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Contracting economy forces new cellular priorities

The only reason an enterprise IT professional would go to this year's Mobile World Congress is to track down a good Spanish Priorat red wine.

The annual GSM cellular industry blow-out in Barcelona won't be quite the party it has been in recent years. The deepening economic crisis has cut into global smartphone sales and adoption of all those optional fee-based infotainment services the industry has been touting. And it could slow down cellco investments in 3G and just-emerging 4G wireless infrastructure and services.

“Most operators we speak to are trying in 2009 to add more value to existing voice and [SMS] messaging services, rather than providing location-based services, mobile wallet, presence-enabled address book and so on,” says Luke Thomas, a program manager with Frost & Sullivan's information and communications technology group. “Before they start providing high bandwidth-consuming data applications, they must upgrade their backhaul networks to support next-generation, value-added data services.”

Expect more words at the event about Long-Term Evolution (LTE), the cellular industry's 4G framework. But don't figure on much beyond words.

Verizon Wireless CTO Dick Lynch in his keynote address is expected to reiterate the company's promise to have LTE live in the 700 MHZ band in at least one U.S. market by year-end, and reveal the infrastructure vendors that Verizon will use to do so.

But that token deployment won't change the expected LTE schedule: limited rollouts in 2010, and larger-scale deployments the following year. Wireless consultant Andrew Seybold recently argued that speed alone won't be enough to push LTE adoption. Users want applications that make sense for small-screen mobile devices, and carriers will face new management challenges if LTE cell sites serve both fixed and mobile users.

The emphasis on LTE simply highlights that it's not yet viable. Enterprise IT professionals are better off focusing on the growing reach of 3G cellular networks for data services, and their carrier's plans to embrace evolutionary upgrades. At Mobile World Congress, you can expect to hear more debate about the movement to HSPA and HSPA+ cellular services.

Both moves require the availability of spectrum. The GSM Association is expected to launch a coordinated global program to free up and allocate more spectrum for mobile broadband services.

Client infrastructure

The near-term evolution of cellular is the target for Qualcomm's new Gobi2000 radio module, scheduled for deployment in the latter half of 2009. Gobi is the company's programmable multi-mode 3G card: it can support HSPA or CDMA2000 EV-DO networks. The new version adds support for the 800- and 900-MHz bands used most often in Europe, and is faster on the uplink, up to 5.7Mbps over HSUPA. Also new: the built-in GPS chip is now enhanced with Assisted-GPS, which can coordinate satellite and cellular networks to improve positioning, and with Qualcomm's gpsOneEXTRA Assistance, which downloads a positioning assistance data file via an Internet session to speed up initial fixes and overall operation where satellite signals are hard to reach.

Another 4G technology, Mobile WiMAX, will be making news also. Sequans Communications will unveil a highly integrated chip that's smaller and uses less power than before, doesn't need external dynamic RAM, delivers over 40Mbps throughput, and covers all three global WiMAX bands: 2.3, 2.5, and 3.5 GHz. It's aimed at makers of mobile devices and customer premises gear, to exploit emerging WiMAX networks such as the one Clearwire is building in the United States.

Operating systems

For enterprise IT, handheld operating systems matter, because they enable the degree of control, security and usability required in enterprise mobile computing.

Microsoft looks to anchor Windows Mobile more securely in the enterprise even as it reaches out to consumers. At MWC, it is expected to unveil Windows Mobile 6.5, a version that makes some dramatic improvements in ease of use and support for touch and gestures. In short, it looks and acts more like the iPhone user interface. The mobile version of Windows has had a lockscreen: the new release reveals more information about new messages, voice mail and the like without having to unlock the phone, and allows selective unlocking of just that new message or voice mail, for example.

The 6.5 release, due on mobile phones near the end of 2009, will also have Internet Explorer Mobile 6, a major improvement in browsing because it's based on the HTML engine of IE 6, with elements of IE 7 and IE 8, which is still in beta. The user interface exploits fully the new touch and gesture features.

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