Contact Magazine Issue 01, 2012

In December, I accepted an invitation by Contact Magazine to write a piece looking at the future of local technology. As it turns out, it foreshadowed pretty accurately the mobile broadband Internet wars of 2012.
Mobile is the next driver
Originally published in the Trinidad and Tobago's Chamber of Commerce's Contact Magazine, Volume 12, Issue No.1 for 2012
By Mark Lyndersay

There’s a kind of quixotic madness to foreseeing the future in technology. On those occasions when I’ve been tempted to do so in my weekly column on technology, BitDepth, time has proven to be both longer than twine and more inventive than my most outlandish imagination.
Computers with gigabytes of RAM? Surely the realm of satire and well intentioned humour in 1997, not so?

There are indicators in the current technology landscape; however, which point to some clear possibilities in the near future.
Expect, for instance, over the next six months to a year, to see the need for broadband become the leveraging sales pitch for the ongoing battle between Digicel and TSTT’s bMobile division.

Both companies have reached a marketing stalemate in services and brand awareness and now rely on lifestyle and celebrity advertising to drive customer interest in their marginally differentiated products and services.

Wired broadband is approaching saturation in all the readily accessible areas that already have infrastructure to support it. That includes the major cities, towns and villages of Trinidad and Tobago.
Forays into wireless broadband have been largely the province of TSTT and both implementations, EVDO and WiMax, quickly hit their saturation points within two years of their implementation.

Currently, TSTT limits sales of their WiMax enabled MyHotspot device to customers of their smartphone and tablet products.
Many of the most remote areas of Trinidad and Tobago remain under-served by broadband services and the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (TATT) has created a fund, fuelled by local telecommunications companies, to assist first movers of technology into these broadband blind areas of the country.

TATT itself has signalled frustration with the sluggish pace of development in mobile services by announcing their interest in introducing a third player to the mobile telecommunications market.
These elements, along with industry scuttlebutt, point to the great likelihood that both players will satisfy pent up demand for handheld Internet speeds greater than today’s 1995 dial-up equivalent with a proper broadband solution, most likely to be 3G.

The surprising omission of this widespread, if slightly dated technology is surprising, given the robustness of the competition between both cellular providers, but it’s likely to have been the result of a “whites of the eyes” standoff in which both players acknowledged the significant costs associated with the implementation of the technology.

The need for a critical market leverage for one or the other is critical at this stage, though. Both have used the appeal of the Blackberry system, its budget priced products and the admittedly addictive qualities of the BBM service, to stoke customer interest with a kind of faux broadband networking.

Blackberries work well on the 2.5G that local carriers have extended well past its “sell by” date, but the apps that are beginning to show up for that platform and for the growing numbers of iPhones and Android smartphones on the market are labouring mightily to provide a good customer experience on yesterday’s network speeds.

What happens to the current environment with the introduction of a 3G network? The first mover to market has an opportunity to establish a commanding presence in a market saturated with modern cellular phones, many of which don’t come close to fulfilling their “smart” potential.

Communications will shift inexorably away from wired dependencies to wireless ones, with an attendant rethinking of the way we use computer devices, both in traditional form factors and more compellingly, in tablet form.

Apps for smartphones and tablets become commensurately more useful in such an environment, and a real platform for local app development beyond the current rash of amusing curiosities becomes possible.

It was the nexus of wireless broadband, the iPhone’s groundbreaking interface and the possibility of real world utility for mobile computing that drove the current surge in the United States for app development, creating a platform that made the adoption of tablets, scaled up from smartphone development, the fastest growing sector of software development and innovation over the last three years.

No airline, for example, has ever considered replacing the vast stack of documents that pilots must work with a portable device until the iPad.
Instead of programming for the agonising sips of data that are available on a GPRS network, 3G broadband makes it possible to think about creating vertical market smartphone and tablet apps that extend and sometimes replace the need for desktop and laptop devices in a wide range of common tasks.

Trinidad and Tobago is ripe for this kind of surge forward in infrastructure. Local cellphone users have developed quite a taste for smartphones, in spite of the way they are crippled by mobile local networks. It’s only a matter of time before they begin to chafe at this artificial limitation and demand more. Programmers are ready right now.

The development most overdue to drive a fundamental shift in local IT is the introduction of true mobile broadband. Newer technologies like 3GPP Long Term Evolution (LTE) (actually,
this subsequently turned out to be HSPA+) might be tempting, but the successful player on local networks will introduce a service that brings new intelligence to the thousands of phones that have been underperforming in their owners' hands.

When that happens, a fresh round of competition, infrastructure development and innovative responses to will begin and the future will begin to shape new horizons.

BitDepth#836 on what Digicel should do next.
My early experiences with Digicel's new 4G mobile broadband service.
brash announcement of their plans for a HSPA+ mobile broadband network.
BitDepth#832, on the impact that mobile broadband Internet will have on the news media.
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