JetBlue to offer on-board Wi-Fi on BetaBlue Aircraft

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JetBlue will introduce in early 2008 limited in-flight e-mail and Instant Messaging access, in partnership with Yahoo and RIM (the maker of BlackBerry phones). Passengers on JetBlue’s Wi-Fi equipped BetaBlue aircraft will be able to use their Wi-Fi-enabled laptops, smartphones, and BlackBerries to access customized version of Yahoo!® Mail and Yahoo!® Messenger named Yahoo! Mail in the Sky and Yahoo! Messenger in the Sky. BlackBerry users will also be able to check BlackBerry Email and BlackBerry® Messenger services. All this for Free (um..at no additional charge)! However, iPhones™ cannot be used on BetaBlue.

Yahoo!’s in-flight versions of Mail and Messenger are slightly different – they do not allow attachments to be opened via Yahoo! Mail in the Sky. Even Personal and corporate BlackBerry email on BetaBlue do not support attachments. So, if you are a laptop user, you cannot use your existing Yahoo! mail and Yahoo! messenger, but have to install the customized lightweight Yahoo! Mail in the Sky and Yahoo! Messenger in the Sky version. Those without a Yahoo! account can register for one on the fly (literally!).

JetBlue’s BetaBlue aircraft is an Airbus A320 equipped for email and Instant Messaging services above 10,000 feet. Once the BetaBlue aircraft has reached 10,000 feet, customers can begin using the Wi-Fi service. JetBlue is in a unique position among airlines because it has licensed spectrum in the United States that allows it to transmit from planes to the ground. This also positions JetBlue to offer similar service to other carriers.

All this good stuff is coming in early 2008, with additional features and functionally coming later. These services are free to customers and provided exclusively by JetBlue and LiveTV™, Yahoo!®, and BlackBerry®.

I think this is a great step forward. I travel quite a bit, so I know that being on a plane is one of the most boring and harrowing experiences. Being able to connect with friends and family on mother earth will go a long way towards making the on-board experience more useful.

I didn’t know how many business travelers fly JetBlue, but the last time I flew JetBlue about 4 weeks back, I noticed multiple people with Blackberries, so the partnership with Research in Motion makes sense, although I don’t think there are many Wi-Fi capable BBs out there now. I don’t travel JetBlue that often, but this is one more thing that will tip the scale in favor of JetBlue for my future travel.

Fortune at the Bottom of the Indian Pyramid

bharti_airtel_vodafone_idea_cellular_logos.JPGIndia’s cellular market has more than 217 million customers and is adding eight million subscribers a month, making it the world’s fastest growing. With just 13% penetration of mobile subscribers, there’s still a lot more opportunity for wireless carriers and a lot of areas in India still don’t have cellular coverage. So far India’s mobile revolution is mainly confined to the cities, but the real opportunity lies in providing telephone service in the vast rural hinterland that have more than 770 million people, only 2 percent of who have telephone service. Even the teledensity, the percentage of people owning ANY phone, in India is just 21 percent (compared to the saturated markets in the west). However, building out a wireless network infrastructure is no mean feat – it is very very expensive – and a feat that only highly capitalized mobile operators can do.

In order to make a nationwide roll out cheaper and to grow faster, three leading Indian private mobile operators, namely Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular, are launching a new company to share communications infrastructure to cut costs and help speed the roll out of a nationwide phone network. This new company will be an independently managed communications tower operator by the name Indus Towers. The companies will pool their existing communications towers so Indus Towers will start out with 70,000 tower sites. Bharti (India’s biggest private mobile phone operator) and Vodafone will hold 42 percent stakes each, and Idea Cellular, controlled by the Aditya Birla conglomerate, will hold 16 percent. The new company will also share infrastructure with other service providers like broadcasters and broadband service providers

This is the first such venture to be launched in India and it is a great strategy. Sharing network infrastructure will help reduce mobile phone service costs even more, despite India already having one of the world’s cheapest wireless services at less than two cents (U.S) a minute. No doubt that this is the best strategy to reach a new layer of untapped clientele, and one espoused in the book “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits” by well-known strategist C.K. Prahalad.

