Wireless carriers to Google and Facebook: Get off our cloud

BARCELONA—Large mobile phone companies have a big problem, and they’re griping about it loudly here at Mobile World Congress.

Text messaging isn't a big moneymaker for most mobile service companies.

They make a lot of money selling us wireless internet access for our phones and tablets, but they are also upset that many of us take advantage of free or cheap services, like voice or text, that run over the phone company network yet yield little coin for the mobile company.

The cellular operators call these "over-the-top" apps, and they say it with a sneer. According to figures released by Ovum, operators will lose $54 billion by 2016 due to smartphone messaging apps, perhaps the most popular class of over-the-top apps.

The phone company wants to be able to sell those services, and many others, from its own cloud. Your mobile provider wants to be able to do things like sell and deliver large video files to you over its network, or set you up to play real-time multi-player games. These services could then show up on your regular monthly wireless bill.

Make phone company cloud services better

The way that mobile operators can beat "over-the-top" cloud service players like Facebook and Google is by offering cloud services that they can deliver better than the over-the-toppers.

But there’s where the problem is. Mobile operators have spent a lot of money over the past decade upgrading their networks to provide for consumers’ seemingly endless appetite for mobile broadband. But the networks they’ve built are mainly designed to deliver simple services like web browsing and email, not to guaranteed the smooth delivery of the kind of special services mentioned above.

In order to make sure that the network is pushing enough megabits per second of data down and up the pipe between the players of a multi-player game, for instance, the network has to be smart enough to know these customers might do this, and be able to open up a big pipe of data for them on demand.

In addition, the operators must be able to make sure there’s a high-volume connection to the third-party gaming company that provides the actual gaming experience.

That isn’t easy to do. It involves a lot of software magic within the network management and billing systems of the operator.

Life, death, and money

But I’m betting that mobile operators will eventually get it right. These companies see the over-the-top services as an existential threat that could, in the long run, take all the fun and profit out of being a big mobile operator.

Plus, there’s just a lot of money to be made. And when an opportunity of such magnitude presents itself, the phone companies will pull out all the stops to get some of that money.

Eventually, you may order up a unique list of wireless services—anything from gaming to movies to home security and automation to healthcare monitoring for grandma—and your mobile provider will be able to guaranteed enough broadband throughput for you to use those services anytime.

And it’s in services like that—ones that require a lot of reliable bandwidth—that the wireless carriers might find their niche. Because they own the network, they’ll be in a unique position to guarantee that those bandwidth-hungry services will work correctly.

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