Jane Wakefield: A broadband chat from Rome

Mobile phone operators see the future of 3G as linking all of us, all the time, but do we really want to live in Big Brother hell?

For telco's worried about lost revenue, falling shares and the cold shoulder from investors, take a trip to Rome. They love phones there and the hours they spend chatting to each other on their mobiles would comfort even the most jaded telco director.

In Rome your mobile phone will tell you, for a price, all about the ancient ruins you are standing on -- but I have to say this is a service which doesn't seem to be catching on. Tourists, it would seem, prefer the old-fashioned walkman tour.

I was in Rome to see the Sistine chapel, the Coliseum and the Trevi Fountain but between sights I did manage to fit in a visit to IDC's European Telecoms Forum. It was not the same as last year's conference, lacking as it did any presence from the big boys. BT, Deutsche Telekom and France Telecom were all invited but all replied saying they would love to come but had to wash their hair that day.

This is by no means a precedent. BT is very very happy to sound off about the broadband revolution and how important a role it will play in that revolution. But when it comes to talking on a more specific level, the company comes over all shy. It withdrew from a broadband debate it was due to attend at ISPCon last month, and BT speakers on the subject are not noted for hanging around at press conferences to answer difficult questions.

So the scheduled debate on incumbent strategies for broadband at IDC's glitzy Rome bash was replaced with a view of the future of mobile broadband from Italy's mobile players and I, in what was a pleasant change for me, was forced to consider the baby broadband revolution on our mobile phones rather than its bigger brother of fixed access.

So I settled down eagerly to watch the video of what the broadband future would hold for mobile users. The subtitle of the conference was Broadband Anywhere: the Brave New World. And that is exactly what the video presented; good looking young people wandering around clean, empty towns, living in £2m loft conversions and holding down glamorous jobs in large glass-fronted offices. And never without a funky-looking mobile device in which they check complicated timetables (for flights they always catch), look at video images of their wives (always smiling and beautiful), check the footie scores (their team always wins). All at the touch of one button.

For mobile firms weighed down with 3G debt this image is not so much one of hope but of desperation. If people don't start believing in the applications for mobile broadband then the telcos are in real trouble. These Telcos are about as popular with investors at the moment as a waiter handing out Foot and Mouth sandwiches would be at the Young Farmer's convention and they need everyone to embrace 3G just as surely as the farmers need us not to embrace any cloven hoofed animals.

But not even the experts can agree on whether the public will buy this vision of mobile broadband. Some predict the death of m-commerce before it has even got off the ground and I must admit the idea of using your mobile as a shopping trolley does seem a little far-fetched, especially considering that conventional e-commerce is still very much in its early days. Tim Sheedy, IDC's mobile analyst remains desperately optimistic about m-commerce, claiming that he for one would love to be able to pay his gas bill while on the bus -- but then Sheedy is obviously very much of the "glass is half full" school of thought. He believes WAP has a future for goodness sake.

So desperate were delegates in Rome to hear some good news about broadband that they employed their very own Mystic Meg to look into the crystal ball of broadband and tell them in what the future holds. The Mystic Meg of telcoms came in the form of futurist Ray Hammond, who apparently has written influential books about technology as well as being a "serial entrepreneur".

He did not get off to a particularly good start in Rome when he told the eager crowd that the one thing futurists couldn't do was predict the future but he did promise three killer apps for high-speed mobility which had everyone on tenterhooks, being as it is the holy grail of mobile providers.

According to Ray, the killer app for young people will be having their parents spy on them, for middle aged people it will be to spy on each other and for old people to have their children watch them die. Yes, apparently we will all be walking round with cameras linked up to our nearest and dearest. Surveillance, according to Ray, is the ultimate goal of the brave new world of broadband. To my mind, this has more in common with Aldous Huxley than with the advert we had seen earlier in the day.

If it was the case that broadband is about to turn us all into Big Brother then I would beg the telcos to rip up their 3G licenses and slice their big fat broadband pipes in half. Living in a society already over-run by cameras watching our every public move, the idea that broadband will personalise and privatise surveillance among our friends and families is frankly terrifying.

I may not be as optimistic as Tim Sheedy but I don't really believe that watching each other will be the killer app of broadband. I tend to agree with the slightly saner -- if duller -- view that the killer app has yet to be invented and that we won't even know we want it until we are sold it. That would certainly be in line with the world of hyper-reality we are moving into where companies are prepared to shell out billions for technologies which noone has actually said they wanted.

The biggest irony of all is that it was the future itself that became the killer app of DoCoMo's hugely popular I-mode platform -- its most widely used application is its horoscope service.

We all, it would seem, want to know what the future holds but in doing so I recommend that we don't underestimate the past. Had you handed a mobile phone to an ancient Roman he would have thought it a marvel beyond anything he had ever seen. Now we come and marvel at his underground heating systems and are largely unimpressed by the mobiles in our pockets.

Never, I suggest, underestimate the power of chat.

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