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Clay on permanet, nearlynet and wireless data

Clay has written a piece on the differences between permanet – the idea of permanent, impervious connectivity – and nearlynet, the ad hoc, semi-permanent networks characterised by 802.11b. It’s well worth a read, but I think there are a couple of points that Clay is mistaken about.
First of all, the lesson of in-air phones isn’t that permanet is less powerful than nearlynet: It’s that being able to receive a call is more important than being able to make one. Like the Rabbit system in the UK, the big turn-off was that you had a phone that no one could contact you on, which significantly reduces its usefulness. The most powerful feature of a mobile phone is that people can get hold of you, not that you can call anyone at any time.
This is the key difference between airphones and Iridium, Clay’s second example of permanet. Quite correctly, Clay claims Iridium as an example of permanets, and that it failed because of the fact that people simply didn’t need phones that would work anywhere enough to pay the high prices that the huge investment costs demanded. It’s worth remembering, though, that Iridium is actually alive and well, and serving the niches that do need phone service anywhere – governments, NGOs, and the like. Those satellites haven’t gone away: the cost of putting them up there has just been written off in order to turn Iridium into a niche service.
Clay isn’t wrong about 3G, though – I have yet to see an application that would persuade me to buy a 3G phone, and I’m an ideal early adopter. But I don’t think the comparison with airphones holds water.

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  • http://www.shirky.com clay

    “It’s that being able to receive a call is more important than being able to make one.”

    This is really interesting. It has the ring of truth (ahem), but I have to think about it for a bit to know how it fits into the airphone model. If I’d written that article only for network econo-geeks, I’d have called the thing that killed both Iridium and the airphone problems of marginal displacement — what technologies exist to allow the user to displace use of expensive service A onto inexpensive service B.

    I think that describes both the airphone and Iridium, but I have to give the send/receive thing more thought.


  • chrislunch

    Ian’s right – and the permenance of the permanet will be fundamental for more than just receiving phonecalls – when mobile phones are IP-based and run IM clients, our current annoyance at being out of coverage (or of our friends being out of coverage) will only increase. IM relies upon presence, and presence requires a permanet if it’s going to be something that goes mobile.

    The thing about planes is just that we have accepted that there are a bunch of things we can’t do in planes – one of them being making a phonecall. Plane-time becomes dead time, off-network time, when we catch-up on off-network jobs. People who I work with who fly much more than me relish this time as time when they can catch up with reading, writing or whatever, uninterrupted. Hell, this use of plane-time in consumers, not business people, explains why magazines and novels sell so well in airports.

    The difference between the acceptability of perma-net and nearly-net is the difference between data usage and communications usage. We can accept that we wax in and out of data coverage, as it’s a relatively new experience. We may lose this tolerance over time, as we come to rely upon it more and more.

    Communications coverage we’ve come to expect, and we get mighty frustrated already if it aint there when we want/need it. Primarily at the moment this means voice, but as I said, once we have IM clients on our phones this will also mean some data communication as well.

    To pick up on some other things Clay got wrong:

    Phone companies are not expecting unlimited amount of data usage – most people thought Orange’s aim of 25% of ARPU from data to be high. It’s a sliver of project revenues for most people, but a sliver that increases and that eventually, with IP-based services including voice, becomes the whole.

    Comparing Iridium’s perma-net to 3G roll-outs is like comparing chalk to cheese. The aim of phone network rollouts is to eventually get as close as possible to a permanet, but not to the ridiculous extremes of Iridiums ‘man in the svelte’. There are still huge chunks of the UK, mainly in the scottish highlands, where 2G coverage is patchy, largely because it’s not economical to roll-out there.

    3G is a GSM upgrade. Eventually people will be using 3G phones, but without realising they are using 3G phones. The 3G permanet will slowly, for most operators, take over the exisiting 2G infrastructure that they’re currently maxing out via their 2G voice and 2.5G GPRS usage.

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