According to a report from Ofcom, the UK telecoms regulator, two million people say they have used mobile broadband via a dongle or similar device and three-quarters of them say they use it at home as well as on the move.
And yet, an analyst has pointed out that, far from being a success for the network operators, this is actually a failure on their part. That's because it yet again gives the lie to the notion that network operators somehow have a Gods-given right to be "more than a bit-pipe".
That idea has been pretty thoroughly discredited on the wired side. Sure, operators can compete on the quality of their bit-pipe by adding file caches, prioritisation and the like, but it's still a pipe.
According to Hugh Roberts, senior strategist at Patni Telecoms Consulting, 3G dongles suggest that the mobile operators are going down the same path. However, he seems to think that this could have been avoided if they had somehow done things differently.
"It's really a vote of no confidence in the mobile industry - the operators aren't doing their jobs," he says, asking: "Where's the value-add to enable premium ancillary services for the mobile networks?"
He continues, "It reflects the fact that customers understand and trust their PC environment, and also its 'standards' and ease of use. They don't trust the mobile handset and its awkwardness of use - with the possible exception of the iPhone."
Well, that's it, isn't it? Much of what we want to do online works far better on a proper screen - sure, you can Google or send email on a phone, but it's easier and quicker on a laptop.
But this notion that somehow it could have worked out differently had the operators only 'done a better job' ignores a bunch of key factors. They range from the short-sightedness of the people who run the networks, which ensures that "premium ancillary services" will remain a myth, to competition, which made it inevitable that sooner or later an operator would try to gain advantage by breaking ranks to offer a data-only service.
So are dongles a "vote of no confidence"? I don't think they are. For sure, they're another nail in the coffin of the "more than just a bit-pipe" notion - if any more nails were needed. And they suggest once again that the operators are pretty clueless when it comes to anything more strategic than "pile it high and sell it cheap".
But they're a strong vote of confidence in mobility and the network infrastructures. And anyway, who's truly "the mobile industry" - the pointy-haired bosses at the top, or the inventors, engineers and technicians who actually actually make it all happen?
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