Indian Telecom is Looking Bright and Prosperous

The Indian telecom sector has undergone a major transformation since key policy reforms were initiated in the late 1980s when telecom equipment manufacturing was opened to the private sector, followed by the National Telecom Policies in 1994 and 1999. Historically, the telecom network in India was owned and managed by the government. It was considered a strategic service, best under state control. However, when the telecom revolution in other countries in the 1990s resulted in a better quality of service along with lower tariffs, Indian policy makers opened up the telecom services sector. India is divided into 18 telecom circles and four metropolitan jurisdictions.

Today, India is the fourth largest telecom market in Asia, after China, Japan and South Korea. It is also the eighth largest telecom network in the world and the second largest among developing countries. In wireless telecom, India is one of the world’s fast – growing mobile markets, adding 6.4 million subscribers a month on average.

Although wireless penetration is just 13% among a population of 1.1 billion (compared to 40% in China and close to 100% in Western Europe), India is forecasted to have 525 million mobile subscribers by 2010, but wireless service providers may have to be consolidated to make services more affordable through higher economies of scale. For its part, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has developed a set of M&A norms that have limited the market share of a merged entity to 40% in the particular market, against the earlier 67%, based on the number of subscribers and revenues.

Given the continued growth opportunity, Foreign investors are lining up to enter the Indian Market. In Late 2006, AT&T became the first foreign telecom operator, in partnership with Mahindra Telecom, to obtain a telecom license under the foreign direct investment policy that allows up to 74% foreign ownership. Vodafone, the wireless operator based in the UK and the half-parent of Verizon Wireles, recently acquired a 52% stake in Hutchison Essar, which was renamed Vodafone Essar. Russian telecom major, Sistema, has acquired a 10 per cent stake in Shyam Telelink for fixed – line, cellular and internet services in the North Indian state of Rajasthan.

Major telecom operators in India include Bharti Airtel, Reliance Communications, the government-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam, and Vodafone Essar.

Cablevision to bid in 700MHz Spectrum Auction

US cable operator Cablevision Systems has submitted paperwork to bid in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) spectrum auction in the 700MHz band in January 2008. Cablevision is the second Cable provider, after Cox communications, to get in on the wireless spectrum bandwagon.

Cox will bid on its own, and Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications will not participate. AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless, two the main National wireless carriers in the U.S. plan to participate, while the Satellite provider EchoStar Communications is also rumoured to be in the running. Other confirmed bidders include Leap Wireless, MetroPCS and Google.

The auction of the 700 MHz is billed as one of the most important in this century – primarily because this swath of spectrum can be used for very high speed wireless services and part of the spectrum has to be ulitized with ‘open acess’, where a customer can bring any device and use any software on any mobile device. This essentially makes the wireless services a bit-pipe, much like how DSL and Cable Internet services work today.

Top 10 wireless providers in the US

The US Wireless market is reaching maturity fast and market penetration or saturation levels of mobile devices are above 70%, a pretty high level. Of course, some European countries have market penetration rates of more than 100%, but that’s because some people have more than 1 mobile phone and these countries generally have smaller populations, are smaller countries, or have limited wireline penetration. It is expected that when penetration levels reach 80%, the U.S. market will generally be saturated.

At this level, one could expect the service provider landscape to consolidate, as service providers look to maintain profit levels through cost cutting and by leveraging the economies of scale. Consolidation, or if you prefer to call it Mergers & Acquisitions, is a great way to increase economies of scale, especially in industries with high fixed costs.

In fact, we already see consolidations of sorts happening – recently AT&T Mobility acquired Dobson Communications for about $2.8 billion, T-Mobile has reached a deal to buy SunCom Wireless Holdings for $2.4 billion, and Verizon Wireless is acquring Rural Cellular Corp that has 700,000-plus customers.

