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There's something in the air

SmartphoneThis year’s Mobile World Congress show in February was noticeable for being about the clamour to become the ‘other’ triumphant tablet alongside the Apple iPad. It was also the first tradeshow at which smartphones officially reigned supreme.

Smartphones are now outselling both laptops and desktop PCs. As ARM’s lead mobile strategist, James Bruce, said: “The smartphone is now our primary computer interface.” And phones are now driving developments in other types of hardware, too, with Motorola showing off a “dumb terminal with a keyboard” that acts as docking station for its Atrix 4G smartphone. With solid connectivity around the home and outside it, we’ll be able to push content to any number of devices and access it from wherever we like.

Alongside all the shiny gadgets are new options for getting online. LTE is still a few months off a UK launch, but looks set to be the 4G connection type of choice. WiMax and HSPA+ are cheaper, complementary but interim wireless technologies. Several manufacturers have announced phones and tablets of both types.

But it may not be the ability to connect to another network that’s critical in the long run. Mobile connectivity is expensive and, at least outside of your own country, you’re unlikely to make extensive use of 3G, 4G or any other type of mobile broadband unless someone else is footing the bill. It’s popular, but still too expensive to deliver.

What we really need is better, more pervasive Wi-Fi and the infrastructure to allow us to connect to it, however many of us decide to do so at once. We need more bandwidth, not expensive means of getting online on the move. Technologies such as unlicensed mobile access (UMA), which extend the reach of the wireless networks that customers can make use of, are called for. T-Mobile and Orange are making some moves with their ‘Everything Everywhere’ mantra that in essence allows customers of each others’ networks to log on to the other’s Wi-Fi cloud as and when they need to.

At the non-mobile end, we need the government to get a wriggle on and make good on its plans to address the ‘Final Third’ of the UK that can’t get basic broadband. Cost is a factor, but necessity is the mother of invention and we recently witnessed its fruits.

French company Bluwan has managed to install fibre-optic broadband in areas that the technology previously couldn’t reach. It wants to set up similar trials in the UK with the Final Third. While not without its controversies – fibre-through-the-air (FTTA) is borne on high-frequency microwaves, making some nervous about radiation – it can provide HD video streaming and bandwidth of up to 100 megabits per second (Mbps). It will also be able to carry mobile networks including 3G, 4G and LTE.

Crucially, FTTA can cost as little as a 10th as much as fibre-optic broadband to install. It also offers high bandwidth and high speed over a wide area. What we don’t yet know is how well it will work in the UK. However, Bluwan is one of several companies keen to trial its service as part of the rural broadband initiative.

There’s been a lot of talk about levelling the broadband playing field and the importance of access to online resources. Surely it’s not too much to ask for companies that believe they have working, relatively affordable solutions to have the chance to prove once and for all that they can.

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