Uncommon Wisdom

Nov 18 2010   3:20PM GMT

AT&T, Verizon mobile broadband announcements miss social-change component

Tom Nolle Tom Nolle Profile: Tom Nolle

AT&T is moving to HSPA+, which is faster than 3G but slower in terms of potential than 4G.  Like T-Mobile, AT&T may advertise its move as 4G and spawn the usual market debate on what that really means and whether AT&T is being deceitful.

Truth be told, all marketing these days is deceit, and our surveys show clearly that people don’t understand what xG means anyway.  This reinforces a point the FCC’s broadband inquiries have made: We need some objective way to measure broadband and compare offerings. Verizon’s early comments on 4G services suggest it would launch at a lower speed than AT&T’s HSPA+ (now the rumor is that Verizon will up its 4G speed before launch), and that would mean that “old” wireless could be faster than “the latest.”

Whatever the name we give to higher-speed wireless broadband, it’s clear that it’s going to change how we use broadband services. I’ve been analyzing how people’s behavior and their communications tools interact, and it’s a kind of feedback process rather than a simple linear progression. Tools have always guided human processes. You don’t connect boards the same way once the hammer and nails have been invented. But human processes drive the development of tools because their adoption can’t be too much of a behavioral leap of faith. The big opportunity for the network of the future is the exploitation of this feedback process, the development of an ecosystem that can support the evolution of social behavior and ubiquitous broadband as they feed on each other to establish a new norm.

That’s what’s missing, in my view, in the announcements by vendors in the space—in this week and in weeks past.  Collaboration or wireless or content or 4G or any other technology or approach is relevant not for what it can do at this instant, or what it might be able to do in some indefinite future, but in how it navigates the path between those points.

Facebooks’ Zuckerberg, who I don’t think is possessed by any dazzling set of insights in most of his interviews, did say recently that Facebook’s value was to build businesses around the social graph, the chart that maps behavioral links. I think he’s half right. Business practices and social behavior will transform our tools and be transformed in return.  If Facebook could be the incubator for the evolution, it has a great future.  But it’s hard for things to make money in the present and prepare for the future because the people in the company are always blinded by the next paycheck or quarterly report.

The world has a lot of potholes to fall into, and if you never take your eyes off your feet, it’s going to be hard to avoid them as you move into the future.

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