There were devices galore at the Mobile World Congress trade show, but the software outshone the hardware, writes Lucy Battersby.

In between coffees, meetings and product launches at the mobile industry’s annual jamboree in Barcelona, many visitors were seen pulling out a computer or tablet to email and browse the web.

It was not surprising that there was free Wi-Fi available everywhere. What was surprising was the speed of that Wi-Fi. It was lousy. Really lousy. But when you think about it, it all makes sense, and is a perfect demonstration of the benefits and limitations of wireless technology.

Inside the congress were 60,000 people and all their devices and several thousand more devices on display. Apart from those who had turned data capabilities off to avoid roaming fees, everyone at some point was trying to access the internet through their smartphone or tablet or the latest invention.

The radio frequency allocated to the mobile phone cells and temporary Wi-Fi networks serving the congress area struggled with demand for data and slowed to a crawl.

Wireless routers were also used, but signals were slowed by walls. The most reliable and fastest connection came from an ethernet cable.

Inside venues femtocells (femto is a metric measurement) were plugged into fixed connections to boost mobile coverage. These cells transform fixed broadband into mobile broadband, thus taking people off the mobile phone tower cell. These cells have been widely distributed to households by the US mobile company AT&T to alleviate demand on the network.

While displaying the amazing benefits of plucking internet from the air and the future direction of mobile broadband, no one at the congress was arguing it would replace fixed broadband. In fact, the sector invests heavily in comprehensive fixed networks, so every mobile base station can plug into the internet. Telstra already has high-capacity ethernet cables running to 93 per cent of its mobile base stations, its chief executive, David Thodey, said at a press conference announcing the company’s new 4G network.

”We see both fibre to the home and high-speed wireless being complementary. Giving people the option and running a truly homogenous core network is critically important,” he says.

Telstra will install new technology on existing mobile towers to deliver high speed data at 1800 megahertz. The frequency of the new network is more important than the speeds it can achieve because it moves users off the NextG network, set at 850 MHz. Each device and mobile tower is tuned to a particular frequency, which acts like a highway along which data travels. By creating a new highway at 1800, there will be less traffic at 850.

Expanding network capacity to accommodate demand for data was a key theme of the congress. Consumers want all the bells and whistles of their new devices, but they won’t get them unless the network can handle data-hungry applications such as video.

Bob Azzi, the senior vice-president of network at the US mobile operator Sprint, said customer behaviour in the mobile sector is changing.

”We are now in the era where the move is rapid and quick to devices that do a lot more,” he says.

”When you make it easy for customers to use their devices and you make the applications easier, they use more data.”

Instead of a small number of excessive users draining mobile networks, the ubiquity of smartphones means many people using small to medium amounts of data are draining networks.

Despite the limits of physics, the global mobile industry is in ascendancy, judging by the amount of money spent on exhibition venues, hospitality and new product launches. There was a record number of attendees, chief executives and app developers at this year’s congress.

But with every new customer and new device comes more demand on the network, and carriers can’t charge for data unless they deliver it.

The chief executive of Vodafone, Vittorio Colao, declared himself a ”digital optimist”’ because of his belief that customers will pay for better service.

”Tiered data pricing is good because it gives customers choice and control, but it is also good because it gives operators the opportunity to monetise on the high-usage customers, and gives the opportunity to upsell when all these nice devices create more demand,” he says.

Don’t be surprised if carriers start offering guaranteed mobile broadband service at a higher price, or faster downloads for a price. Their networks have the capability to prioritise your data, if you are willing to pay for it.

Which introduces the next big problem for mobile companies after they increase network capacity – building accurate and complex billing systems.

Last year 26 per cent of complaints about Australian telcos were related to billing, at a time when customers only have mobile and fixed phones, and mobile and fixed broadband.

In coming years more and more ordinary products will be built for mobile broadband and more daily chores will be done through mobile devices.

The head of strategy and business development at Ericsson, Stefan Hedelius, says machine-to-machine communications is the next big thing. For example, connecting cars will help road authorities manage traffic flow or track stolen vehicles.

Or software can be downloaded for just a few hours at a time, rather than buying whole packages, or customers can ask for a speed boost at busy times. And mobile devices will be closely tied to bank accounts so consumers can pay for snacks or train fares by waving their phone near a receiver.

But with so much personal and financial information tied up in wireless communications, and so many varied ways for companies to charge for extra service, Hedelius admits carriers will need to be very trustworthy and have excellent billing capabilities.

”Normally operators have a very strong brand and you rely on them for many things … [but] trust is going to be extremely important,” he says.

Operators will also walk a fine line between using all this information for direct advertising and invading customers’ personal space.

”There is a level where [customers] want to have their privacy. We can feel that sometimes,” he says.

The head of Ericsson in Asia and Oceania, Arun Bansal, says operations and business support systems will be a huge growth area around the region as carriers are forced to upgrade to provide better and more complex services.

Back on the consumer side, handset technology is racing ahead of network capability and a user’s basic needs. Samsung released a 3D smartphone which can also record video in three dimensions and Sony Ericsson released a smartphone with PlayStation game controls. Haptic technology allows users to feel texture and grooves on the flat screen of a smartphone or tablet and is already being installed in new products, and Texas Instruments has an application that allows users to zoom in and out of an image or flick through files by gesturing in front of the device’s camera.

And augmented reality was on display everywhere – where a smartphone’s camera picks up signals embedded in images and then displays information about the product. For example, looking at a film poster through your phone would pull up the film’s showing times at nearby cinemas and offer to buy tickets for you, which you would be able to pay for through your mobile phone account.

Supporting these features is the software installed on a smartphone, another key theme at the congress. The importance of the software, or operating system, is becoming more important than the physical phone.

While there are hundreds of smartphone manufacturers and models, consumers only seem to be interested in three major operating systems. First there was only Apple’s iOS and App store, then Google brought Android to market, and then Microsoft released the Windows 7 operating system.

Most apps are available on the three major systems, but not on less popular software.

A handset maker can install different software on their phones to satisfy customer demand. For example, Samsung has phones with Android software and phones with Microsoft software, and also some phones with its own ”bada” software.

The non-voice capabilities of smartphones are so important that consumers are now choosing phones based on the software rather than the handset. Which is why a few days before the World Mobile Congress, the Finnish phone maker Nokia announced a new partnership with Microsoft, with expectations it will release a Windows 7-Nokia smartphone before the end of the year.

The software enables certain applications or features and affects the phone’s speed and performance, but it also affects the way smartphones behave on the network.

”We have had operating systems come out that really load up the network with extraneous data that we do not want … Why they are important to the operator is to make sure that they are efficient and that they work well,” Thodey explains, admitting the customer’s preference for software does not always match the operator’s preference.

Blurring the line between phones and mobile life-management tools and science fiction has inevitably led to a backlash. One of the most memorable devices on show was a phone that only makes phone calls. With the rest of the industry clambering to have the best video and broadband applications, a simple phone with large buttons and no screen stood out. Manufactured in China for an Amsterdam business, John’s Phone also comes with a paper address book neatly fitted into a compartment on its back.

The author travelled to Barcelona as a guest of Ericsson.

From www.smh.com.au