In the meantime, here are the top 10 wireless providers in the US. The list does not include Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO), who don’t own a wireless networks

Top Ten U.S. Wireless Service Providers by subscribers
Operator Subscriber Base Net Subscriber additions Average Revenue Per User Revenues Subscriber Growth (Q3 ’07)
AT&T Mobility 65,700,000 2,000,000 $50.82 $10.9 billion 3.14%
Verizon Wireless 63,700,000 1,600,000 $52.17 $11.3 billion 2.58%
Sprint Nextel Corp. 54,000,000 -60,000 $59.00* $8.7 billion -0.11%
T-Mobile USA Inc. 27,700,000 857,000 $53.00 $4.89 billion 3.19%
Alltel Corp. 12,000,000 213,000 $55.96 $2.3 billion 1.81%
U.S. Cellular 6,067,000 52,000 $52.71 $1 billion 0.86%
MetroPCS Communications Corp. 3,660,000 114,300 $42.77 $557 million 3.22%
Leap Wireless International Inc.(estimates)** 2,700,000 36,500 $45.13 $393 million 1.37%
Dobson
Communications Corp.
1,500,000 49,100 $52.54 $392 million 3.38%
SunCom Holdings 1,140,000 2,200 $57.38 $240 million 0.19%
*postpaid only
**Second quarter results; Leap has not yet reported full 3Q results
Source: RCR News

Verizon Wireless selects LTE as 4th Generation Wireless Technology

verizon_wireless_logo.jpgVerizon Wireless has confirmed plans to use Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology as its 4th Generation (4G) technology. Today, Verizon Wireless uses CDMA2000 technology and most of the rest of the world (including Verizon Wireless’ European half-parent Vodafone Group Plc.) uses W-CDMA (also called UMTS) for 3G services. These two technologies are similar but are not compatible.

With this move, Verizon Wireless will have a cellular technology compatibility with Vodafone, thus facilitating better operational synergies for the two companies as well as making it much easier and cheaper for subscribers that travel Internationally between the US, where Verizon Wireless operates, and Vodafones coverage areas in Europe and Asia.

Also, this move could be a blow to Qualcomm, the developer of the CDMA2000 technology, because Qualcomm has a very strong position in CDMA2000 as the primary (only?) chip vendor and holder of the majority of Intellectual Property but has a much less Intellectual Property and marketshare as a potential chip vendor in LTE.

Qualcomm has been working on a rival next generation technology known as Ultra Mobile Broadband, but 3GPP, one of the main standards bodies developing 3rd and 4th Generation technologies, recently selected LTE as its 4G migration path. According to the CDG, there are 400 million CDMA2000 and 21 million CDMAOne (IS-95) subscribers worldwide. Verizon Wireless currently has 64 million subs (mostly CDMA2000) or about 15% of the worldwide base. Losing 15% of the market in the future is significant but even more significant because it may compel other wireless operators to ditch the CDMA2000 4G migration path in favor of LTE. This move also could be a blow to WiMax, a rival 3G technology supported by Sprint Nextel that was recently designated as a 3G technology.

The Verizon Wireless and Vodafone will begin testing LTE technology in 2008 with equipment suppliers Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, Motorola Inc., Nokia- Siemens, and Nortel Networks.

It is estimated that LTE would be commercially available in 2010 or 2011 and Verizon Wireless and Vodafone may have a common platform by around 2015 (Note: Telecom doesn’t move that fast!)

Will Amazon Kindle a better MVNO model?

amazon_kindle.jpgThe Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) business in the U.S. is hardly making any headlines these days. That’s because some of the biggest MVNO’s have lately kicked the bucket. First, there was Amp’d Mobile where the management engineered a spectacular demise by burning cash and providing service to those who didn’t pay (a cellular sub-prime gamble of sorts). Then there is ESPN Mobile, which bit the dust after several agonizing months of trying to sell a high priced sports-oriented offer that not even loyal fans would bite. These are just two examples that sealed the fate (see related article on Why U.S. MVNO’s will find it hard to survive) of the traditional MVNO model. However, all hope is not lost. The MVNO business can still be successful – for the right innovator.

In steps Amazon into the picture. Amazon has shown time and again that they can come up with a feasible business model or two that users find compelling and easy to use. For example, Amazon revolutionized selling books online and then made is super easy with features such as 1-click checkout. Then there’s that elastic computing cloud, which I think has a lot of potential.

And now, Amazon has come up with its next innovation – an electronic book reader called Kindle that sells for $399 and makes it easy to read and easy to download e-books anywhere, anytime. Kindle can view, select, purchase, and download electronic books over a high-speed cellular network. Users can also purchase a newspaper or subscribe to daily newspapers, magazines, and blogs for a monthly fee. Newspapers are delivered overnight and blogs are updated several times a day.

