Cellular data services ramp up

With carriers struggling to maintain profit margins, could an Oracle phone be in your future?

If you’re susceptible to advertising sales pitches, you’d best -- like Ulysses’ crew -- plug up your ears. Otherwise, you will soon hear the siren call from the cell phone carriers pitching their newest data services.

Until now, carrier advertising in the United States has been all about voice. Cingular raises the bar, and Verizon asks, “Can you hear me now?” But all of that is about to change. Reason being, unlike most of Europe and Japan, the American cellular voice market is at about only 75 percent saturation. Revenues from data services, so far at least, are not much more than rounding errors on the financial statements of the carriers, according to David Hayden, principal at MobileWeek. But as saturation nears, the only way to increase profitability and halt the steadily declining ARPU (average revenue per unit) is through new data services.

In fact, last week the first foray into serious advertising for data services began with a Verizon ad that showed some poor guy trying to get work done using a hotspot in an overcrowded coffee shop. On the heels of such ads are some unique offerings that may just persuade you or your company to sign up, in spite of the annoying blitz of advertising. How about specialized cell phones, customized out of the box for each enterprise customer, including access to corporate applications?

For example, if your company data is neatly nestled inside an Oracle 10g database, Symbian offers a plug-in to 10g that will allow the carriers, working with the handset manufacturers and ISVs, to offer handsets with applications built on top of the database. Symbian is also ramping up connectivity to all of IBM’s WebSphere middleware, another gateway to enterprise applications.

Deals with major ERP and CRM providers are also in the works, according to Jerry Panagrossi, Symbian’s vice president of U.S. operations, as are RFID readers and fingerprint biometrics for Symbian phones.

Despite the claims of Wi-Fi hotspot providers that Wi-Fi is an inexpensive way to increase worker productivity at about $30 per month, the data cell phone and its cousin, the cellular data card in a notebook, may be the better way to go. Sure, a subscription to a cellular data service using a wide-area card in your portable device is three times more expensive than a hotspot subscription. But what company with a large sales force wouldn’t be willing to pay $90 per month for access to the network from customer sites if it let them close more deals?

I would be remiss not to mention one cool consumer-side use of data over cell phone networks. A company called Sling Media is creating a streaming video product that will allow users to watch their own televisions on their cell phones. The idea is that you can tune in to your digital TV via its own IP address and watch programming on your own TiVo from wherever you are.

What you will see, as we become an increasingly more mobile business and consumer community, is information that was previously only accessible within the confines of the corporate campus or home PC now available through cell phones. Don’t be surprised if, within 10 years, what we call the cell phone will become the only device we’ll use. It will be a phone, a wireless terminal, and even our desktop once it’s plugged in to a docking station at home or in the office.