Broadband’s Kindle Paradigm

Written by John Roese, Chief Technology Officer, Nortel Networks

A year or so ago, I began talking about how moving toward the 4G world of WiMAX and LTE (and UMB at that time) would enable a broad range of new devices to be connected economically to the mobile Internet. I speculated that the economics of 4G – at roughly 3X capacity (based on spectral efficiency improvements of OFDM-MIMO) and one-third of the price (based on system simplification) – would likely result in the cost of connectivity dropping by an order of magnitude.

I also speculated that if the cheapest cellular plans then available — which were just under $10 a month — were to emerge as the price point for connecting something to the new mobile Internet, then the cost of connectivity might actually end up being buried in the cost of a content subscription. If you consider that Netflix has just started charging $8.99 for unlimited downloads and Napster charges less than $15 for unlimited monthly music use, then it’s quite feasible to consider that a device that is purchased outright for a few hundred dollars could possibly charge $19.99 a month for unlimited always-on music access — or other content — in the 4G world.

But again, it was all speculation — that is, until Amazon released the Kindle e-book system. This device, which costs $399 to buy, also requires a monthly charge of $1 to $2 for ongoing content such as blogs and about $10 for content such as books, but there is no discrete bill or subscription for the 3.5G network access provided via Sprint’s network. You are essentially a cellular subscriber without any direct relationship with the operator. Is this the new paradigm? Are there other specialized devices coming? And to what degree will this trend accelerate as the first WiMAX and LTE networks come online now, and over the next few years?

Considering the list of devices and economic models that could be suitable for this model of burying the cost of connectivity within the cost of services, content or device, quite a few areas are ripe for this paradigm. Consider the following list:

  • Gaming Systems: Systems like the NintendoDS and Sony PSP already have Wi-Fi connectivity but they can also interact on a broader scale via network-based services that can command a monthly fee. Instead of only interacting for gaming with close proximity players, would a global community of gamers be of value in that connected interaction? Imagine taking a lightweight device with you to play World of Warcraft in a bus or on a subway. Since the MMORPGs are becoming as much about social networking as gaming, this might actually be something a few of the 10 million players would desire, and since they are already paying $15 a month, a few more dollars and the cost of a specialized device wouldn’t be that big of a stretch.
  • Music Players: As I write this, I am sitting on a plane with my MP3 player and, as such, am limited to what it holds; to update it I need to connect via my PC. The iPod touch (a nice MP3 player but with, at 16 gigs, insufficient capacity for my taste) has a Wi-Fi interface and can access iTunes via a hotspot. But in order to access connectivity and update content, I need to be at a hotspot and deliberately interact with the device. Better would be automatic access to the universe of existing and new music without even having to realize that a network is involved. An iPod with a CDMA interface like a Kindle, or a WiMAX or LTE interface, is by no means beyond the realm of technical possibility.
  • Media Players: Music is interesting, but the killer app for mobile multimedia entertainment is the device that has a significant screen, massive libraries of video and a long-enough battery life to watch more than one movie. All the parts exist today — they just haven’t yet come together. Mobile DVD players with screen sizes of up to 11 inches are widely available. And these devices have significant battery life (which is impressive given that they have motors spinning DVDs and operating lasers). As for content, the new all-you-can-eat subscriptions of Netflix and others have set a price for Internet-based multimedia. Finally, the connectivity exists via CDMA or UMTS 3G networks (à la Kindle) or WiMAX and LTE (much more suitable for video). If you combined these elements, what would you have? A mobile device that approximates the physical experience of TV, with access to tens of thousands of titles, and almost infinite content for, maybe, $20 per month.

What else could be in this class? An always-on, interactive automotive entertainment system? A patient monitoring system that allows cardiac patients (and their implanted heart monitors) to be in constant touch with their doctors? A home baby monitor that operates at unlimited range of the Internet?

The list is pretty broad. The reason is that the building blocks of these systems are now available and are only getting more real as we move towards 4G. All we need is connectivity, interface, and content that fit together in a system with an economic model that consumers can tolerate.

Any other ideas about what else could use these building blocks to revolutionize the hyperconnected world?