Amazon isn’t the first to sell an electronic book reader, but its the first to have an electronic book with the following features:

  1. Easy-on-the-eyes E-Ink. The Kindle, like the Sony Reader, has an electrophoretic display from E-Ink that is designed to look like paper. An LCD screen, a popular choice for e-readers and smartphones, causes more eyestrain.
  2. Download e-books anytime, anywhere using a wireless broadband speeds (no need to look for a hotspot)
  3. No need for a wireless subscription (no contracts, no bills, no worries)

What’s interesting here is that there is no wireless/cellular subscription required. Imagine a wireless device that can connect to a high speed cellular network but doesn’t need a subscription? This is just what Amazon has done and perhaps may have opened up a whole new use for mobile data networks. This contrasts in many ways with the iPhone, which requires a cellular contract, a subscription to cellular Broadband service called EDGE, but doesn’t even allow wireless downloading of songs (except via WiFi hot-spots).

The Kindle operates on Sprint Nextel’s 3G cellular network. But user will not see a bill for wireless service – it’s included in the price of the content. The Kindle is “always-on”, that is always connected to Sprint’s 3G EV-DO network (slides down to the slower 1x network when EV-DO is not available). Interestingly, since Sprint EV-DO network was recently upgraded to Rev A, where users typically get download speeds of about 800 Kbytes, e-books should download quickly. My guess is that the device will not roaming on other networks. Users can also turn the radio off, which will come in handy in airplanes, and will extend the battery life from about two days to one week.

Users can also “sideload” purchased e-books onto the Kindle. In any case, every book purchased is backed up on Amazon along with any bookmarks or notes added by the user. I know that sometimes devices can go bad, so this is one of the most important features for me. I’ve always wanted the backup feature with iTunes, but I guess Apple sees things very differently, and they also have to grapple with a messed up Digital Rights Management (DRM) system.

E-books cost about $9.99, while newspaper subscriptions start at $5.99 per month. There is a small music player on the device for background music while reading, but Amazon isn’t selling music over EV-DO, so users will have to sideload their own songs. This is not a great choice (perhaps it will be added later), because Verizon Wireless claims that 95% of song downloads from its VCAST music service is over-the-air (and its priced higher than for sideloading)

I think Amazon has another great idea with Kindle. It has already sold out in the first 5.5 hours. This is going to be another great product and a good boost for Wireless Broadband services.

Skype goes Cellular with the 3 SkypePhone

skypephone_logo.JPGSkype and UK-based cellular service provider “3” have launched the 3 Skypephone, a mobile phone that allows users to make free Skype calls via the Internet. The 3 Skypephone could also send free Skype Instant Messages (IM). Right now, SkypeOut calls, SkypeIn calls, and voicemails are not available, but the phone makes conventional calls.

The phone is being launched in nine markets including the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy, Hong Kong, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, and the Republic of Ireland. In Britain, the phones will be available for sale in 3’s UK stores on Friday November 2, 2007. It costs 49.99 pounds ($102.6) with pay-as-you-go service, and free with a contract. The company hopes to sell “several hundred thousand” units worldwide in the fourth quarter of this year.

Skype acting CEO Michael van Swaaij expects the launch to boost the group’s 246 million-strong registered user base because “the service was now available to people without computers”. I doubt that the skyphone will make a dent in Skype’s customer base for the following reasons:

  1. 3 subscribers are likely to have access to a computer. In other words, many of the users of the 3 Skypephone will be current Skype users.
  2. “3” is a relatively new company and doesn’t have a large subscriber base.

The 3 Skypephone does not work in the U.S. spectrum bands, so Skype enthusiasts in the U.S. will have to wait!

I wrote an article recently on “4 Reasons you won’t have Skype on Cell phones anytime soon”. Interestingly, “3” is the first operator to open up its network to Skype. For “3” it makes sense as an upstart 3G/UMTS operator, but I highly doubt that the major cellular operators will open up their network (hey, they have to protect their primary revenues) anytime soon.

