The world of speculative telecommunications investments has quieted down considerably since the beginning of the decade, when hype-fuelled carriers plunked down billions to reserve the right to carry mobile phone calls, video calls, and massive volumes of spam at high speed using then-fanciful 3G mobile technology.
Just whether those investments have paid off may be open to question, but such is the price of progress. Great to see, then, that carriers still have some vision left in them: after months of speculation and quiet bidding, the auction for the US' soon-to-be-vacated 700MHz radio spectrum has culminated in a US$19.6 billion windfall for the country's government.
That money is likely to disappear down the financial sinkhole that is the war in Iraq — the amount raised would only fund the conflict for just over 27 days — but that's another issue entirely. The point is that we now have a framework for next-generation data services — and it's one that Australia is likely to miss out on completely.
Wireless hype masters, start your engines: by all accounts, the lower frequency of the 700MHz television spectrum offers longer range, fewer black spots, and the rollout of WiMax and next-generation wireless technologies such as Long Term Evolution (LTE). The latter technology, which could be a killer for earlier-generation mobile services if it combines long range with high speed, was demonstrated at last month's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona: Freescale showed how LTE could carry full-speed HD video at up to 96Mbps download and 86Mbps upload speeds.
That's right — after years of jockeying for position and billions of dollars spent to resign analogue TV to the dustbin of history, mobile customers can look forward to a whole new generation of mobile devices whose main purpose is to bring you ... wait for it ... handheld TV. I'm still not sure how anybody's going to make a portable TV big enough to make delivery of HD video worthwhile, but people questioned Copernicus too: who am I to cast aspersions?
One particularly interesting thing about the US auction is how Google, whose early bids were trumped by eventual victors Verizon Wireless and AT&T, was still being lauded as a victor because of its success in convincing the US government to mandate open access requirements for the spectrum if bidding passed the US$4.6 billion reserve — a move that would ensure that smaller service providers could still get in on the action if bidding got totally out of hand.
Verizon Wireless ended up paying US$4.75 billion for the spectrum, bringing the open-access provisions into effect. AT&T and Verizon have both indicated they're not too happy with this requirement, but they will have to grudgingly comply as the price for control over the airwaves in question.
Analysts are already weighing in on the open access conditions and whether it can deliver substantive freedom of choice for consumers. Some sceptics expect Verizon and AT&T to load down third-party providers with so much red tape that there will be no real change. Google, however, remains optimistic and is already talking about using the 700MHz spectrum for what Google chief telecoms lobbyist Richard Whitt calls "Wi-Fi 2.0".
In Google's vision, purpose-built devices could be getting access to the Internet and other data services over the 'white space' frequencies between channels — the bits where your TV shows nothing but static when running in auto-tune mode — by the end of next year. Success in delivering these services would provide a new mechanism for always-on Internet connections — using next-generation LTE devices or WiMax, for which the 700MHz spectrum's longer range would be a godsend.
That's the kind of thing OPEL, which has faced criticism of its proposed use of 5.8GHz WiMax spectrum, would seize with both hands. Moving these services to 700MHz would allow the venture to roll out viable high-speed wireless local loops over a frequency band that has been happily bringing us Neighbours and Dancing With the Stars for years. It would also provide new options for firms such as Hervey Bay ISP Buzz Broadband, whose apparently underprovisioned WiMax service led to a surprising polemic against the technology last week.
However, given that Australia's oft-delayed analogue shutdown now isn't likely before 2013, this is all speculative and irrelevant. As will be the third-generation iPhone that Apple launches in the US in time for Christmas 2009, which will feature LTE connectivity for decent connection speeds (and a shoulder-mounted battery pack to provide adequate juice).
Faster, better, bigger, more — these are all constants in the mobile innovation space. But my point is this: technologies such as LTE and WiMax are here now, and they'll chart the direction of mobile communications well past the time that Australia gets around to pulling the plug on analogue TV.
In next-generation mobile, it seems, where there is a will there is definitely a way. If a company like Google can bend the US government to its wishes and come out seemingly victorious, there seems to be hope yet for open access regimes that mandate availability of wholesale access even to proprietary networks.
Yet who, in Australia, will have the will or the way? Certainly not Telstra, which long ago made clear it would do things its own way, thank you. In the long term, although we have been among the world's leaders in deploying 3G technology, we will fall hopelessly behind when it comes to the next generation of mobile technology, which will be based around this long-range wireless spectrum — something that Australia, of all places, needs the most.
What do you think? Is the 700MHz band the key to Australia's next-generation local loop? Do you see value in streaming HD to your mobile? Want to start a grassroots movement to accelerate the analogue TV switchoff?