Mobile VCE Highlights Industry's Long-term Concerns
By Steve Wallage, Thu Sep 04 08:00:00 GMT 2003
The Mobile VCE, a not for profit organization funding UK university research, shows some of the key issues shaping the long-term thinking of the industry.
The Mobile VCE - Virtual Centre of Excellence - was established in 1996 in the UK. Its membership comprises 20 companies. Most are mobile vendors and operators - including Nokia, Vodafone and Orange - but it also includes some other enterprises with a different view of the mobile world, including the UK broadcaster, the BBC.
Each member contributes £36,000 a year. Government grants, mostly from the UK Government, total around 30-40% of the total income of the not for profit group. The total research spend in 2002 (when membership was slightly larger) was £1.5 million. The 2003 research budget is likely to be around 15-20% less. This money is then spent, under the direction of the members, across eight UK universities that have a department focusing on some aspect of mobile research and development.
According to Dr Walter Tuttlebee, chief executive of the Mobile VCE, the key aim is to, "benefit the industry by undertaking research at the best UK universities to facilitate future mobile growth." The focus is on long term vision for the mobile industry, with a typical project being five years away from widespread implementation. All project findings are made available to the members, and resulting patents are available royalty free.
What's in it For Members?
A key question for members and potential members, which has become even more key in recent years, is does an organization such as the Mobile VCE provide value for money? The cost is not just in financial terms, but also in management and co-ordination time to work on the different projects.
Tuttlebee believes that most members have joined and stayed with the Mobile VCE because of strategic, rather than financial, reasons. The financial argument can be a powerful one as the £36,000 investment can provide access to research costing over forty times as much. However, Tuttlebee believes that members are looking for a shared industry view of the mobile market development, and looking to get access to the best university research.
A common concern is the sharing of information and research. This is lessened due to the longer term outlook of the Mobile VCE. Only an overview of project findings is made available to non-members, and members do not need to put any confidential information into the public domain. This issue is often seen as a major disadvantage for EC funded research.
The Mobile VCE also offers the option of 'elective programmes' that are funded, and only seen by, one member. This 'outsourced R&D' idea could become more popular as member companies have often seen their own R&D departments reduced in recent cutbacks.
The research output is the real purpose of the Mobile VCE and there are already four patents (3 in Europe, 1 in the US) that have come from its work, with another thirty going through the patent process.
Tuttlebee believes that some of its most important research to date has been in GPRS simulation and 3G network traffic mix and simulation tools. Both have been used by members in commercial operations.
Future projects are a clear indication of some of the thinking of leading mobile figures. Regular meetings are held to discuss what are the most important areas for research, and to focus on pragmatic issues such as market enablers and possible obstacles.
An ongoing core research programme is looking at the mobile market beyond 3G and in a 2010 scenario. Specific research areas include four subjects.
First, developing wireless access technology. This covers the whole spectrum from personal area to wide area networks. It also includes all aspects from increasing intelligence and speed to adaptability and range.
Second, how to evolve to an all-IP infrastructure with a particular emphasis on management and security issues.
Third, how to manage the 'personal distributed environment' - a term encompassing all manner of voice, data and video communication on the move.
Fourth, the interaction and integration of mobile and broadcast networks.
The challenges and plans of the Mobile VCE echo many of the wider challenges facing the mobile industry.
The group is seeking to increase membership - having lost some members due to the economic conditions including some company failures. But part of this remit is to look for members from beyond the traditional mobile market, to include IT, entertainment and content companies.
Mobile VCE is trying to further internationalize its work. It already has strong links with the Yokosuka Research Park in Japan. This is the center for mobile research in Japan and contains over 6,000 engineers and researchers. Interestingly, it has recently opened its doors to Internet and broadcasting groups. There are links to the US Software Defined Radio group. There are also plans to widen the research scope to non-UK universities. However, there has been some feedback that the UK universities remain the most focused of international institutions on the mobile market and on understanding commercial demands. The Mobile VCE is also looking to further contribute to international standards work. It already works with the Wireless World Research Forum (WWRF).
Members are also pushing the Mobile VCE to widen its involvement in two areas. First, is in training where it has been suggested that the group has a role. In fact, a first course has already been held on mobile cellular communications systems. Second, is in acting as a vehicle for members to represent their combined views.
Lessons to be Learnt
The recent tightening of belts in the mobile industry has made many vendors reconsider the investments they are making in both R&D and in bodies such as the Mobile VCE. That would be a mistake. The mobile industry has often failed to look far enough ahead, and anticipate problems such as interoperability, management, performance and security.
The idea of working alone in R&D, often a legacy from the fixed carrier world, is also misplaced. Such shared organizations as the Mobile VCE can be a far more effective way to do R&D.
However, groups such as the Mobile VCE also need to accelerate efforts to broaden their membership from traditional mobile players to the wider IT and media companies who will be increasingly part of the mobile world. To really try and understand a 2010 scenario, and only take the views of the traditional mobile players, would really be a terrible mistake.