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Net transparency on the way says Sprint. But is it enough?

David Berlind's dream: His dozens of Net-connected devices, each with their own IPv6, all connected to the same account (at no extra charge). Hopefully, instead of waiting for the RIMs, Handsprings, and Dangers to deliver convergence, the telcos will prov
Written by David Berlind, Inactive
For the most part, Sprint Network Services senior vice president Kathy Walker has the right idea about Sprint being an application and connectivity provider to the "anything, anytime, anywhere" crowd. But, in an interview with her during last week's Emerging Technology Conference at MIT University, I felt as though we were discussing a common sense-based roadmap instead of an inspired vision for where Sprint will lead its customers in the future.

There's nothing wrong with common sense-based roadmaps, but there's nothing exciting about them either. To win over the digerati --- a nerdy, convergence-loving demographic with growing influence over business and personal technology purchasing decisions --- telecommunications companies like Sprint will have to do more than prove that they understand all of that customer type's pain points; they'll also need to get us excited about how much easier our lives will be as a result of their leadership and vision. Such vision requires an innate understanding of the sort of user experience and customer relationship that computer users (as opposed to phone users) are anticipating.

For computer users, the room for improvement is the distance between the chore of integrating various technologies (phones, handhelds, PCs, networks) and the transparency and abstraction of true convergence.

The dream of true convergence has always seemed completely out of alignment with the plans of the various telcos. The real drivers of convergence have been companies like Research in Motion with its BlackBerry, Handspring with its Treo, and Danger with its Hiptop. The telcos have simply gone along for the ride, giving those companies something to bolt their innovations to.

The device manufacturers, however, can only drive the convergence so far, and Sprint appears to know this. As a result, the company is going through what must be a gut-wrenching, behind-the scenes convergence of its own. That convergence started with combining the company's wire line and wireless business units into one organization. Next, according to Walker, the sales and marketing organizations will merge. The goal, Walker said, is complete transparency of the network. In other words, it shouldn't matter where you are. As long as there's a wired or wireless network present, you should also have voice and data connectivity.

"For example," said Walker, "If you have an 802.11 network at work or home, you will have a handset that connects to that as though it were a cordless phone. But, when you leave your property, it will continue to work by connecting to our PCS network. Much the same way our customers get the identical user experience from one city to the next, they should get the same user experience regardless of what type of network they're connected to." Indeed, the lack of this sort of network transparency is a huge pain point for most of us who are currently on the bleeding edge of mobility. Implicit in Walker's comments is a class of device that has at least two radios: one for Wi-Fi and the other for CDMA (the underlying technology behind Sprint's PCS Vision network). The idea of such a device is not new. But in order to get it working, an end user faces two problems. First, you must use third-party products and become your own integrator; and second, you'll probably end up paying two separate network service providers.

Walker's ultimate goal is for that transparency to produce a data and voice experience that's totally agnostic to the underlying infrastructure. "In order to give customers the same user experience regardless of their connection type, which means being able to run the same applications and the same types of e-commerce, both networks have to have the same fungibility," Walker told me. "Both networks must fully support long distance voice, local voice, data and video. By merging our businesses in these two areas, our goal is for Sprint to become the key enabler of telecommunications services with that fungibility."

But Walker said that sort of transparency and fungibility is at least three years away. For example, on the device front, it's hard enough to find a decent handheld that represents the ultimate union of voice and data, let alone one with both wireless WAN (CDMA or GPRS) and LAN (Wi-Fi) radios in it. You can build your own by adding one of Sierra Wireless' PC Cards to an already Wi-Fi enabled HP iPaq, but the voice plans currently available for one of those cards are outrageously expensive and the battery-life is abysmal. On the network front, Walker also admitted that if Sprint doesn't end up selling Wi-Fi hubs, it will, at the very least, have to certify existing ones for guaranteed interoperability (let alone transparency and fungibility).

Five years ago, I assumed that we'd have network transparency by now. In the early 1990s, before McCaw Cellular became AT&T Wireless, that company's executives were touting a similar roadmap (perhaps it was a vision back then) where businesses and homes would have consumerized versions of cellular towers called microcells. Although the idea was primarily confined to voice communications, the microcell technology was supposed to facilitate seamless roaming between a home or business and McCaw's cellular network.

It never happened.

Almost a decade later, I'm again hearing talk about this sort of transparency coming from a telecommunications company. Granted, this challenge has taken on the additional dimension of data. However, there are no longer as many technological barriers to pulling it off. Provided that a telecommunications company is prepared to swallow the bitter pill of some serious organizational changes, which Sprint seems prepared to do, we might finally get what we were hearing about long ago.

This is where the vision comes in. Network transparency is simply a requirement today and it's a sham that we don't have it already. While we wait for it, the dream has evolved and that's what the vision of any company that's in the convergence business (which the telcos are in whether they know it or not) should be aligned with.

I want more than network transparency. I also want a world where I have dozens of devices, each with its own IPv6 address. I want my various Internet-connected voice and/or data-capable devices, all connected to the same account (at no extra charge). I want a single account with a single number. I want one price to pay for unlimited voice and data, and let me worry about what I'm going to connect to it. Today, it's my PC. Tomorrow, it will be my car. When someone's looking for me, the network should know which device I have and where to find me. You get the picture. Mine isn't an end-all vision. You probably have your dreams, too.

Perhaps the bigger problem is that we shouldn't be the dreamers. Enablers like Sprint should be the dreamers, as well as the champions. But, when no enabler is willing to proactively champion the possible, the possible ends up being forestalled-sometimes for a decade or more.

Sure, network transparency is a must-have baby step towards any converged future. But, delivering something that we've all been dreaming about for years doesn't push the envelope enough. Hopefully, this time around, instead of waiting for the RIMs, Handsprings, and Dangers to deliver the sort of convergence that telcos like AT&T promised us years ago (remember the commercials with the guy on the beach?), the telcos will come up with the vision, articulate the plan, and make it happen.

But I'm not holding my breath. This leopard has tried to change its spots before.

What's your idea of a converged future? Share your vision with your fellow readers (as well as the telcos) using ZDNet's TalkBack. Or write to me at david.berlind@cnet.com. If you're looking for my commentaries on other IT topics, check the archives.

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