Wi-Fi and the Mobile Internet

Admob periodically publishes numbers on the mobile Internet and its usage. The numbers are badly skewed because of Admob’s customer mix. For example Indonesia lists as the second largest mobile Internet market in the world. But if you make your own mental adjustments for this, the numbers are informative.

Admob’s latest report highlights Wi-Fi use in the USA.

Of the ad requests fielded by Admob, in August 2008 9% came from Wi-Fi capable devices: dual-mode phones, iPod Touches and Sony PSPs. In November this number doubled to 19%. Since the numbers for August aren’t broken down, it is uncertain which devices drove this growth, but my guess is that it is due to the booming sales of the iPhone.

Of the requests from Wi-Fi capable devices, the proportion that came over Wi-Fi varied radically. For the iPod Touch and the Sony PSP, 100% of the requests were over Wi-Fi. No surprise there. But on the phone side, a very interesting discrepancy between the iPhone (42% of requests by Wi-Fi) and the HTC phones (16% of requests by Wi-Fi). Since each of the phones uses the same browser for cellular data and Wi-Fi connections, it can’t be an ease of use of the Internet issue. Two other possibilities come to mind: the Wi-Fi may be easier to set up on the iPhone than it is on the HTC phones, or the cellular data speed may be worse on the AT&T network, driving the users to Wi-Fi, while users on T-Mobile (where all the HTC phones listed in the report are) get acceptable performance from their cellular data connection.

The Blackberry data casts a similar light on the question. The two Blackberries in the report were the 8820 and the 8320. The 8820 had the same profile as the iPhone – 40% of the requests came by Wi-Fi. The 8320 had even less Wi-Fi use than the HTC phones – only 8% of the requests came by Wi-Fi. These two phones are both on the same carriers (AT&T and T-Mobile), they have the same Wi-Fi chip (from TI), and their specs are similar.

The clue is in their release dates. The 8320 has been out on T-Mobile for a year, but was not yet released on AT&T in November when AdMob collected their numbers. The 8820 was released by AT&T a year ago, but by T-Mobile only 6 months ago. There are obviously a lot of other variables at work – like 3G versus 2G, for example, and pricing structure, but this looks like evidence that the T-Mobile data network has a more acceptable performance than AT&T’s.

A not so perfect Storm

The Verizon Storm may be heading for failure in more than one way. A raft of reviewers, led by David Pogue of the New York Times are trashing its usability. This means that even with the marketing might of Verizon behind it it may not fulfill its goal of being a bulwark against the iPhone in the enterprise.

But the Storm was an experiment in another way by Verizon. The other three major American mobile network operators have capitulated to Wi-Fi in smartphones. Against the new conventional wisdom, Verizon decided to launch a new flagship smartphone without Wi-Fi. The Storm looks like a trial balloon to see whether Wi-Fi is optional in modern smartphones. If the Storm is a success, it will demonstrate that it is possible to have credible business smartphones without Wi-Fi. But if it turns out to be a flop because of other factors, it will not be a proof point for Wi-Fi either way.

But Wi-Fi is a closed issue by now for all the network operators, perhaps even including Verizon. Phones have lead times of the order of a year or so, and controversies active back then may now be resolved. Verizon covered its bets by launching three other smartphones around the same time as the Storm, all with Wi-Fi (HTC Touch Pro, Samsung Omnia, Samsung Saga).

Before its launch, AT&T hoped that the iPhone would stimulate use of the cellular data network. It succeeded in this, so far beyond AT&T’s hopes that it revealed a potential problem with the concept of 3G (and 4G) data. The network slows to a crawl if enough subscribers use data intensively in small areas like airports and conferences. Mobile network operators used to fear that if phones had Wi-Fi subscribers would use it instead of the cellular data network, causing a revenue leak. AT&T solved that problem with the iPhone by making a subscription to the data service obligatory. T-Mobile followed suit with the Google phone. So no revenue leak. With the data subscription in hand, Wi-Fi is a good thing for the network operators because it offloads the 3G network. In residences and businesses all the data that goes through Wi-Fi is a reduction in the potential load on the network. In other words, a savings in infrastructure investment, which translates to profit. This may be some of the thinking behind AT&T’s recent acquisition of Wayport. The bandwidth acquired with Wayport offloads the AT&T network relatively cheaply. AT&T’s enthusiasm for Wi-Fi is such that it is selling some new Wi-Fi phones without requiring a data subscription.

