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Will Enterprise Open Source Scale the Walled Gardens of the Cellular Network Providers?

They're like drug dealers. They get you hooked then make you pay

I recently wrapped up an 18-month stint on the business subcomittee of the Wireless Washtenaw Initiaitive, a project to bring wireless broadband to the citizens of Washtenaw County, Michigan. It's part of a growing movement by local government to help citizens participate in today's high-speed data networks.

One of the many concepts that came up during the many committee meetings was that of the walled garden. Walled gardens are a common way for a network provider to make some goodies available over its network and then get customers to pay up if they want more open access. Cell phone providers are classic walled gardens...to the point they take services like YouTube and make it unfree, unopen, censored, limited, and community-less. This GigaOM article has more details: http://gigaom.com/2006/11/28/walled-garden-youtube/. For Verizon's business model to work with YouTube content, it has to treat it like a drug, get you hooked then make you pay for the part of the service outside the walled garden. Classic.

Lately, I've been researching the feasibility of running Linux on any of the several excellent smartphone platforms out there. There's the long running Treos 650/680/700 that have a lot of units in service and surprisingly consistent internal technology with which to focus an open OS development team on. Developer interest in the platform seems to be growing (link to shadowmite and hack'n dev).

Samsung is also out with what looks like a superb platform and it's hitting the U.S. market now, the SPH-600. The U.S. version is the BlackJack from Cingular and it's safe to assume other carriers will be picking it up soon. The phone comes with quad band radio and offers Wi-Fi - although the initial U.S. intro drops Wi-Fi - perhaps Cingular doesn't want you making voice calls over Wi-Fi.

For the cell phone companies, the ultimate walled garden is voice. You pay for access to the voice network and for your money you get to make calls to certain kinds of phone numbers for a certain number of minutes. What if suddenly you could place a high- or higher-quality call from the same device over Wi-Fi? What if the call was free or a fraction of the cost of your cellular call? What if you could make and take calls anywhere in the world with Wi-Fi? Sounds like a good deal for most of us because I, like many, am in Wi-Fi coverage most of the day as part of work.

Going to a completely open platform like Linux on a Blackjack just to get VoIP-over-Wi-Fi seems like a long way to go but there are a range of other features that come to the fore if you have open phone platforms in an environment that also has PCs running an open OS, open PBXs (Asterisk), and a combination of open and closed wireless networks.

To me, some of the big hitters here are the ability to integrate my voice service across networks. I want my phone to choose the best-quality or lowest-cost network available. That means a phone that may have sophisticated network quality detection (latency, packet drops, bandwidth) and makes a smart choice among available networks. Just that requirement probably means a Wi-Fi-enabled BlackJack not running Windows Mobile. Why? Because such a platform requires low-level integration with the phone network choice. It means that the phone dialer software is no longer connected directly to the phone cellular radio. Between the dialer and the radio is a software layer that's testing and selecting the voice network automatically (and with manual override). Voice on this phone is not a simple matter from the network selection aspect.

The other big hitter here is the network side of things. How is your incoming call going to be routed? Just to make it real, let's assume you use a Skype-in or Vonage number as your main number. Neither Skype nor Vonage are open but the point of this example is just to establish that your incoming calls initiate on an IP network of some sort. When the call is incoming it has to be routed to your device via one of several methods - traditional cellular, Skype-over-Wi-Fi, Skype over cellular Internet, or open VoIP-over-Wi-Fi. How is the routing of that call to your phone going to happen? The network doesn't know which network is currently best for you unless your phone can somehow tell it.

And there you have it. Your phone has to be the device that tells some other device on the network what routes to the phone work and how well they work. This means the phone is going to connect through one of its available networks to an Internet server and send some data to that server to tell that server its options for routing the call.

Where is this server going to sit and what's going to run in terms of software? It's probably going to be an industry standard server sitting at a high-quality ISP running a custom version of Asterisk. That's the best way to support the lowest-cost, highest-quality option you have, which is open VoIP-over-Wi-Fi, and the best way to support the remote status and configuration that your phone is going to need to signal the server. All the other options such as Skype and traditional cellular voice will be options within this infrastructure.

All of this is a leap in level of service and an order of magnitude drop in cost. Are the cellular providers going to like it? No. Can they stop it? Yes. They can lock their phones from being taken over by the open source community. Will they succeed? I don't know but the question is "what doesn't run Linux these days?"

Besides the advantages of voice alone, just think what an open PC like a laptop running Ubuntu working in unison with a smartphone running Linux can do. You could sync up your contacts over Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or wired Ethernet via a cron job that runs in the background. How nice is that? You can download your call history and dispute any bill discrepancies. Want to set up a DUN connection and access the Internet through your phone's cellular network via Bluetooth when on the road and out of Wi-Fi coverage? Simple, it's an icon on your desktop and it configures your phone automatically. No need to manually twist knobs on the phone's preferences then do some knob twisting on the PC to select a network then wait for it all to come together. It can just work.

Trust me on this...the amount of integration that can happen between phone and PC and between phone and Internet hasn't begun to be scratched. And it won't until we open up the phones and take a swing at the wall surrounding the cellular networks' garden.

More Stories By Paul Nowak

Paul Nowak first used Linux in 1995 while migrating from Sun to Linux at the University of Michigan. He used Linux in subsequent IT projects including web, telecom, telemetry and embedded projects and is currently CIO of a small professional association based in Washington D.C.

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