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Asymmetric Interdependencies PDF Print E-mail
Written by David Brunnen   
Monday, 27 June 2011 11:36

Head of CommunicationsIn the minds of millions who neither know nor care how these thing work it might be supposed that the connectivity offered by the mobile phone is in direct competition with that provided via a fixed line. Some may appreciate the differences in terms of quality or convenience but for the most part it is generally assumed that these different platforms are in competition.

In some ways they are – many households do not now bother with a fixed telephone line when most of the functionality for voice calls can be managed via the mobile phone.   Using a mobile device for phone calls is, however, a rapidly decreasing element of that business – as is also the case with fixed line telephony. Smart (mobile) phones with their digital ‘apps’ have overtaken the previous generation of ‘feature phones’ and Voice over IP is shifting large volumes of traffic away from the telephone exchanges and onto digital networks.

Such is the volume of demand that mobile operators seek to offload the data traffic at the earliest opportunity onto fixed networks rather than attempting to squeeze this load through base stations that are, despite many expensive upgrades, still largely designed to handle relatively light and low-quality telephony requirements.

In the small print of TV advertising for new mobile applications you may notice the requirement for WiFi access. The smart mobile device is merely the delivery agent for some applications that cannot possibly be expected to travel through the mobile network.  The data packets must fly to the nearest Wireless Hub – most likely the one at home, at work or at the café - and be connected to the Internets through whatever fixed broadband lies behind that. It is not surprising that O2 is now building a nationwide network of WiFi hubs to help ease this load and keep control of the service traffic.

The second big trend in mobile networks is to reduce the physical size and coverage of their cellular base stations. These ‘femto’ and ‘pico’ cells already vastly outnumber the traditional cell sites characterized by large antenna crowded onto rooftops and towers. This massive expansion of ever-smaller, lower-power and less-visible mobile base stations increases capacity but also increases the need for more fixed network ‘backhaul’ connections.

So in these ways the mobile industry is becoming ever more dependent on fixed connectivity to deliver the conveniences and productivity of mobility, and the mobile devices themselves are acting as the promotional proving ground for innovative applications that benefit both fixed and mobile users. It is not a surprise to find that the mobile operators are keener than ever to work together on shared ‘access’ infrastructure – such are pressures for rapid expansion of capacity and investment in better base stations.

In this shift to all-data traffic (including needs for meter reading and environmental monitors and connected health devices and vastly better upload data rates for video and graphics) both fixed and mobile operators share many of the same pressures. Both camps are gradually realizing that the access network is a simple utility for transport of the competitive services that are reached beyond the basic connection.

New users of Skype often remark on the high quality of voice calls – not realizing that no designer of IP-based services would now contemplate delivering anything as badly compromised as analogue voice within the limitation of copper connections.  And if they complain about the failures of Skype calls they are more often than not complaining about the quality of their local so-called broadband access network.

One very simple way that Telco’s could, in the short-term, improve broadband quality would be to abandon the divvying up of copper capacity between last generation telephony and next generation data and provide symmetric data only lines (something akin to the Ethernet-based ‘LAN Extension Service’) as the standard default. Who needs an old telephony line when digital connectivity plus an integrated mobile phone number is not merely sufficient but far better?

But of course the only future-proofed reliable route to delivery of sufficient upload and download capacity at lightning speed is to fully transform our fixed access networks to fibre and this massive expansion of better-quality broadband is also in the interests of the mobile operators.

It is significant that in advanced countries such as Sweden the availability of symmetric 100Mb/s capacity leads directly to enablement of massive innovation – the release of thousands of users from the upload constraints on content generation. These local access networks now report that in aggregate the users generate more data than they consume. They have, at last, reversed the perverse last generation Telco notion (forced by the inherent limitations of copper connectivity) that it is better to receive than to give.

So, in this entirely new digital environment, we need to acknowledge that the apparent competition between fixed and mobile connectivity is in reality an interdependency – both requiring fixed access networks to be transformed (on a scale equivalent to the switchover from DC to AC electricity) but with fixed operators also benefitting from the proving and promotion of service innovations delivered via ever-smarter mobile devices.

Depending on where you sit the balance of benefit may not seem entirely reciprocal. The fixed operators may regard the calls on their capital resources for this great task hardly equal to that faced by mobile operators – ignoring for the moment the aberrant £22bn paid back in 2002 for those expensive 3G spectrum licences.   Oddly that same sum is of similar order to that now required for 95% completion of the nationwide fixed fibre network transformation.

The interdependency may well be asymmetric but divining that balance is a trivial pursuit compared to the bigger ‘big society’ picture.  

What both camps have in common (but hardly dare admit) is the new-found understanding that, whatever regulatory games may be played within the telecoms sub-sectors, the outcomes of effective infrastructure investment are now hugely important for all parts of the economy and social fabric, and that these higher-priority needs (for accelerated growth, jobs, productivity, innovation, health, education etc.) easily trump what may seem to the millions who neither know nor care how these things work, to be pretty small beer - smaller even than the intellectual effort needed to divert policy developers and regulators towards incentivizing infrastructure investments with far greater national benefits than, say, some new railway line.


This editorial was written for the Communications Management Association whose members spend in aggregate over £13bn p.a. on networked products and services.

Readers of this editorial also viewed 'Getting the Message' 

See also recent (Sept 2011) report from Rethink Wireless describing the need for an additional 70,000 small cells to deliver LTE to London. Every one of those cells will require high quality broadband access.





Last Updated on Wednesday, 05 October 2011 14:23

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