoint. “Viable, meaningful and non-traditional” is how Higgins described the ideal applicant idea.

Though LTE-future powerpoints and dream-scenario videos often guess at future devices like in-car infotainment systems, or pad devices that synchronize seamlessly with tabletop computers, in reality the network devices of the future are more likely to be highly specialized and single-purpose, adding networking to something that didn’t have it before (like cameras). To help such devices succeed, Verizon already seems to know that it will have to have multiple, flexible network-access pricing plans — “you’re not going to pay $60 per month to connect your refrigerator to the Internet,” Higgins noted.

Due for launch later this year, Verizon’s LTE network will begin with the most boring of network connectivity devices, a USB modem. LTE phones and maybe tablet devices are slated for unspecified delivery in the latter parts of 2011 — “The sexy things will come out later next year,” said Lindsay Notwell, Verizon’s executive director of 4G implementation. And on beyond that, if Higgins and others do their job, more and more sexy and maybe non-sexy things that connect us to the network in ways not currently thought of.