BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The European Commission unveiled plans Thursday that would force telecommunications providers to share broadband infrastructure with rivals and unify regulations in the sector.
Viviane Reding, the European Union commissioner in charge of the EU's telecommunications policy, said the rules would encourage competition.
''We must open the markets when they are dominated by dominant players,'' she told reporters. ''We have seen in all our analysis, where the markets are opened, investments are done and prices go down for consumers.''
Many countries are dragging their heels in applying EU orders to open up their markets to competition, allowing historic telephone monopolies to remain dominant players with the power to determine who can access their networks.
As a result, phone companies like Deutsche Telekom AG and France Telecom control 80 percent of European broadband connections. In contrast, U.S. telephone companies account for only 38 percent of subscribers there.
Much is at stake. According to the EU head office, electronic communications, which include fixed voice telephony, mobile communications and broadband services, was a market worth $339 billion last year. And the European Commission sees digital technologies as a tool to stoke growth in the EU, whose economy grew by a modest 2 percent in 2005.
Reding's plans include setting up a single market for radio spectrum, replacing 25 different regulations covering use of the airwaves. She previously has proposed a single European telecom regulator that would coordinate national market watchdogs.
However, the Semantic Web, which is still in a development phase where researchers are trying to define the best and most usable design models, would require the participation of thousands of knowledgeable people over time to produce those domain-specific ontologies necessary for its functioning.
Looking at these developments, many would argue that we have already passed the famous “tipping point” for anytime, anywhere wireless access. Those responsible for the IT and communication strategies in businesses, however, will not always agree. They may now be deploying WiFi for local area networking, but things are a bit more complicated beyond that.
The WiFi hotspot market has developed in a highly fragmented manner, with many different players offering services. In the early days, this created some serious coverage issues. Not only was each of the networks limited in the number of locations supported, but exclusive deals between providers and premises owners (hotel chains, coffee shops, etc) meant competitors were actually blocking each other from closing coverage gaps.
Roaming agreements have improved things, but hunting for a compatible hotspot covered by your service agreement is still a game users often have to play. This has made many businesses reluctant to enter into contracts, so users end up accessing services on an ad hoc basis, buying an hour here, 24 hours there, etc. This is both inconvenient for the user and extremely expensive for the business.
It is against this background that cellular options must be considered. Mobile operators introduced connectivity for notebook users around four or five years ago with GPRS. As an overlay on the existing voice network, this provides the same extensive coverage, but only delivers speeds akin to a traditional dial-up modem. Nevertheless, GPRS is much more convenient than WiFi, with connectivity literally being a couple of clicks away from opening the notebook lid wherever you happen to be—none of that hunting for a compatible hotspot or messing around with credit cards or tokens.
The limited speed, however, makes GPRS painful to use for sending and receiving email attachments and accessing the Web. The introduction of 3G a couple of years ago was the first step towards fixing this. Based on a completely new network infrastructure, the 3G experience is somewhere between modem dial-up and entry-level broadband.
But the Holy Grail of wireless notebook connectivity is a good Web browser experience, particularly as organisations are starting to look beyond email to allow wireless access into corporate portals and applications. The connectivity speeds and latency (network round-trip time) of 3G are still not quite up to dealing with this level of interactivity routinely.
Enter HSDPA, the latest evolution in cellular networks. This delivers three to four times the speed of 3G with significantly lower latency, which translates to a much snappier “broadband-like” experience. As an upgrade to existing 3G networks, HSDPA uses radio spectrum much more effectively and efficiently, providing better in-building coverage and unlocking 3 to 4 times more capacity from the network to minimise the chances of congestion. With no new network build required, HSDPA can be rolled out relatively quickly by mobile operators, so we can expect to see useful levels of coverage within the 2006/7 timeframe.
Regarding coverage in general, this is an important issue, but comparing WiFi and cellular can be confusing. While both have been targeted at similar geographic areas—cities, commercial areas, transport hubs, and so on—3G achieves greater effective coverage by reaching into the spaces between WiFi hotspots, including private offices, for example. The difference in coverage is even greater in suburban areas where hotspot density is generally relatively low. These are considerations if connectivity is required on client sites and in other locations which are unlikely to have public WiFi access.
HSDPA coverage is currently quite limited but will ultimately assume the same footprint as 3G, which in itself will continue to grow. In the meantime, cellular connectivity will follow a step down model, with the user moving from HSDPA, through 3G, to GPRS as they roam further away from urban centres. On some networks, there will be a fourth level of service provided by EDGE, which sits between 3G and GPRS in terms of performance. Network-aware connection utilities sitting on the notebook itself will generally manage the step up and step down process, maintaining the high cellular convenience factor.
With the current state of play, WiFi is still the preferred option from both a cost and performance perspective for power users who frequently consume a significant amount of bandwidth in predefined public locations, provided access is covered by a suitable contract with sensible tariffs. For general purpose access, however, 3G/HSDPA provides better coverage, a higher level of convenience and could actually reduce costs significantly if users are currently buying WiFi access on an ad hoc basis.
The other option we haven't mentioned yet is WiMax, which is currently targeted at high-speed wireless access in fixed locations, e.g. to provide broadband services to buildings that are too far away from the nearest exchange to receive a DSL connection. A mobile incarnation of WiMax is likely to emerge over time, but one of the industry experts in this area, Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis, expects it to be well into 2008 before equipment and services are generally available in the mainstream. Even then, Bubley says there are still unanswered questions around coverage about how effective WiMax will be for in-building use, something which is likely to vary from country to country depending on the spectrum allocated by the local regulator.
Meanwhile, WiMax is probably a distraction for those with immediate user demands who need to put a more coherent wireless remote access strategy in place. In the short to medium term at least, it is a case of understanding individual user requirements and blending WiFi and cellular options accordingly.