Pay Me Now or Pay Me Later

Prepaid mobile services have been around for quite some time in many countries worldwide. This financial model offers cellphone services for those that either cannot or choose to not opt for postpaid plans. Pay-as-you-go of sorts. This was the first plan my kids got on cellphones and as their financial ability, but at least as important, their usage increased, they then migrated to postpaid plans with the appropriate size buckets of voice minutes and SMS texts (for my daughter, UNLIMITED!).

As long as the plan had the right balance of bucket size and payment size (a perceivably good price-performance on what you get), then prepaid remains an attractive option for many of us. Usually the biggest advantages are the lack of contracts or commitment periods associated with postpaid, although some wireless operators (usually MVNOs like Virgin Mobile and Cricket Wireless) offer postpaid plans without contracts or commitments.

The first basic question that prepaid users ask is, “do I use the service enough to justify a postpaid plan?”

  • Will they talk or receive calls on the cellphones to go for a higher minute plan?
  • Will they need some more advanced features that only postpaid plans offer, such as 3G data?
  • Or do they need to have just enough connectivity with a mobile device without taxing their monthly budget?

There is another large group of devices that have been coming online that are asking the same question. The mobile compute platforms such as laptops and netbooks (or the cleverly named smartbooks such as HP and Qualcomm’s recent announcement) are increasingly being connected to mobile networks in addition to WiFi.

There is a recent flurry of noise from the mobile operators on prepaid mobile broadband plans with megabyte and gigabyte buckets available for as little as $10 for 100 MB, in the case of Virgin Mobile USA. But the larger operators such as AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless will offer prepaid mobile broadband to complement their postpaid options. I think prepaid as an economic model is ABSOLUTELY made for:

  1. connected platforms now such as laptops (to avoid the “everything they can eat, and they will” problem operators encounter with data hogs)
  2. emerging connected devices later such as cars, gaming platforms, eBook readers (bundled today in the Kindle but I predict this will change)
  3. many other multimedia and entertainment devices…can you say iSlate?

Recently Tariff Consultancy published a report stating that:

“Pre Pay Mobile Broadband will become the norm for the majority of users to access the Internet worldwide, with a third of a Billion users by the end of 2013″

The notion of “becoming the norm” is the operative phrase here. Similar to how cellphones have become the norm for communications and ultimately having resulted in cannibalizing fixed line services, is it feasible to think that mobile broadband will cannibalize fixed line Internet access? At a minimum, it will be complementary in that high use devices such as media servers, Hulu, Playstation Online, torrent servers, or groups of PCs and Macs will demand more than what the mobile network (or even local femtocells) would be capable of providing. But in either developing countries or smaller connected households, the advent of $10 or $20 (or even less in some countries) to last a month or two for web and email connectivity is more than sufficient to serve their needs.


Open Mobile Platforms and Security

There will be an interesting intersection between open mobile platforms and network/information security looming in the not-too-distant horizon. In particular, security engineers and architects, threat analysts, or general enthusiasts for network and information security have a lot on their plates today on the vulnerability of compute endpoint devices and their subsequent infection with malware that have the potential of creating huge botnets fueling the “snowball effect” of malware propagation and disruption to networks.

Now with the advent of mobile platforms and last years craze on “who’s more open then who” in terms of the mobile OS platforms, this starts to illustrate the next major inflection point of potential for vulnerable endpoints, their sheer magnitude, and botnets like the Internet has never seen. Let’s look at the numbers. Gartner, IDC and other analysts have forecasted on the order of 100-120 Million new PCs to be sold in 2009. This is mostly laptops with a growing number of netbooks sprinkled in there. ALL of the laptops and netbooks will be equipped with WiFi, likely Bluetooth, and an increasing percentage of 3G mobile broadband. OK, so that is certainly a decent target addressable market (TAM) to go off and provide a security solution for any technology vendor.

But the REAL numbers are in the forecasts for mobile devices…on the order of 1.3-1.4 Billion new devices sold just in 2009! So PCs are just a rounding error when you compare that with new cellular mobile devices. And forecasts for smartphones vary greatly, anywhere from 15-20% in 2009 with a trend towards 25-30% by 2012. These smartphones are small compute devices generally with open OS’s, multinetwork connectivity (3G, 2G, WiFi, Bluetooth), and are Always Connected.

We are increasingly using our mobile handsets for what previously was done only on a laptop or PC. We check and write emails, update our Facebook, visit numerous other social networking sites, perform searches for all sorts of things from restaurants to doing research, take pictures and post them to some of the same social networking sites, read RSS or blogs, download files to do what I refer to as “mobile snacking” of the content (scan through a document or Powerpoint pitch for a quick read). Would a security architect or analyst agree that every single one of these actions on a PC would be considered at threatening, hence the need for malware, content, connectivity protection? You bet! And yet these handheld devices and the networks they connect to have generally ZERO protection from the threats!!

So how interesting would a botnet size of rather than 1, 5, or 10 Million endpoints but 10, 50, or 100 Million endpoints be to a malicious code writer or some aggressive government elsewhere in the world looking to put another chink in the economic armor of the US? I don’t know…you do the math.

Mobile Exabytes…that’s a LOT of zeros

According to an article on GigaOm, by 2012 mobile will generate up to an exabyte of traffic per month! Just to illustrate, this is an exabyte: 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. The prediction is part of Cisco’s Visual Networking Index which offers up many dimensions of how the Internet will grow and what will drive that growth.

This is all fine and dandy, but Om also makes the same observation that I’ve written about several times as the biggest barrier to the emerging Exabyte Age…the carrier business model and economics. The carriers have yet to make a quantum leap in how they charge for mobile data and are still generally hovering at hard limits for monthly usage on mobile data plans, Cricket Wireless Unlimited 3G Broadband notwithstanding. The tier-1 carriers in North America (ATT, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, Sprint) can’t seem to figure out the attractiveness of family plans for mobile broadband. They don’t seem to be doing the price elasticity analyses on how they will get more subscribers with more of an appetite to consume new services and value-add applications (see ANY iPhone Appstore article) thereby creating an additive effect for ARPU which would probably yield more positive results than they’re seeing today. In fact, it’s ALL about the services and apps to drive adoption from the Average Joe mobile subscriber who, even in a down and miserable economy, still seems to prioritize his mobile services above other everyday conveniences, like his morning latte at Starbucks (sorry, Starbucks).

When will the operators wake up and smell the coffee (to extend the frivolous pun already constructed)? Maybe it’s just a matter of time. Such as when 4G gets deployed offering better price/performance/bit economics for the operators. But are they really that concerned with the load on their 3G networks? Is this reality or a smokescreen?