The Fast Track and the Waterhole

We’re getting some news that suggests that maybe we need to think not more about mobility, but less—in at least one sense.  It’s not the mobile user that’s changing things, it’s the migratory user.

Mobility means moving, and in terms of devices and services it means stuff directed at someone who is consuming on the go.  A mobile user fits their services into the context of their life, and that context is as variable as where they are or what they’re doing.  This is a sharp contrast to the user who goes to a laptop or desktop to do something; the device is essentially setting context and not framing it.  That’s why we have such a problem conceptualizing mobile services—they’re very different from what we’ve had.

What the news today may be showing is that the in-betweens are the battleground.  Imagine for the moment a tablet user, one of the new iPads perhaps.  Our user wants to watch something on their high-res glitzy screen and have others faint in admiration.  Do they sit in their car and try to grab a glance between steering and braking?  Do they walk down the street, bumping into those they hope to impress as they struggle to keep their eyes on the screen?  Or do they sit down in Starbucks where the admiring hordes are waiting for them?  Our user is “mobile” only between resting points—they’re migrating.

Netflix saw profits triple, and you have to believe that a big part of their growth comes from serving content to migratory viewers.  There’s a lot wrong with broadcast TV these days (a zillion commercials being one, stale content and short production season another) but despite that Verizon showed tremendous growth in FiOS.  Yes, they can be taking market share but if there were millions out there eager to view only streaming video it would be hard to create market-share gains large enough to cover the masses abandoning channelized video in favor of streaming.

It’s not happening, but what is happening is that people are viewing where they can’t drag their TVs.  That entertainment void has to be filled by somebody, and so Netflix is picking up slack that’s been created by a late and fairly insipid program of TV Everywhere for the channelized providers.  Sit in Starbucks, grab a cup of Joe or Johan or whatever, and amaze the masses with video on your new tablet.  Video from Netflix.

Ah, but now we come to the question that’s facing networking in general and mobile networking in particular.  Our tablet viewer in Starbucks doesn’t need LTE, they need WiFi.  They don’t need roaming, they don’t need voice calling, they don’t need a ton of stuff that we’ve focused on building since the late 1990s.  They need video and IM, which they can get easily from Netflix and Google and Amazon and Skype…over WiFi.

Today we hear that Comcast is going to be expanding their WiFi cell testing and checking out the notion of covering the waterfront, service-wise, with small WiFi cells.  They don’t have to cover the vast landscape, only the waterholes.  I calculate that only about 7% of the geography in a city and a statistically insignificant portion of the suburban/rural landscape would have to be covered in WiFi cells to capture every hangout location, every site where an eager viewer could sit down and view instead of driving or walking, options that would likely result in exiting the gene pool eventually.  Comcast could win in mobile by winning the migration.

This could have truly profound implications for the services of the future.  If content is a migratory application with WiFi delivery then the LTE market is much harder to make profitable because incremental content services can’t easily be sold.  If OTTs can bypass mobile networks to reach the customer they don’t create traffic, don’t force operators to usage pricing or to declining mobile revenue per bit.  We have a bunch of new and competing forces that would influence the design of networks in that all-critical metro space.

There are vendor impacts too.  We are now pursuing a mobile vision in an age of smartphones that was first articulated before the bubble, back in the ‘90s.  If you confronted a smart service architect with the problem of mobile services today, what they would create would bear no resemblance whatsoever to what we have in IMS.  We’d likely create something that looks a lot like Metaswitch’s Clearwater, in fact, a software-filled black box that has a few simple interfaces and scales over a vast range of performance and geographic extents.

I’m not dissing mobile and mobility.  What I’m saying is that every critter who moves around the ecosystem isn’t in a frantic and continuous race, creating nothing but a blur of motion.  Even the Road Runner must sit down for a coffee at some point.  We can couple technology to our every move, and also couple it to us when we’re not moving but not home either.  There’s a full spectrum of stuff that we might want to do, entertainment we might want to enjoy, and we will be able to get it everywhere.  Well, “get it” in the sense that delivery will be possible.  Whether consumption will be effective is another matter, and that means that we have to look at the “mobile user” not as a new homogeneous alternative to the home user, but rather as a coalition of interests.  Some of those interests will be more profitable to support and have lower deployment costs, and it’s those that will likely drive the changes in the near term.

We plan networks for four years and justify them financially every three months.  That means that niches like the waterhole might be the real future.

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