"All the action in mobile," a severely jetlagged American wireless executive told me over breakfast exactly one year ago, "is happening in Seoul, Tokyo, Stockholm and Helsinki." Which begs the question - what new points on the globe are worth watching in 2002?
Keep an eye on these cities:
Singapore: The living lab
If you wanted to create a real life testbed for wireless innovations, you'd invent a place like Singapore. Singapore is an island state with a small coverage area (610 sq km/236 sq miles), making it relatively easy to ramp up infrastructure and collect data nationwide.
The Gartner Group describes Singapore's citizens as "especially aggressive" adopters of new technologies. The Singapore Infocomm Development Authority has made US$200 million available for wireless initiatives, and a consortium of business players recently formed a wireless chapter of the Singapore Information Technology Federation to promote the goal of building a mobile information society on the island.
The Singapore market "is smart enough to try new ideas but not too big in case your idea fails," notes Josh Pak, director of Singapore applications and services for wireless video company PacketVideo.
Rapid growth in wireless LAN deployments. By late last year 25 major food and beverage outlets were set up as wireless LAN hotspots. That number is expected to grow to 200 over the next six months.
Major trials of three mobile payment solutions are also scheduled to begin in the first quarter of 2002, extending to August, with plans to involve a minimum of 10,000 mobile subscribers. Three payment solutions will be evaluated - credit card, direct debit and stored value. The trials involve the collaboration of the island's three main telecom operators, SingTel Mobile, MobileOne and StarHub Mobile and participating vendors include Cathay Cinema, Tricon and merchants at Suntec City.
After a hard day's work, head out to the Sultan of Swing bar, where patrons can order drinks by sending SMS messages to 97BUZZIT .
Beijing: Open for business
China entered the mobile spotlight in 2001 when it surpassed the U.S. as the world's largest wireless market - 135 million subscribers and counting. The Chinese market has plenty of headroom: BDA China, a telecom consultancy based in Beijing, predicts 370 million subscribers by 2005.
Shanghai may be China's business city - a place where smart young professionals treat mobile phones as much like fashion accessories as business tools - but Beijing is China's high tech epicenter. It is here that research facilities, educational centers and government ministries important to the growth of the mobile industry are found. Following on China's admission to the WTO, Beijing will be among the first Chinese cities to open up to foreign investment in 2002.
Airoam Wireless Technologies, one of China's leading wireless application service providers. The company launched in January 1998 with investment from Intel Capital and Softbank. This startup develops solutions for cross-platform messaging and services the banking, securities, insurance and transportation industries. In 2002, CEO Zhang Xiao Bin will continue the company's focus on enterprise messaging and move more aggressively into supporting wireless financial transactions.
What could be more authentically Chinese than an Irish pub? Check out Durty [sic] Nellies in the Sanlitun district. The bathrooms are said to be the best in the city.
Bangalore: The sleeping giant
Like China, India is a developing economy and an enormous potential market for wireless technologies. Yet market penetration is only 0.3%, compared to 11.8% for China (source: The Yankee Group). For years a dysfunctional regulatory environment has hampered the Indian cellular industry.
All that may change in 2002, and Bangalore - India's "Silicon Valley" - is where it will happen. Significant reform efforts began in 2001, and Yankee Group analyst Shiv Putcha says the "remaining regulatory cobwebs" may soon be blown away. "Telefony is pitifully scarce in India," he adds, where it can take two to three years to get a landline phone installed. "There's pent-up demand for wireless." Putcha led a Yankee Group study of the Indian market, predicting that wireless penetration will grow to 3.5% or 38.9 million subscribers by 2005.
Unimobile’s test of an end user wireless entertainment application. Founded in Bangalore in 1996, Unimobile is a provider of global messaging solutions for enterprises. The company recently developed a "short code" wireless application for Zee TV to enable the network to obtain feedback on its programming from some of its 200 million viewers in Southeastern Asia.
The Zee TV service launched last month and Unimobile plans to roll out additional enterprise-based short code applications in late 2002 and 2003. "Bangalore is a haven for trying out new technologies and systems," says Vas Bhandarkar, Unimobile's Chairman and CEO.
A favorite hangout for the Bangalore entrepreneurial crowd is Geoffrey's in the Indianagar/airport road area. The pub has engineer-friendly bright lighting and high tables. The bartenders (it is claimed) can juggle bottles a la Tom Cruise in the movie Cocktail.
San Diego: More than just Qualcomm
Mention San Diego and most wireless industry observers reflexively blurt "Qualcomm!" "No [wireless] company in California is as large or has its hands in so many wireless areas," notes Cliff Neumark, a consultant at Los Angeles-based O'Melveny & Myers who is preparing a major study of the state's wireless industry.
Qualcomm is not the whole story. San Diego is one of the most concentrated wireless sectors in the USA, and one of the most diverse, notes Tyler Orion, president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Technology Alliance.
The region includes: Satellite (Hughes Network Systems), handset manufacturers (Kyocera America), Bluetooth (Silicon Wave), and two of the world's handful of Free-Space Optics (FSO) companies (Lightepointe Communications and AirFiber).
Qualcomm's BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless). The company expects to port BREW to a "non-CDMA" handset for the first time in 2002, says Jeremy James, senior director of marketing for Qualcomm Internet Services (James won't disclose which company).
He also expects Verizon to launch BREW-based services in the first half of the year, with Japan's KDDI following sometime after. BREW trials with other (unnamed) carriers in Asia, Latin America and North America are also anticipated.
Lightpointe Communications recently entered into a strategic partnership with Qwest Communications International, Inc. to find free-space optics solutions (FSO) for broadband bottlenecks. (FSO is a line-of-sight technology for economically bridging the "last mile" in broadband networks, purportedly with 2.5 Gbps transmission speeds for voice, data and video.)
Company founder Heinz Willebrand claims that 75% of USA buildings are within one mile of a fiber-optic line, but that only 5% are connected. Estimates for the growth of FSO range from US$1.5 billion by 2003 (source: Allied Business Intelligence) to as high as $17 billion in 2005. Orion believes FSO will be the "next big thing in San Diego Telecom."
Local color is hard to find in this region of sterile office parks, but wireless professionals often quaff at the Karlstrauss, a pub-restaurant with a fine in-house microbrewery. Stop in on your next visit to San Diego. It's across the street to Qualcomm corporate headquarters.
2003 - and beyond
Cities that may become important mobile centers in 2003 and beyond include Johanesburg, Sao Paulo, and Mexico City. Each is a major center of entrepreneurial activity in a large emerging mobile market. Mobile penetration in Africa, for one, grew at twice the rate of the rest of the world last year (102% vs. 52%).
John Geirland is co-author of "Digital Babylon," a book about the online entertainment business, and writes about mobile wireless developments from Los Angeles.