October 12, 2010, 4:07 PM

Unsung mobile networks seek their place in the spotlight

Wireless carriers are changing the retail environment with big investments.

Lead Photo

Charles S. Golvin, Forrester Research, talked Monday about the key role of mobile operators in m-commerce.

Apple, Android and FourSquare get the buzz, but it’s the mobile network operators that make mobile commerce possible. And the four big U.S. wireless carriers—Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile—are making big investments as they seek to generate new revenue streams, potentially changing the environment in which retailers and other consumer-facing businesses operate.

“Mobile operators are a key player,” Charles S. Golvin, principal analyst for mobile telecommunications at Forrester Research Inc., said today at the Mobile Commerce Forum 2010 conference. “They have a lot of control and power and influence, so we need to understand their priorities and objectives.”

Just three of those operators have invested $15 billion in the last 18 months, in large part to add capacity and to build higher-speed, so-called 4G networks, Golvin said in a session entitled “Making sense of the mobile networks.”

As they add capacity and ramp up network speed, the operators are seeking partners that can help drive traffic to their networks, and differentiate their offerings. For instance, some operators have made deals to create their own sections of popular app stores where they offer apps from partner companies.

The operators will also provide part of the infrastructure for new technologies that will change the consumer experience, said Jacob Sharony, principal analyst at Mobius Consulting, who spoke on the panel with Golvin.

He gave the example of a bus driving down Madison Avenue in Manhattan. At 57th Street, a consumer will one day be able to point her phone at an electronic display on the side of the bus showing nearby restaurants, view menus on her phone, receive offers and make a reservation. By the time the bus reaches 72nd Street, Sharony added, the display will be presenting offers from different restaurants.

“We will interact with the environment as we’ve never seen before,” Sharony said.

A variety of wireless technologies will be required to make such futuristic scenarios a reality, he said. Besides the cellular networks that are moving from 3G to 4G speeds, he said there will also be improvements in shorter-range networks, such as Wi-Fi, which provides connectivity within 100 feet of a base station, to shorter-range technologies such as NFC that enable phones to interact with objects—such as posters and payment terminals—from just a few feet away.

There will also be new forms of bar codes, such as QR codes, that will communicate with consumers’ phones, providing Internet-based information and offers. “On almost everything you’re going to see,” Sharony said, “there will be some label or code that consumers will be able to communicate with.”

 

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