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Wireless Networks a Work In Progress

Reporter's Notebook: LOS ANGELES – Wireless networks are booming, according to the Wireless Association trade group.

On the second day of the CTIA Wireless & Entertainment conference here, the Wireless Association said data service revenues for the first half of 2006 were $6.5 billion, a 70 percent increase over the first half of 2005.

Overall, the trade group said wireless revenue in the first half of this year will approach $60.5 billion. Furthermore, the Wireless Association's research found that wireless customers burned up more than 850 billion minutes in the first half of 2006, up 27 percent over the first half of 2005.

Wireless data revenue now accounts for almost 11 percent of all wireless service revenues and continues to grow as a percentage of the wireless market.

The main method of communication is text messages. Wireless carriers delivered more than 12.5 billion text messages in June 2006, a 72 percent increase over the 7.3 billion messages for June 2005.

Texting is far and away the most popular data use for cell phones. During the keynotes here at the CTIA show, the audience was asked to text their messages to the moderator, rather than engage in the time-honored tradition of queuing up at a microphone to ask questions at the end of the talk.

What? Isn't half the fun showing off how clever and well-informed you are at the microphone with your questions? Oh well.

Other news from CTIA: Online retailer LetsTalk did a survey of teens, a major consumer of wireless services, and found that 49 percent considered texting to be the most important feature of their cell phone.

Next was the camera, with 25 percent saying it was most important. Music playback was a mere five percent and video playback scored only two percent.

That should come as no surprise as most of the phones don't support video. As detailed in Monday's Smart Phone Summit, phones with that capability are expensive and not widely available in the U.S.

Only about 11 percent of mobile phones in the U.S. can support video, and only one percent of mobile phone subscribers pay for video service, according to a survey by JupiterKagan.

If there's a take-away from CTIA, it's that the mobile market has no standards for much of anything it does or offers. We have three different networks, GSM , CMDA   and IDEM.

There's five different operating systems for smart phones – Symbian OS, Linux, Microsoft Mobile, Palm and RIM – and every phone maker has a different UI. There's nothing even close to a uniform method of security.

Verizon Wireless figured this out with its VCAST system for streaming music and video. All of the phone makers had different interfaces, making it difficult to roll out the system.

During the second day's keynote, which dwelt on entertainment, Lowell McAdam, executive VP and COO of Verizon Wireless talked about having to put his foot down with the phone makers.

"We think the number one obstacle to customers adopting mobile phones is the different interfaces. There's not enough memory on a phone after the operating system to support multiple interfaces," he said. VCAST was finally able to get traction after Verizon forced the vendors to standardize on one interface.

And if the sparsely-attended Securing the Mobile Device: An Industry Perspective session is any indication, there doesn't seem to be a lot of interest in addressing mobile security concerns.

For starters, as Jon Green, senior product manager for security solutions at Aruba Networks pointed out, "IT people have far too much to cover as it is. It is being pressured in this area but they have no training on how to deal with it."

This is causing a problem because more than a few employees simply buy their own wireless device and use it at work, often times using work data. This is problematic on numerous fronts, starting with bad guys sniffing the network. Most wireless devices have no encryption or security, and if the device is lost or stolen, the data is as good as gone.

The solution, he said is really tight centralized control and management of wireless devices.

"It isn't easy on the users, but it's a way of saying if the info on the device is something I have to control, then I have to controls the device," said Green.

This echoed the earlier keynote, in which moderator Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal pressed McAdam about why Verizon's wireless system is so tightly locked down and only companies that set up some sort of commercial arrangement are allowed in.

McAdam cracked "it's called capitalism." But he added that if people downloaded a third-party application or accessed an outside service, and it didn't work or there was a problem, Verizon would get the complaint, not the third-party.

Can You IM Me Now?

Perhaps most telling about the state of wireless? The wireless Internet connection in the Los Angeles Convention Center was spotty at best. The show was confined to the west hall and if you went too far, there was no connectivity to be had. Reporters in the press room were all grumbling about the constant outages.

Yet when this reporter left and checked into a Best Western to call it a night, the wireless Internet came up immediately, strong, and clear, and never went out. Most likely the culprit at the show was a combination of the cavernous LACC and all the people using it.

Still, it reflects that wireless networking has some serious scaling issues to address.