I have been working for some time on a report about mobile connectivity chips. This is an interesting market, one that is so hot that it is actually going to continue to grow in 2009 as the overall cell phone market declines by 10%.
The term “connectivity” denotes all the radios in a cell phone that are not cellular radios. There are a lot of them. The main ones are Bluetooth, FM radio, GPS and Wi-Fi. Others beginning to appear in handsets are TV and NFC. Further out in time are 60 GHz and White Spaces radios.
The cell phone market deals in massive volumes – about 1.2 billion handsets were sold in 2008. It also has some stringent requirements. The market demands chips that are small, cheap, battery-life conserving and easy to design-in. These considerations have driven chip vendors to combine multiple connectivity radios onto single chips. The first combo chips were Bluetooth plus FM. Then came Bluetooth plus FM plus Wi-Fi then most recently Bluetooth plus FM plus GPS.
Because the market is so big, the competition is intense. The 2008 leaders in Bluetooth were Broadcom and CSR; in Wi-Fi TI, ST-Ericsson and Marvell; in GPS TI and Infineon; and in FM ST-Ericsson and Silicon Labs.
These vendors are leap-frogging each other on performance and features. 2009 will see major changes in market share as some vendors fail to refresh their old product lines, others refresh their product lines but with inadequate products, and new entrants come in with better solutions.
At the end of 2008 there were 415 million broadband subscribers world-wide, and Skype claimed 405 million subscribers after a 47% year-on-year growth. So Skype must be topping out, right?
Perhaps not. At the end of 2008 there were 4 billion mobile phone users. Ten times as many as fixed broadband, and four times as many as PCs. Skype just announced that Nokia will be putting Skype on some of its high end phones. If the idea spreads Skype will still have plenty of room to grow.
But there is bigger news hidden here. Video telephony has been just around the corner for about 50 years. This announcement may soon make it commonplace.
I have written before about Skype sound quality, but Skype’s video capabilities also kick the competition. My children make regular intercontinental Skype video calls to their grandmother, and both the sound and video quality are generally excellent now that I have discarded my Linksys router and got an Apple Airport Extreme. If the numbers don’t convince you that Skype video calling is perfectly mainstream, perhaps Oprah will.
The phone mentioned by Nokia as the first to have Skype built in is the N97. Almost all of Nokia’s high end smart phones (the Eseries and Nseries) have Wi-Fi, and many (including the N97) have a “secondary camera” on the same side as the screen for use in video calling. Video calling is supported by the SIP soft-phone software that Nokia puts in almost all these phones, but SIP VoIP is nowhere compared to Skype. So the news that Nokia will be loading Skype onto some of these phones is tantalizing. The existing base of Skype users on PCs will bestow a massive network effect on Skype video calls from Nokia handsets.
The Wi-Fi aspect will help users to get around the carriers’ resistance, which in any case may be waning if the Skype interview linked above is correct.
There are several smartphone applications that allow a cell phone to act as a wireless WAN router and Wi-Fi access point, creating a wireless LAN with Internet access. For the (jailbroken) iPhone there’s PDAnet, for Windows Mobile there’s WM Wi-Fi Router and for Symbian there’s Walking HotSpot and JoikuSpot. Now Atheros has proposed to bake this functionality into their low power Wi-Fi chipset.
An idea that is as patent jargon goes “obvious to one skilled in the art,” can sometimes have obvious handicaps to one experienced in the industry. While exposing a broadband wireless data connection through a smartphone’s Wi-Fi radio is massively useful to consumers, it is unlikely to appeal to network service providers, who would prefer you to buy a wireless data card (and an additional service subscription) for your laptop rather than to simply use the wireless data connection that you are already paying for on your phone.
It will be interesting to see where this goes. I will be stunned if Atheros’ implementation appears on any phone subsidized by (or even distributed by) a wireless carrier, until they can figure out a way to charge extra for it. As Tim Wu says in his Wireless Carterfone paper (the Wireless Carterfone concept was promoted by Skype, and rejected by the FCC last April):
carriers are in a position to exercise strong control over the design of mobile equipment. They have used that power to force equipment developers to omit or cripple many consumer-friendly features.
The billing issue may not be that intractable. Closely related models already exist. You can get routers from Cisco and other vendors that have a slot for a wireless WAN card, and the service providers have subscription plans for them. More similarly, this could be viewed as a kind of “tethering” But tethering only lets one PC at a time access the wireless WAN connection – unless that PC happens to support My Wi-Fi.
Update: Marvell has announced a similar capability for its 88W8688 chip.
I have written before about Intel’s Cliffside project. This went public at CES in January under the name My Wi-Fi. The idea is to make your one laptop Wi-Fi adapter into two virtual adapters. One of these adapters is a regular laptop Wi-Fi adapter like before. The second turns your laptop into a kind of mini access point. Consumer electronics like Apple TVs and Wi-Fi printers can then stream media directly to and from the laptop, rather than relaying it through a real access point:
Realize first that, from an overall network topology standpoint, a single video stream coursing from source to destination is actually two streams; one going from the source to the router and through its integrated switch, and another heading out from the router to the destination. [Brian Dipert]
My Wi-Fi also allows Wi-Fi to substitute for Bluetooth for laptop wireless peripherals, like mice and keyboards, and this CNET article points out that it can also be used to share paid Wi-Fi connections in hotels and hot-spots.
Google and the New America Foundation have been working together for some time on White Spaces. Now they have (with PlanetLab and some academic researchers) come up with an initiative to inject some hard facts into the network neutrality debate.
The idea is that if users can easily measure their network bandwidth and quality of service, they will be able to hold their ISPs to the claims in their advertisements and “plans.” As things stand, businesses buying data links from network providers normally have a Service Level Agreement (SLA) which specifies minimum performance characteristics for their connections. For consumers, things are different. ISPs do not issue SLAs to their consumer customers. When they advertise uplink and downlink speeds, these speeds are “typical” or “maximum,” but they don’t specify a minimum speed, and they don’t offer any guarantees of latency, jitter, packet loss or even integrity of the packet contents. For example, here’s an excerpt from the Verizon Online Terms of Service:
VERIZON DOES NOT WARRANT THAT THE SERVICE OR EQUIPMENT PROVIDED BY VERIZON WILL PERFORM AT A PARTICULAR SPEED, BANDWIDTH OR DATA THROUGHPUT RATE, OR WILL BE UNINTERRUPTED, ERROR-FREE, SECURE…
Businesses pay more than consumers for their bandwidth, and providing SLAs is one of the reasons. Consumers would probably not be willing to pay more for SLAs, but they can still legitimately expect to know what they are paying for. The Measurement Lab data will be able to confirm or disprove accusations that ISPs are intentionally impairing traffic of some types.
This is a complicated issue, because one man’s traffic blocking is another man’s network management, and what a consumer might consider acceptable use (like BitTorrent) may violate an ISP’s Acceptable Use Policy (Verizon:”…it is a violation of… this AUP to… generate excessive amounts of email or other Internet traffic;”). The arguments can go round in circles until terms like “excessive” and “unlimited” are defined numerically and measurements are made. So Measurement Lab is a great step forward in the Network Neutrality debate, and should be applauded by consumers and service providers alike.