Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A broadband tale of two countries

What a remarkable contrast between the two election campaigns that have recently been on-going in Australia and Thailand. The elections might be just one-month apart (Australia 24 Nov, Thailand 23 December), but in terms of ICT issues and the realisation that broadband infrastructure is a critical economic and social policy matter, they’re generations apart.

Sometimes I think the media and parts of the industry in Australia don’t appreciate that the country has a healthy, competitive ICT environment, both in terms of the infrastructure in place and the regulatory framework surrounding it. Sure, it could be a lot better, but then again you’re never going to satisfy everyone.

And sometimes I think the media and parts of the industry in Thailand don’t appreciate that the country is falling behind when it comes to infrastructure and a regulatory framework that promotes investment. Not just falling behind the likes of Australia, but neighbours such as Malaysia and perhaps even Vietnam. Sure, it could be worse, but not much.

This week in Australia is probably going to see a major announcement on broadband, given that it was a central plank of the new Labor government’s election campaign. But to be fair, you have to give credit to both parties for realising the importance of broadband and putting it on the political agenda. And the result of that is, no matter which party was elected, there was always going to be a political push to improve the country’s broadband infrastructure. At least something will happen.

In Thailand, by contrast, the only safe bet is that nothing will happen. And the telecom sector has pretty well been in limbo for the past decade. Ask most people who the current ICT minister is and you’ll likely get a shrug of the shoulders, although they’ll probably remember Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom, who resigned as ICT Minister last month. However, they won’t remember him for his forward-thinking ICT policies, but rather his somewhat bizarre behaviour and occasional disjointed thoughts on improving ICT.

In his brief reign as ICT Minister, he managed to ban YouTube, tell foreign reporters that state-run telcos would be fully-privatised while at the same time telling Thai reporters that they would never be privatised, and proposed handing over all telecom networks to be managed by the listless Telephone Organisation of Thailand.

At one of his few meetings with the international media, at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Bangkok, he managed to talk more about his sexual history than telecoms policy. He’s also well known for a collection of more than 300 guns, carrying around his own personal euthanasia machine (which he invented), and being the inventor of the Bangkok taxi meter. Yet at least in terms of education, he had something in common with his Australian counterparts – he boasts a PhD in Solid State Electronics from the University of New South Wales in 1975.

It would be wrong to blame Sitthichai, however, given that he was drafted into the position by the military junta – whoever held the reigns until the next government was always going to keep things in a holding pattern. However, that doesn’t excuse the previous years of inaction. In the past five years there have been numerous stories of foreign businesses relocating to other parts of Asia because of poor and costly telecoms infrastructure in Thailand. Now the local business people are getting outspoken as well.

As noted in CommsDay last week, a panel of some of the top Internet and telecom experts slammed the country's regulatory environment at a roundtable at the ICT Expo, saying it has left the nation ill-prepared for the convergence of telecom, broadcasting and media. Typical was the comment by Vilaiwan Vanadurongvan, an advisor to the Channel 7 TV station, criticising the regulatory vacuum. “Is a merged or separate watchdog better? We as the private sector do not care anymore. Anything is better than 10 years of inaction. Just go ahead and do something. Anything is better than the status quo we have today,” she stated.

If the contrast with Australia is unfair, given the differences in economic size of the two countries, Thailand needs only to look across the border in Malaysia to see what can be done with a strong government push. Initiatives such as the MSC and its supporting infrastructure, the licensing policy for both WiMax and 3G services and the plans for a national fibre rollout are way ahead of anything happening in Thailand.

Singapore and Hong Kong are probably unfair comparisons, given their sizes, but still it’s the willingness of the government and regulatory authorities to put in place policies that stimulate ICT spending that are the key issue. Hong Kong and Singapore have quite different approaches – with Hong Kong much more laissez faire – but both have been instrumental in creating an environment conducive to business.

There is still time for one of the political parties in Thailand to take up the ICT policy challenge and articulate a clear and enlightened framework to bring the country in line with others in the regions. If the next government fails to take action, however, Thailand will continue to be a telecom backwater and lose business to its neighbours. – Geoff Long

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Great Mobile Internet Myth

I’d hate to think how many times I’ve seen presentations at trade shows and vendor events where they trot out figures of how many computers there are in the developing world compared to mobile phones and then without missing a beat proclaim that the mobile will be the access device for these markets to get on the Net. Sure, there are more mobile phones in use than PCs in “emerging” markets, but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone will be jumping online with them. It’s only now that I’m using the mobile Internet that I’ve realised this.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not having another dig at the mobile Internet. In fact, I’m currently enjoying my experience of finding out what it’s capable of (and not capable of). As a tech journo and reasonably early adopter, it’s my role to check out these things – and having access to the latest phones for testing purposes certainly helps. Your average Chinese, Indian or Thai taxi driver, labourer or office worker is not likely to be in the same situation.

