One of the clear trends in this first decade of the 21st century is the rapid move toward mobile telephony and wireless computing. Sixty-one percent of the world's population will have a wireless mobile device by the end of this year, according to the secretary general of the International Telecom Union, Hamadoun Touré.
Touré said there will be 4 billion mobile phone users—more than half of the estimated 6.7 billion inhabitants of the planet—by the end of 2008. Compare to that just 12 percent of the world's population having a mobile phone at the beginning of the decade.
Touré, who is also head of information and communications technologies at the United Nations, said that mobile technology has exploded in China, India, Russia and Latin America. These countries alone are expected to account for more than 1.3 billion new subscribers by year's end.
MOBILE USE ON THE RISE
Africa and the Middle East are the two fastest-growing regions with yearly growth expected to reach, respectively, 27 and 25 percent, followed by the Asia-Pacific region at 23.6 percent. Operators in India, Bangladesh, Iran, Afghanistan, Uganda and the Ivory Coast have recorded extraordinary growth so far this year.
The explosion of 3G technology ties e-mail, texting, video, music and more into mobile computing on devices like Apple's iPhone. Courtesy of Apple As a whole, the mobile industry has boomed over the past eight years, recording an average year-on-year subscriber growth of 24 percent.
Eighty percent of new mobile phones operate on the GSM standard. The CDMA (code division multiple access) family of technologies found in the United States and China have only 10 percent of users, with the rest employing new high-speed 3G networks.
Joss Gillet, a senior analyst at Wireless Intelligence, predicted the mobile industry should be able to weather the current economic turmoil in the world. He said that in more mature mobile markets like Europe, mobile revenues grew faster than the GDP (gross domestic product) last year and he expects similar results in 2008.
"Operators in mature markets are now focusing on revenue stimulation and fighting churn through key competitive factors such as: price elasticity, network coverage, loyalty policy, quality of services, value added services and market segmentation," Gillet told a recent U.N. session in New York.
Two factors have contributed to this exceptional growth: reduction in cost of mobile devices and the fact that in many developing countries the fixed-line infrastructure is so poor. This has made mobile technology especially attractive in developing countries.
Of course, the adoption of mobile technology is far more than just about wireless voice telephony. The explosion of third-generation technology ties e-mail, texting, video, music and other applications into mobile computing on devices like Apple's globally popular iPhone.
The speed and success of the mobile movement clearly indicates the viability of connecting the world with wireless information communications technology. Just behind mobile smartphones are very lightweight, inexpensive netbook computers, devices designed to work off a "cloud" of data and applications provided wirelessly anywhere in the world.
Common to all of this wireless growth is the Internet. The speed of this transition has put huge power in the hands of a few global operators—not only telecom providers, but cable television companies, who provide most of the rest of high-speed Internet services.
LACK OF POLICY
Against this explosive eight-year growth, the lack of a genuine broadband policy in the United States has held us back. Our nation has fallen from fourth to 15th in broadband adoption in the world since 2001. Yet, the United States has the eighth highest monthly rates for broadband service among leading developed nations. The lack of a network neutrality policy is beginning to become apparent. Take the "unlimited" usage issue. First the provider advertises unlimited net access for a fixed fee. Then, using the fine print, seeks to weed out high-bandwidth subscribers on a user-by-user basis.
This came to light last year when Comcast was caught slowing the speeds of users of BitTorrent, the Internet file sharing service. Once the issue was identified, the cable operator at first lied about the practice, and then pleaded to be using "network management" issues to manage its system.
The FCC issued a cease-and-desist order against Comcast, and the commission ordered the cable provider to disclose the details of its practice and how it plans to change. Comcast now says it will slow the Internet speeds of its heaviest users, only this time it will tell them in advance.
The same folly applies to mobile providers. Sprint Nextel's new Xohm wireless service includes a clause that allows the company to limit consumers' access to content and applications on its WiMAX network. According to Xohm's "network management" policy, Sprint "may use various tools and techniques designed to limit the bandwidth available for certain bandwidth intensive applications or protocols, such as file sharing."
And, when T-Mobile recently announced its new G1 smartphone with the Google-designed Android operating system, it placed a 1 GB-a-month cap on usage. Within a day, after complaints, the mobile telco lifted the cap. By the time this column went to press, the company had not yet announced limits on usage.
STANCE ON NET NEUTRALITY
Usage caps are important. One man's minor limitation is another's stranglehold. A cap might be fine for the light e-mail user, but what about one who wants to watch HDTV over the Internet? It adds a level of deception to not clearly define a company's usage policy in plain language.
So far Congress has refused to deal with these issues, which come under the larger banner of net neutrality. Support has split on party lines.
Republicans, in power for the past eight years, are against net neutrality. The Republican-controlled FCC has danced around the issue. They have yet to create a broadband policy. Democrats are generally for net neutrality. The issue will be left to the next president to decide.
"The government should stay out of it. These things will sort themselves out," said John McCain on net neutrality on May 30, 2007. "I believe that the network operators should get a return on their infrastructure investments."
Barack Obama takes the opposite view, being for full net neutrality. He promised to appoint FCC members who support the concept. "Big telephone and cable companies want to change the Internet as we know it," Obama said on June 8, 2006. "They say that they want to create high-speed lanes on the Internet and strike exclusive contractual agreements with Internet content providers for access to those high speed lanes. Everyone who cannot pony up the cash will be relegated to the slow lanes."
The positions and differences of the candidates could not be clearer. The importance of the issue could not be higher. By the time you read this, we will know the name of the next president and how this issue will play out.
Frank Beacham is a writer and producer based in New York City. Visit his Web site at www.frankbeacham.com.