The enterprise market is one that mobile network operators have long neglected. It is small relative to the consumer market, and harder to fit into a one-size-fits-all model. Even so, in these times of scraping for revenue in every corner, and with the steady rise of the Blackberry, the network operators are taking a serious look at the enterprise market.

The device manufacturers are way ahead of the network operators on this issue: the iPhone now comes with a lot of enterprise readiness Kool-Aid; Windows Mobile makes manageability representations, as does Nokia with its Eseries handsets. RIM, the current king of the enterprise smartphone vendors also pitches its IT-friendliness.

Wi-Fi in smartphones has benefits and drawbacks for enterprises. One benefit is that you have another smart device on the corporate LAN to enhance productivity. A drawback is that you have another smart device on the corporate LAN ripe for viruses and other security breaches. But that issue is mitigated to some extent if smartphones don’t have Wi-Fi. So it’s arguable that the Storm may be more enterprise-friendly as a result of its lack of Wi-Fi. Again, if the Storm becomes a hit in enterprises that argument will turn out to hold water. If the Storm is a flop for other reasons, we still won’t know, and it will have failed as a trial balloon for Wi-Fi-less enterprise smartphones.

Wideband codecs and IPR

Wideband codecs are a good thing. They have been slow to enter the mainstream, but there are several reasons why this is about to change.

Voice codecs are benefiting from the usual good effects of Moore’s law. Each year higher-complexity (higher computation load) codecs become feasible on low-cost hardware, and each year it is cheaper to fit multiple codecs into a ROM (adding multiple codecs increases the chance that two endpoints will have one in common).

Voice codecs are often burdened by claims of intellectual property rights (IPR) by multiple players. This can make it difficult for software and equipment vendors to use codecs in their products without fear of litigation. The industry response has been to create “patent pools” where the patent owners agree to let a single party negotiate a blanket license on their behalf:

Prior to establishment of the Pool, the complexity of negotiating IPRs with each intellectual property owner discouraged potential integrators.

Unfortunately there is still no pool for the standard wideband codec ratified by the 3GPP for use in cell phones, AMR-WB (G.722.2). Even where there is a pool, getting a license from it doesn’t mean that a use of the codec doesn’t infringe some yet-to-be-revealed patent not in the pool, and it doesn’t indemnify the licensee from such a claim.

There are several royalty-free wideband codecs available. I mentioned a couple of them (from Microsoft and from Skype) in an Internet Telephony Column.

Microsoft and Skype have got around the royalty issue to some extent by creating proprietary codecs. They have researched their algorithms and have either concluded that they don’t infringe or have bought licenses for the patents they use.

G.722 (note that G.722, G.722.1 and G.722.2 are independent of each other, both technically and from the point of view of IPR) is so old that its patent restrictions have expired, making it an attractive choice of common baseline wideband codec for all devices. Unfortunately its antiquity also means that it is relatively inefficient in its use of bandwidth.

Polycom did a major good thing for the industry when it made G.722.1 (Siren7) available on a royalty-free basis. G.721.1 is considerably better than G.722, though it is not as efficient as G.722.2.

The open-source Speex codec is efficient and royalty free, but being open source it bears a little more fear of infringement than the other codecs mentioned here. There are three reasons why this fear may be misplaced. First, the coders claim to have based it on old (1980’s) technology. Second, it has now been available for some years, and has been shipped by large companies and no claims of infringement have surfaced. Third, while it is possible in these times of outrageous patent trolling that somebody will pop up with some claim against Speex, a similar risk exists for all the other codecs, including the ones with patent pools.

So we now have three royalty-free wideband codecs (G.722, G.722.1 and Speex); we have hardware capable of running them cheaply; we have broad deployment of VoIP and growing implementation of VoIP trunking. We have increasing data bandwidth to homes and businesses, to the point where the bandwidth demands of voice are trivial compared to other uses like streaming video and music downloads. Plus there’s a wild card. By 2010 over 300 million people will have mobile smartphones capable of running software that will give them wideband phone conversations over a Wi-Fi connection.

Perhaps the time for wideband telephony is at hand.