For a start, the majority of phones sold in emerging markets are low-end devices that are not even capable of getting on the Internet. Even in the developed world, the number of people toting so-called smartphones is still slim, perhaps 10 percent of the market, tops. If they did want one of the new-fangled smartphones, they’re likely going to be handing over the equivalent of a few months wages to get it. Here in Bangkok, for example, the average smartphone goes for around 20-25,000 baht (upwards of US$650). Yet a decent desktop PC can be had for half that amount.

Then there’s the mobile data fees themselves. Thailand again is fairly reasonable in comparison to some countries, with an unlimited plan going for around US$30. But for half that you can have a fixed broadband connection that is way faster. It’s also a lot more reliable – let’s face it if everyone suddenly jumps online, a typical mobile cell (3G or 2.5G) is going to be close to unusable.

But the cost of the devices, the cost of mobile data service and issues such as speed and reliability are not the only things stopping the mobile from being the dominant access means in the developing world (although together they represent a pretty decent stumbling block). The other thing that I’ve come to realise is that most of the good Internet services for the mobile nearly all require you to be a regular Internet user in the first place.

Let’s take the services I’ve been using as an example. One of the most useful has been Gmail on the mobile. Google has created a small app that you can download to the mobile and it works great – but of course you have to have an existing Gmail account first (you could, theoretically, sign up on the mobile, but it would be painful). Another one I’ve noticed a lot of people using is Facebook for the mobile. Again, it complements your regular, desktop Facebook account rather than being purely for the mobile. There are plenty of similar examples, such as my Fantasy Premier League team, which I can manage via the mobile but which we won’t go into given that I’m losing. The point is you only use it on the mobile when you’re signed up on the desktop first.

Even some of the services designed specifically for the mobile, such as Nokia’s Widsets (widgets for the mobile) and Mosh (content sharing) require you to sign up via computer and are best configured and managed from the desktop. Sure, they both have some great mobile-only apps, but the people using it are still going to be heavy users of the desktop Internet. And I think this holds for most things to do with the mobile Internet – the way I see it, it will complement the fixed Internet rather than people using it exclusively.

So the next time someone tells you that mobile devices outnumber PCs in the developing world, don’t let them hoodwink you into thinking they’ll be using them to get on the Internet. At least not until they’re already using the fixed Internet first. – Geoff Long

Monday, November 19, 2007

UPDATE: ITU not planning a 'boring' show for Bangkok

A while back I was critical of last year's ITU Telecom event in Hong Kong (and a lot of trade shows generally), provocatively labelling them as "boring". Well, in the ITU's defence, they've decided to do something about it (and admit they were getting a bit stale). Needless to say, one good strategy is to confront your critics and give them the lowdown on your plans for improvement. That resulted in me meeting ITU Telecom executive manager Fernando Lagrana in the Bangkok airport Novotel, on a four-hour stopover, for an update on their "exciting" plans for ITU Telecom Asia in Thailand next year. Here's the lowdown as first published in Commsday last week.

The ITU Telecom Asia event scheduled for Bangkok next year could get a significant boost with the addition of a high-level government-industry summit similar to the recent Connect Africa meeting being considered, ITU Telecom executive manager Fernando Lagrana has revealed exclusively to CommsDay.

A “Connect Asia” Summit would likely be held back-to-back with ITU Telecom Asia and a decision will be made before the end of the year and even as early as this week, he said. ITU deputy secretary-general Zhao Houlin is in Bangkok on Friday for the opening of the annual Bangkok International ICT Expo.

Lagrana pointed to the success of Connect Africa, held at the end of last month in Kigali, Rwanda, where US$55 billion was committed by government and businesses over five years to improve the broadband infrastructure across Africa. He said similar expectations could be held for a Connect Asia summit.

The idea of holding a high-level summit to coincide with ITU Telecom Asia was one of a number of ideas for revamping the event when it is held in Bangkok in September 2008. Other changes being proposed will include more interactive forum sessions that are less geared towards major sponsors, and the addition of a “theme” to the programme – with possibilities including emergency telecommunications, social responsibility and cyber security – in addition to the more “generalist” exhibition.

Lagrana said that more open and informal forum sessions, using a professional moderator from the BBC, were first trialled last month at Connect Africa with great success. Of the seven sessions held, only one used a traditional format of a speaker delivering a speech from a podium, and according to Lagrana the open sessions were better received.

