Despite a century of growth, the wireless world remains as full of unexplored potential and turmoil as any adolescent. New technologies and markets fight for limited resources: all need bandwidth and money to survive.
Ofcom thinks it has a way forward with what it calls dynamic spectrum access (DSA). Using this, a handset negotiates with networks on a per-call basis, selecting the most appropriate carrier depending on the nature of the service it wants. Meanwhile, the networks themselves will also negotiate who's going to carry what.
Ideally, DSA would be a very efficient system, with users and networks only paying for the bandwidth, quality of service and spectrum they need. In its latest Technology Research Programme report, Ofcom talks about pricing and service information being delivered for automatic comparison by the user — or the network on the user's behalf. In a world of flowcharts and bullet points, this lets everyone co-operate to mutual benefit.
In reality, quite the opposite would evolve. Sheltering behind a bewildering array of inter-network agreements, the service providers would be free to create cartels that paid lip service only to the principles of the open market. We've seen this happen twice already, once for international voice roaming charges — and once, with even greater mendacity, for data. In both cases, this happened despite the underlying GSM infrastructure being designed to accommodate — even encourage — competition between operators.
Sensibly, Ofcom says its DSA proposal is at a very early stage with five to 10 years' development in front of it. However, the details of its thoughts so far are lacking painfully in the real problems of public wireless with which we struggle daily: customer support, transparent billing and proper competition. These are the most pressing areas where Ofcom should innovate, and the parts of its remit where it fails most conspicuously to regulate effectively.
While it's excellent news that Ofcom is prepared to carry out its own research, it should see things from a user's perspective rather than an engineer's — or, worse still, that of an operator's marketing director. The problems DSA addresses may not be problems at all in the timeframe specified: the problems we have with wireless operators show no signs of going away.
We want Ofcom to propose standards for transparency, for proper network costings and a clear system of accounting for spectral value. It might not be as sexy as robots doing deals for high-definition video transmissions, but without that underpinning even the best intentions are bound to fail.