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THOUGHT: Is the public ready for data over 3G networks?
Posted by PPCW.Net Editori - on Monday, 15.03.04 - 11:48:37 CET under 09 - Thoughts - Viewed 6743x
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Contributed by Dr. Wolfgang Irber, PPCW.Net Reader and Business Professional

It's all about data. Right now you hear it from every operator that is going to launch 3G networks and Wi-Fi hot-spots these days. We are promised lots of bandwidth over wireless networks, wherever you go, wherever you are: easy and fast access to the Internet, to corporate networks, to stream movies, all made possible by the introduction of UMTS (W-CDMA). A whole new world is promised to us. But is the public ready for it?

If you listen to all the announcements you may get the impression that everybody is waiting to rush into the stores once the network has been opened to the public. But I guess most of us followed the news about what was and is happening, e.g., in Japan, the UK, and Italy, all countries where UMTS networks went commercial already some while ago. And as most of us will know, not much has happened in fact when it comes to data. But what went wrong?

It surely is a combination of a couple of reasons of which technical issues are quite significant. But we cannot blame just everything to the techniques: I simply observe the public appears to be not ready yet. Of course, we geeks are fascinated by the switch in radio access technology from GSM to UMTS and all the benefits that come along. But does the public care as well? Let's look around, not using a geek's perspective.

Using a phone for accessing the Internet is not in the public awareness
From all so-called wireless data traffic, SMS or text messaging is still accounting for most of mobile data, with a high number of SMS sent everyday. And indeed, if I watch the people next to me, almost everybody is using SMS, even my 70 year-old Dad. But what is about GPRS or using the phone as a data terminal to wirelessly accessing the Internet? How many of your non Tec-savvy friends or neighbors do it? Is there anybody at all you know about?

An excellent reflection of public awareness of any kind is the daily TV or movie program. When did you see somebody on TV or in a movie using a phone or a PDA to access the Internet via GPRS? I never did! Well, I may have missed some, but no matter how we look at it, using GPRS or any other 2.5G or 3G technology is definitely not a common thing, not even fancy enough for Hollywood!

My personal observation simply tells me that - despite the operators' marketing efforts - wireless Internet access over the phone network is not in the public awareness at all: a phone is a phone for the overwhelming majority of us, and not a data terminal!

Hence, in order to make GPRS and UMTS a data success story, the public, which is simply reflected by our friends and neighbors, has to change the way they communicate and access the Internet. But changing well established behaviors is a slow process and strongly depends on the prize. Some early adopters always try right from the beginning, however, when is the mass market ready to follow? And more important: what is the point that makes everybody wanting to follow?

SMS and phone calls cover all the public needs: what comes next?
Using the cell phone was initially driven by displaying a new and fancy lifestyle to others. Only later this was outweighed by the convenience factor. Or SMS: the usage of relatively cheap SMS was first driven by the initially very high connection costs from mobile to mobile, later by the convenience factor again.

Today, both are in combination the perfect means of communication and cover everything the majority of us needs: a phone call is the direct, SMS the indirect option, the latter nonetheless with instant and automatic delivery.

But what's next? The public is surely not using data only because it is there. MMS, for instance, is not really taking off even though camera phones are selling well. GPRS is currently only important for a few business users, and the always mentioned video telephony already flopped for wired telephony and is in the current technological stage just disappointing over UMTS.

So what comes next? When is the public going to see data transfer over phone networks as a useful tool? Honestly, I don't know. I only can imagine that some service is coming up that is initially providing a fancy status, and is later driven by the convenience on substitute of something else.

Final Conclusion

When the UMTS licenses were sold, an operator was once quoted with "We need to create a demand for something the people don't yet have a demand for". Obviously, the current idea for 3G networks is to provide bandwidth without having a real concept of how to use it; that may sound stupid, but that's perfectly OK. Somebody is certainly coming up with a nice idea of how to use the new bandwidth. It's the same with computing power or hard drive space every year. That's simply technological evolution at its best.

I'm very curious about what's going on in the near future with data over 3G networks. I'm absolutely convinced that UMTS will soon become a great success for business user, but my personal guess is, it will take some significant time till our friends and neighbors are considering data over their cell phone as useful. So far, the operator marketing has completely failed in attracting more than a few early adopters.

My personal favorite is E-Mail and news via GPRS. But I'm using a combination of PDA and cell phone where these applications are great; the market potential, however, for such a combination is very limited. The new upcoming Windows-based Smartphones appear promising to me and seem to have a great potential to change the way we use cell phones. But that's my personal point of view; is it also shared by my neighbor? We certainly will find out soon.

Hence, the current answer to my question in the headline is definitely "no". But when we simply look around to see what's coming up, we will find out when the public is going to be ready for data over 3G networks. Just keep an eye on your friends and on the current movie program!

Cheers ~ Wolfgang