T-Mobile eyes hotspots and Sprint femtocells, but Alltel scores first internet points
Published: Monday 7 May, 2007
The large cellcos continue to wrestle with the thorny issue of how to turn the mobile internet trend to their advantage, even as it chips away at their walled gardens and therefore their margins. The US carriers are currently leading the way in creative thinking, even if the Korean and Japanese cellcos have the most receptive consumer audiences, and between them Alltel, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile represent the main approaches to mobile internet models. Pricing, content, user interfaces and devices, and how to keep customers within the operator environment - all these are critical to success, and the US' second rung of cellcos (after AT&T and Verizon) are pushing most of the hot buttons. Something that cannot yet be said for many of their European counterparts, which - with notable exceptions like recent open internet convert 3 - are still clinging hard to their old closed business models. One of the most urgent decisions, on both sides of the Atlantic, will be how to bring the trend towards flat rate, use-anywhere internet and VoIP services under operator control, and to outdo the wireless ISPs in terms of portability and indoor/outdoor coverage. Here we are seeing Sprint and T-Mobile taking different routes - the former aiming to deliver a full mobile internet and converged experience on its own wireless networks; the latter looking to exploit unlicensed spectrum by building on its strengths in Wi-Fi, an option more commonly adopted by wireline players. But both approaches will only work with creative pricing and marketing strategies, and in this respect, Alltel is leading the way.
The need for new tariff structures and better indoor penetration to support quad play applications is driving the current intense interest in femtocells (miniaturized indoor base stations about the size and range of a Wi-Fi access point, but integrated with the carrier network and under the carrier's control). Majors like Ericsson are starting to enter the fray (see Wireless Watch February 12 edition), indicating that the tier one carriers are also starting to show a real commercial interest. Wi-Fi/cellular integration using techniques like UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access) has dominated indoor/outdoor convergence efforts in the past two years, and will remain popular with operators like T-Mobile that have heavy investment in Wi-Fi. But the superior control that operators gain from femtocells is now attracting many big names towards trials, especially as this approach promises better evolution to IMS and all-IP, plus the usual benefits of indoor penetration and offloading of traffic from the main network. Telef?nica O2 will be among the pioneers, but as so often, the industry - particularly its CDMA and WiMAX portions - is looking to Sprint Nextel for a lead in a new technology.