A growing number of people expect mobile phones to emerge as the dominant means of Internet access for the 6.6 billion people on Earth; as proof, they point to the 10 percent of the 2.5 billion handsets in circulation that already include such access. But there exists a flaw in the mobile phone-as-path-to-Internet-ubiquity theory in that telcos generate the majority of their revenues from voice services that the Internet threatens to make obsolete — like a power company that makes most of its money through a monopoly laundry service that at-home washers and dryers have the power to put out of business.
In fact, given carriers’ efforts to excise voice functionality, it’s the Internet that seems unlikely to survive, much less prosper. Carriers routinely require device manufacturers to handicap handsets, for example, to remove Wi-Fi functionality in order to make it difficult to bypass voice plans. Another example is that of Apple and AT&T, which require iPhone customers to purchase both voice and data connectivity (i.e. laundry service and power) — a policy that’s even enforced for deaf customers with a doctor-certified inability to speak or hear.
Low cost or free voice functionality helps drive demand for Internet access, so it hardly seems a good idea to sacrifice voice in order to get mobile phones with Internet functionality. The way forward requires making the Internet more useful for connecting communication devices, not less. For example, addressing the three issues below would go a long way toward creating an Internet for devices that competes directly with carriers for mobile phone users:
- Close the ease-of-use gap between configuring session initiation protocol VoIP devices like the Linksys WIP330 IP Phone (a.k.a. “Cisco’s iPhone”) and the provisioning process for cell phones. The former remains sufficiently painful as to exclude everyone without an IT department or geek credentials, but the telcos cannot stop the 100 or so manufacturers of SIP devices from agreeing on a common provisioning mechanism.
- Unify the addressing of all SIP-based devices. The insistence on proprietary screen names and unwillingness to peer leaves real-time Internet services like instant messaging and VoIP mere islands of communication. Even the millions of users claimed by AIM or Skype are meaningless vs. the 3.3 billion wired and wireless phones addressable by telephone number. The secret to carriers’ ability to generate in excess of a trillion dollars in revenue from voice services is interconnection.
- Eliminate the user intervention steps necessary for wireless device connection. Connectivity should get addressed as a matter of reception, as in the case of mobile phones or even FM radios, not by presenting users with lists of Wi-Fi access points. It seems like there must exist automated solutions for picking and connecting to or disconnecting from Wi-Fi access points.
Initially, electric power generation companies were application-specific, which resulted in incompatible voltages and infrastructure being used for everything from street and residential lighting to industrial applications. The decision to abandon the link between application and power generation unleashed an explosion of devices offering the tremendous range of productivity and entertainment options we take for granted today. When it comes to decoupling the connectivity and application, the nature of the Internet makes it possible to create mobile phones with CD audio quality. The Apple iPhone’s elegance does not change the fact that basic voice quality remains unimproved since mobile phones first arrived 25 years ago. The mobile phone companies see the Internet as a threat, not an opportunity.