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Throw Less Spectrum at It

By Trey Harvin
Jan 6, 2010 5:00 AM PT

"Throw more money at it."

Throw Less Spectrum at It

That's an old suggestion for trying to solve problems big and small, but it's a solution that rarely works, because it doesn't address the root cause of the problem in question. Despite knowing that it's bad advice, the FCC has recently come up with a corollary to it: Throw more spectrum at it.

Recently, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski outlined a plan to promote growth in the mobile communications sector, including a proposal to give mobile operators more spectrum. That's bad.

Verizon Wireless is so anxious for mobile spectrum that it paid a staggering US$19.6 billion in an FCC auction for "C-Block" 700MHz spectrum in 2008.

AT&T has been criticized for its network's seeming inability to handle the data traffic already generated by its exclusive iPhone. Apple recently announced that it sold 78 percent more iPhones in its 2009 fiscal year than in 2008.

The iPhone represents just 13.3 percent of the global smartphone market, and that global smartphone market was only 14.3 percent of the total mobile phone market in 2Q09, according to Gartner. That means we're only at the start of what will be an ongoing mobile Web revolution as more -- and smarter -- phones come into consumers' hands in the years ahead. Obviously, networks will buckle under the pressure. More spectrum, and more spectrum now, is the answer ... or is it?

Spectrum is a finite resource. As with all finite resources, the best solution to any given problem may not be the one that throws more at it.

Looking at the Real Issue

The number of people accessing the Web isn't the issue. The content that people are accessing is what is causing network congestion today and potentially will cause bigger network problems in the near future.

The iPhone came to market promising the "real Web" on a mobile phone. The problem is that the "real Web" was translated as "the same Web sites you look at on your home or work PC."

The iPhone and the army of smartphones that have followed in its wake can render a standard PC Web site. However, that means consumers are getting data-intensive Web sites that will take a long time to download and will likely not meet their on-the-go needs.

The mistake is thinking that the "real Web" is a single Web site designed for PCs. Instead, the "real Web" should understand what you need when and where you need it. A consumer on the go is likely not looking for an annual report or a photo-rich overview of a company's history. Yet, many times, that's the "real Web promise" that companies deliver -- and it's a promise that is overloading networks and monopolizing spectrum.

On-the-go users want, and deserve, fast access to information ... but they also want relevant information. Many content providers mistakenly think that made-for-mobile Web sites are simply stripped-down versions of PC sites. These content providers forget that a mobile phone isn't a small computer; it's a completely different beast.

Made-for-mobile Web sites can exploit the many things mobile devices can do. For example, it's a camera, it sends text messages and it's location-aware. In short, the best content providers know that a mobile phone is a unique device that can deliver experiences that a PC cannot.

If a content owner provides the same content for mobile devices that it does for PCs, it not only causes network congestion, but also gives customers a poor experience, causing negative associations with its brand.

Advertize Your Mobile Site

The best content providers use device detection, which lets them know when a user is on a mobile phone, cueing them to deliver relevant content. Device detection lets them see what kind of phone is accessing their Web site and to serve content designed to work specifically with that model.

Content providers should also actively advertise a unique Web address so that users can go directly to made-for-mobile sites when using a mobile device. Common addresses include "sitename.com/mobile," "m.sitename.com" and the only ICANN-approved convention, "sitename.mobi."

Unlike other naming conventions, the ".mobi" domain gives site owners an entry in the Internet zone files, which is what search engines use to start their crawls. That means mobile Web sites will be more easily found by search engines -- and by mobile phone users.

When looking at the spectrum issue as the content issue it really is, it becomes obvious that the call for additional mobile spectrum is the telecommunications equivalent of "throw more money at it." The call needs to be for designing and optimizing content for mobile users, as well as understanding that mobile content doesn't need to be lesser content.


Trey Harvin is CEO of dotMobi, a mobile Internet service provider. For more information on device detection, visit the mobiForge Web Developers special device detection forum. For more information on naming conventions, see the mobiThinking.com marketers forum.


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