In the last blog I wrote about the immense damage that could be done to the market for connected personal devices and the Internet of Things by licensing the 2.3GHz spectrum to mobile networks. As OFCOM is still asking for consultation responses prior to their auction I thought it timely to list some of the reasons that I believe justify a delay in releasing this spectrum. If you agree that it should be postponed, you have until June 26th to send OFCOM your views. Please do, as I believe this could cost the industry billions of pounds and push back innovation.
The battle is between mobile network operators, who want more spectrum and the ongoing survival of the 2.4GHz band. The 2.4GHz spectrum is unlicensed, and used by the wireless standards in most consumer devices, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, ZigBee and others. If mobile phones start to use frequencies close to 2.4GHz, it will degrade the performance of these products. Your Internet access may slow down, audio bars and Sonos systems may get noisy, hearing aids will perform poorly, the response of smart home systems could get sluggish or stop. Everything that uses the 2.4GHz band may work less well and have a reduced range, to the point where they’re no longer compelling devices. If that happens, users will stop buying products, businesses may close, investors will lose their money and the current Internet of Things bubble will be firmly burst.
There are a lot of “mays” in that. That’s because we can’t be sure. To their credit, OFCOM have commissioned some tests which show that there is a problem, but they didn’t test enough, or new enough products to determine the true extent of the problem. OFCOM’s response is to say that manufacturers need to redesign their products to be more resistant to interference. However, that adds cost, the technology is not yet available for small products and it can’t be retrofitted to the billions of existing products already on the market. For that reason I believe any auction should be delayed to give the industry time to test and see if it can develop solutions. Otherwise the costs could be enormous.
If you’ve invested in any Internet of Things companies or bought a smart thermostat or Apple watch you may live to regret it. Current plans by the people who regulate the radio spectrum – OFCOM in the UK and the FCC in the US have plans in place which may stop most of these devices working. As a result they could cost investors and the industry hundreds of trillions of dollars.
To most people this is a very obscure technical subject, but I’d urge you to read on. The problem is that the debate is being conducted by regulatory specialists, who appear to have little idea of the damage they may be doing. The consequences are not percolating up to CEOs and investors, who should be screaming blue murder. The result of that resounding silence could be that any products that use Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, Thread or any other radio that works at 2.4GHz will degrade or stop working. That includes your home internet, smart watches, fitness trackers, hearing aids, smart meters, health monitors, wireless headsets; in fact most of the products which collectively are beginning the make up the Internet of Things. It will be a self-imposed wound which could put the industry back ten years, allowing China and others to leapfrog to a position of technical leadership.
Now that the networks are growing out of their teens, is it time for them to think about a market they’ve largely ignored? Given the current pain that they are suffering from the youth segment’s bandwidth-obese usage of their “eat all you can consume” data plans, you’d think that they might want attract a target audience that offers the prospect of a more reliable revenue stream.
There’s an important conference coming up in London on 26th October that promises to address the issues that have limited success so far – Mobile Phones for the Senior Market. It’s important because there are some fundamental lessons to be learned and things that need to be changed if the networks are to approach the older generation with the same degree of attention that they currently lavishing on their twenty-something users. The resulting challenges need to be addressed, not just by the networks, but also by product designers and retailers.
The mobile phone business is now the largest volume segment of the consumer goods industry. Despite that achievement, it is an industry that is still remarkably young. It’s debatable whether it is actually mature enough to have addressed real segmentation yet – instead it’s still at the stage of development where it tends to concentrate most on customers of its own age – late teens. That could be a costly mistake. By ignoring the specific needs of older users, the mobile industry is missing a major market.
Earlier this month OFCOM – the UK’s regulatory body, published a set of maps showing coverage for the five UK networks with a 3G license. If you’re one of those people who believe the network’s claims about almost universal coverage, they will come as quite a shock. Rather than a ruddy red glow of national coverage, they make the operators look more akin to a teenager in the first flushes of acne.
They come as a worrying dose of reality given the promises of Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report. Whilst 3 can claim to have something approaching the start of coverage (and I’d stress that it’s only the start of coverage), the efforts of the other four, and in particular O2 is nothing less than shameful.
There are a couple of things that make this even more concerning. The first is that the results are essentially theoretical, based on an agreed propagation model; OFCOM has yet to validate them on a large scale by checking actual reception. The report mentions that where a comparison was made with test drive data it resulted in an 8dB correction, but they don’t mention in which direction, or whether it is reflected in the maps. The second concern is that this is presumably the coverage for voice. If we look at mobile data, we know two things: a much better link budget is required to achieve decent data rates as edge effects drastically limit the effective size of the cell when multiple handsets are using it (See my earlier post and Moray Rumney’s excellent article). If these are applied to the coverage maps, the prospect for national mobile broadband looks like a pipedream.
The question is whether publication of this data will shame the networks into improving their coverage.