As a result, the ITU will adopt the more interactive formats for future events starting with ITU Telecom Africa to be held in Cairo next May. The forum committee will also reject presentations that are deemed too commercial. However, he said in addition to the regular forum there will be a parallel sponsored section where vendors could deliver their commercial messages.

The format changes stem from a new organising team, with 80 percent of the forum committee changed along with changes at the management level since last year’s ITU Telecom World in Hong Kong.

The forum committee has also been studying other successful event formats and is co-operating with groups including the World Economic Forum that will lead to a forum that is “more substance and less status”, according to Lagrana. Other groups are also being invited to set up sessions that extend the reach into other “communities” involved in the industry.

Patrapee Chinachoti, president of the Trade Exhibition Association of Thailand and one of the key people in bringing ITU Telecom Asia to Bangkok, told CommsDay that the event would also utilise Thailand’s position as a key hub in Indochina to bring in delegations from neighbouring countries.

“From the Thai side we want to show that we are ready to organise an international show and attract more regional events to the country,” he said, adding that a government-level delegation will most likely visit neighbours such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and invite them to highlight their future infrastructure plans to an international audience. – Geoff Long

Mobile Internet doesn't need Google to succeed

Wow, November 19 and I still haven't posted for the month! Here's the first of a few to come, this one my take on Google's Android open source for mobiles project . . .

We’re entering an interesting time for the mobile Internet sector and I think there are enough encouraging announcements happening that will see it develop into something much more useable in 2008.

As I suggested a few months back, perhaps one of the lasting legacies of Apple’s iPhone is that it will push other players in the market to keep up with its innovation. We’re already seeing that – whether it’s a consequence of Apple or not – with much improved technology coming from all of the major players, whether its Windows Mobile, the Nokia/Symbian camp, RIM and its Blackberry, Apple itself and of course one of the most keenly-waited announcements of all – Google and its open mobile alliance.

Just a small sampling of the announcements that have been encouraging over the last month include Microsoft and Nokia getting together to pre-load Windows Live services on mobiles (not an exclusive deal, by the way), Nokia finally announcing its roadmap for touch-screen phones and a touch-screen user interface built into its Series 60 software, RIM adding new touches such as Facebook support for the Blackberry, and Apple relenting and allowing third-party apps for the iPhone (although only those that it pre-approves).

But the biggest announcement was no doubt from Google last week with its “Android” and the Open Handset Alliance, which features an impressive line-up of founding members. Rather than list who they are, it’s more instructive to list who’s not there: Apple, Microsoft, Nokia, RIM and Sony Ericsson. All powerful players, but then again the likes of China Mobile, Intel, Qualcomm, Samsung, T-mobile and Telecom Italia among the 34 founders of the Open Handset Alliance are not bad allies either (not to mention the mighty Google itself).

According to the Google announcement, the Android platform is (or will be) a fully integrated mobile “software stack” that consists of an operating system, middleware, user-friendly interface and applications, with the first phones based on Android to be available in the second half of 2008.

It said the platform will be made available “under one of the most progressive, developer-friendly open-source licenses, which gives mobile operators and device manufacturers significant freedom and flexibility to design products.” As its first move, the alliance will this week release an early access software development kit to provide developers with the tools necessary to create applications.

It certainly sounds like the real deal, but there are some things worth pointing out. For one thing, late 2008 is still a long way out when we’re talking technology and a lot of new innovations from the rest of the mobile industry will have happened by then. And as a number of people have mentioned that I’ve spoken to recently, bringing out a mobile operating system is no easy feat. Just think how long it took Microsoft to get Windows Mobile relatively stable and established, and even Nokia with Symbian and Series 60 has had more than a few hiccups along the way.

Open source mobile phones are not new, either. Efforts to get Linux on phones have been in the works for a few years now, but there’s nothing serious that has eventuated other than a low-level operating system that is really not that compelling. And those efforts and alliances involving the likes of Motorola still exist.

Another significant mobile device operating system, which is also open and with a massive developer community, is the PalmOS. There are literally thousands of mobile applications for the PalmOS yet it continues to struggle.

Given that it will not appear before the second half of next year, Android is not likely to have much effect in 2008 at all. But in the meantime I expect that the mobile Internet will become a lot more user-friendly. For example, one of the new services I’m trying out now, the Widset platform for bringing widgets, or small applications, to a mobile phone really does improve the user experience when it comes to accessing Internet on the phone. So too do things such as the mobile version of Gmail, which I’ve now downloaded on my mobile.

So perhaps the underlying operating system is not that much of an issue anyway – the real groundbreaking developments are those that are happening on the Internet. And I expect that they will have moved ahead rapidly by the time Android makes its debut. – Geoff Long