Qualcomm enables laptops with both EV-DO and HSPA

Qualcomm launched on a Wednesday a dual-3G chip with EV-DO and HSPA (High Speed Packet Access) for laptops. This will enable laptop makers to embed a WWAN chip that can handle any of the two most dominant cellular broadband technologies in the world.

Currently, laptops are available with embedded chips that work with either AT&T’s HSPA or Verizon Wireless’ or Sprint Nextel’s or Alltel’s EV-DO network, but no laptop can work with both HSPA or EV-DO networks. Different parts of the world have different broadband networks – the US, Asia (China, India, and Japan) and Australia have both EV-DO and HSPA, Europe is predominantly HSPA (HSDPA and HSUPA), while Korea is EV-DO, making it difficult for laptop users that travel internationally to use the laptop with Wireless Broadband.

Here are the biggest benefits of the dual-3G chipset for laptops:

  1. Qualcomm’s new Gobi chip can connect to either type of network, so the well-traveled users will have a laptop that will work pretty much anywhere in the world. This would also be a good selling point for wireless service providers.
  2. Rather than make two separate laptops for EV-DO and HSPA, laptop manufacturers can manufacture a single laptop with both. Each chipset will cost more because it packs more punch, thus the dual-3G laptop will be more expensive, but costs can be lowered through volume manufacturing, and reduced marketing, distribution and inventory costs, and simpler sales process.
  3. Customers with multiple subscriptions have the ability to choose the best coverage in a given area without having to lug around multiple laptops or multiple USB or PCMCIA WWAN cards, as well as decide on the lowest cost (especially when roaming).

The Gobi chips are available immediately, and Qualcomm expects them to appear in laptops in the second quarter of next year.

Still, the Gobi chip is limited to EV-DO and HSPA, and does not support WiMAX. Wireless carriers are still rolling out WiMAX (the first rollout in the U.S. will be in 2008), and WiMAX will be an important consideration for laptops.

Agito Networks seeks gold in fast WiFi/Cellular handoff

agito_networks_logo.jpgFixed-mobile convergence (FMC) and the quest to make quick, smooth hand-offs between cellular and WiFi got a shot in the arm when Agito Networks formally launched this week. Agito Networks is founded in 2006 by Pejman Roshan (VeeP of marketing) and Timothy Olson (CTO), both formerly of Cisco’s Wireless Networking Business Unit, and backed by $9 million in investments led by Battery Ventures.

FMC is one solution to spotty cellular RF coverage within buildings (another answer is Femtocells, which Sprint Nextel launched recently). Furthermore, FMC helps leverage the increasing number of WiFi networks in offices and hotspots to make low-cost VoIP calls.

So why jump into a pit with hundreds of FMC players such as Tecore, T-Mobile HotSpot@Home, Kineto Wireless, LongBoard, and Motorola? Turns out that no-one has adequately solved the problem of transitioning from cellular to WiFi quickly and smoothly.

Agito Networks claims to achieve sub-second handover between WiFi and cellular RF networks through a patent-pending location-aware technology that utilizes RF to tell when an individual is approaching “predefined points at an enterprises WiFi coverage edge” after which a mobile-based client cooperates with a RoamAnywhere router (which integrates with the company’s IP PBXs) in order to hand the call over.

Agito Networks’ is targeting its products at medium-to-large businesses looking to save on cell phone bills – Agito claims a 60% reduction in phone charges by routing in-building calls over dedicated IP infrastructure and connecting outgoing calls originating indoors over VoIP.

Agito plans to introduce models ranging from $9,995 to $24,995 in the US later this year. The RoamAnywhere 2000 series Router is designed for small to medium deployments and scales to 100 simultaneous users per appliance, while the 4000 series, designed for medium to large deployments, can handle up to 1000 simultaneous users..

Agito also provides “Zero touch” client deployment which helps administrators to pre-provision groups. In addition, the location-aware policy engine enables users and administrators to create and enforce corporate-wide mobile policies. The Network/IT Admin can even set up RoutePoints and instruct calls to be directed to voicemail when users are off duty.

Seems like an interesting approach – but the FMC space is still at the early stages and feasibility cannot be assessed until products/trials are available.