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Last Updated: Friday, 17 November 2006, 09:26 GMT
Mobiles join networked world
Mobile phone operators are beginning to see the potential of the mobile net, albeit belatedly, argues regular commentator Bill Thompson.

Mobile phone user
The mobile internet has yet to take off in the mainstream

I've got a very nice smartphone, but it's costing me a fortune because I keep checking my email and looking at websites, and I forget that on the phone I'm paying for every byte that I send or receive.

Instead of limiting my downloads I tend to treat the phone like a wireless laptop or PDA and click on links without considering the financial implications, which can be serious especially when I'm out of the UK.

So I was interested in the news that 3, the UK mobile phone network owned by Hong Kong based Hutchison Whampoa, is going to offer an all-in-one tariff for 3G phone access that will allow web surfing, email and access to online video for a flat-rate fee every month.

You will even be able to bypass the voice tariff by using voice over IP on the handset.

At the moment the mobile network operators have a good old-fashioned telecoms provider attitude towards their services. They are in control, they decide what data can and cannot move over their network, and they charge for anything they possibly can.

Bill Thompson
It is the first time a mobile network operator has realised that handsets are just network nodes and should be treated in the same way as home PCs
Bill Thompson

But 3, the smallest UK provider and the one with least to lose, has decided to break with this tradition and offer fixed pricing for network services.

This is a significant change, because it is the first time a mobile network operator has realised that handsets are just network nodes and should be treated in the same way as home PCs on a broadband connection.

While it is important, it is not guaranteed to transform the way we use our mobiles. 3 has a poor track record, having failed throughout the years to persuade customers that 3G networks were worth having, offering poor pricing plans, clunky handsets and video calls to a population that remains completely uninterested in them.

They haven't announced the price, so it might end up too expensive for anyone without a corporate expense account.

And they aren't going as far as they could, since the handsets will still run a closed operating system and only run signed and certified code. No open source or user-written software here for a while.

But their success is less important than the fact that a mobile phone network has finally realised that the future lies in making the mobile network a genuine extension of the internet rather than a separate gated community.

Now that someone has admitted it, other networks may decide to follow the lead.

Vodafone and other providers already have 3G data cards for laptops, which dispense with the need for a handset and just offer bandwidth, but the new generation of smartphones could replace wifi-connected laptops for lots of people, lots of the time.

While there will always be a place for the laptop, that doesn't mean the ecosystem can't support other devices. After all not even the most diehard geek wants to take a laptop to a gig and try to use its built-in camera to record the band.

Mobile phone
Mobile phone services offer TV and other content

In fact mobile access to internet content is far more prevalent than we normally realise, as Ray Anderson of mobile content portal Bango keeps pointing out.

Every ringtone, image or video downloaded to a phone comes from an internet-connected server. 3's latest move just makes it simpler for users to use their phones to access the sort of sites that they would normally have reached on a PC.

And since there is growing evidence that smartphones rather than PCs are becoming the main way people get access to Internet services in countries like Nigeria, anything which promotes the smartphone ecosystem and helps innovative services develop is to be supported since it may directly help those in poorer countries where there are no PCs or broadband providers.

I want to be able to text, and call. Nothing more though
Sharon, West London

Another aspect of 3's new offering has serious implications for the future of television. They have signed up Slingbox, the manufacturers of the clever piece of kit that plugs into your TV feed and can send whatever channel you're currently watching at home over the big wide Internet.

Now all you need is a Symbian smartphone in your hand, a Slingbox at home and a 3G connection to watch TV wherever you are, whether or not the channel concerned has done a deal with a mobile provider.

At the recent Symbian smartphone show Brian Jaquet from Sling media showed me channels from his home in California, and even changed channel via the handset. It won't be long before he will be able to do the same with his YouTube videos or Flixster clips, I'm sure.

It is only a matter of time before the threads of the media world are unravelled and woven into something mysterious and new, something which takes all the power currently in the hands of the media corporations and the production companies and the regulators and does for broadcast what blogs did for text years ago.

This revolution has only just begun, so anyone who creates, sells or wraps advertising around content should take a close look at what has just happened to mobile access.

Then they should go and rewrite their business plans.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet

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