Weekly Wrap: Back In Black
By Carlo Longino, Fri Jul 09 09:45:00 GMT 2004

DoCoMo's back on top, Nextel's interference fiasco is over (for now), and more...

NTT DoCoMo said this week that in June it added more new users than KDDI for the first time in 8 months -- adding 166,300 to KDDI's 153,500 -- apparently seeing the benefits of a flashy new line of handsets and a flat-rate data tariff. DoCoMo also converted 572,600 of its current 2G users over to its FOMA 3G network. Vodafone continues to struggle in Japan, adding only 64,100 users in June, and switching less than 30,000 over to its 3G network.

Nextel won -- sort of -- its lengthy battle over what spectrum it would switch to and what the move would cost this week, hoping to solve interference issues with public safety radios. Nextel's plan, backed by a number of public safety groups, was to swap its 800-mHz spectrum for some in the 1900mHz range, and pay $850 million for safety agencies to move into the vacated space and $512 million to move TV broadcasters out of the new. Verizon Wireless raised quite a ruckus, petitioning the FCC and throwing around a number of lawsuits, resulting in Nextel having to pay an "anti-windfall payment" (or "Verizon tax") to bring their total outlay to $4.8 billion. Though the "compromise" offers to solve the public-safety issues the fastest (lives are on the line, after all), Verizon's expected to sue, dragging the matter out further.

Nokia's buyout of Psion's stake in Symbian looks to be drawing to a close, as four of the venture's five other shareholders said this week they would exercise their pre-exemption rights and participate in a rights issue to increase their stakes and dilute Nokia's holding to about 48 percent. Siemens and Panasonic increased their holdings, while Sony Ericsson, which exercised its own and Ericsson's rights, saw its holding shoot from 1.5% to 13.1%. Samsung stayed out, and its holding fell from 5% to 4.5%. The new structure should help erase the perception that Symbian is a puppet of Nokia, rather than a joint effort.

Starbucks issued a somewhat quixotic press release this week, saying it had reached the random number of 3,100 hotspots in the US, and said that T-Mobile hotspot subscribers visit Starbucks an average of 8 times a month and stay connected for about an hour, generally coming after peak hours end at 9 a.m. Again, the release was short on hard user and revenue numbers, but the figures they have given make it pretty obvious Starbucks is making more money from increased food and beverage sales than they're probably taking in from Wi-Fi fees -- begging the question that wouldn't they make more money if they just made Wi-Fi free?

Vodafone started much-ballyhooed content filtering in the UK this week, and quickly found out why it's such a difficult undertaking. In an attempt to keep kids from accessing adult content, Vodafone users that want to have open access must prove they're 18, either by using a credit card or showing up to a Vodafone store and asking for access ("Hi, I want porn on my phone!"). The carrier launched its filters ahead of schedule, and apparently ahead of testing, as the system flagged plenty of innocuous sites, and let plenty of risque ones through. So Vodafone now has annoyed users, lost revenues, and kids that can still look at porn -- sounds like a winner.

Wal-Mart's RFID mandate doesn't sound like it's going so well, either. The retailer announced some time ago that its 100 top suppliers would have to begin tagging their merchandise with RFID chips by January 2005, and it is now testing systems in the Dallas area. Wal-Mart won't reveal the read rates of its pilots, but similar tests by Sun Microsystems aren't exactly encouraging. Materials in the products or their packaging can wreak havoc on the radio signals, requiring a lot of trial and error to find a working solution. Wal-Mart may be a little over-ambitious; the effort and materials required to tag products may put too tight a squeeze on suppliers' already thin margins.

Warner Music continued the proud tradition of record-label idiocy this week, when it announced it would include SMS short codes on its CD packaging -- but will charge $2 or more for ringtones. The company has ignored the idea that giving away ringtones gives kids a reason to buy a CD, rather than download it, and is charging ridiculous prices to boot. So a kid is supposed to pay $15 for a CD, then another $2 or $3 for a ringtone, as opposed to firing up Kazaa and getting the record for free, then making their own tone? Good luck with that.

Americans are out of touch with their feelings on phone etiquette, according to a survey done by carrier Sprint. 97% of people say they're either "very courteous" or "somewhat courteous" with their mobile phone use, but say 80% of people are less courteous than they were five years ago. Sprint also asked what people did with their ringer in a restaurant -- some go silent, others turn on vibrate, but 25% do nothing.

Elsewhere on the site this week, Steve Wallage delivers the first and second in his series of interviews with academics researching mobile communications, and Howard Rheingold talks about efforts to extend wireless broadband to rural reaches of the Earth.