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Summary:

The switch from voice to data isn’t just affecting carriers. The new mobile data reality is driving device makers to change the way handsets are designed, Internet companies to deal with the smaller screen, and infrastructure makers to re-architect the fundamental topologies of their networks.

FreedomPop wants to create a social mobile-data network, where access is a secondary business consideration to services. GSM Nation plans to build a business around the idea that any customer should be able to pick any device, not just from a carrier’s limited portfolio. Republic Wireless is challenging the notion that mobile data plans can no longer be unlimited, tapping into a vast wealth of open Wi-Fi.

Three different carriers. Three completely different approaches to the market. The only thing they have in common — besides being part of the newest wave of mobile virtual network operators (MVNOS) — is that they are questioning long-accepted mobile business models. As mobile evolves from a carrier-dominated, vertically integrated and voice-centric industry into a more inclusive, data-focused one, they’re making the case that our fundamental notions of what a carrier is and what it provides should evolve as well.

That transformation will be a major theme at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference next month in San Francisco. David Morken, CEO of Bandwith.com (Republic’s parent); Scott Bendar, co-founder and CTO of FreedomPop; and Ahmed Khattak, co-founder and CEO of GSM Nation will be on the stage at Mobilize to debate the merits of their new approaches to wireless market.

But the transformation of the industry isn’t just limited to carriers. The switch from voice to data has led every link in the mobile value chain to question assumptions formed when the world used wireline networks for data and mobile networks for voice. Device makers have changed the way handsets are designed. Internet companies are grappling with the fact that their customers are moving away from the PC to small-screen devices, with their limited real estate and more challenging revenue models. And infrastructure makers and carriers are re-architecting the fundamental topologies of their networks.

We’re seeing examples of it all over the industry. Facebook’s IPO was clouded by the revelation that it had no idea how to port its advertising-based revenue model over to mobile phones. A growing number of developers are looking to mobile as their first and sometimes only platform. For a company like Foursquared the smartphone isn’t so much a telephony or a computing platform as it is an extension of its owner’s presence in the world. Path (whose CEO Dave Morin is also speaking at Mobilize) has discounted the PC completely, believing the future of social networking relies solely on mobile devices.

In handsets, device makers are grappling with new form factors and users interfaces as the phones original primary function, voice calls, falls to the wayside and the need to create a more immersive data experience comes to the forefront. New large-screened devices like Samsung’s Galaxy Note are blurring the distinction between smartphone and tablet, and my colleague Kevin Tofel believes that one day tablets will replace the smartphone entirely.

Nokia Siemens Networks’ conception of a heterogeneous network

On the network side, carriers and their infrastructure vendors have begun realizing that the big t0wer-based macro-umbrella networks that fueled two decades of voice services aren’t going to cut it in a data-centric world. They’re designing new types of small cells and base stations intended to deliver intense levels of bandwidth over limited areas. Those small cell deployments will eventually evolve into the new heterogeneous network, or HetNet, which will transform cellular systems from coverage-to capacity-focused topologies. Today’s carrier networks have tens of thousands of cells. Future networks will hundreds of thousands if not millions of cells.

The next few years are going to be tumultuous as we negotiate these seismic shifts from mobile voice to mobile data and from the PC-centric to the mobile-centric Internet. Not every MVNO, app developer and infrastructure maker is going to make it. We’ve already seen a big shakeup on the equipment side (Nokia decline and the dissolution of Motorola and Nortel Networks), and the big incumbent mobile operators are struggling to understand their role in the mobile broadband age.

At Mobilize, we’ll be tackling a raft of topics related to that transformation. Here are a just a few speakers to look out for:

Featured photo courtesy of Flickr user Mark Strozier

  1. it is interesting that it is the smaller operators with the less congested networks that are talking the most about small cells.

    it tells me they are thinking about only one thing, eventually being bought out by the bigger guys who will need the capacity.

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    1. i dont think they are looking at being bought, so much as they are looking at cost to deploy said cells while converting older 2g towers. sprint is definitely congested in certain areas and these cells should help that a lot. if anything it allows them to be more strategic about coverage, aka- they are thinking. its like a doctor performing endoscopic surgery instead of opening the patient wide open.

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  2. Most mobile operators share the following characteristic: 20% of the base stations generate 80% of the traffic, so it makes sense to add significant capacity through smaller cells at these high traffic locations.

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