Since 1991 the author has brought new technology into mainstream use in large organizations. The last 6 years for a major service provider. This column is the first in a series intended to address the many new ways mobile phones are impacting our daily lives.
Look closely and you’ll see a dish antenna on the roof of roadside markets. The Redbox out front has a built-in mobile data connection. Of course the water and electric meters are all going online, they already have in the Baltimore/DC region.
So much more is happening that many people are unaware of. The security camera in your favorite restaurant wirelessly sends video through an Internet connection so the owner can watch over employees simply by using an app on her phone. That little box the package delivery person carries is far more advanced than you realize. In developed areas WiFi routers are now being mounted in-between the cell towers to allow a more consistent mobile data experience.
Applications like Jott, Skype, FaceTime and iMessage are threatening the business models of Vodafone, AT&T, Orange, and all other carriers. Jott, in particular, is most concerning because it allows users to send and receive text messages, without a mobile phone account, or even a WiFi connection. It uses a technology called “mesh networking” to literally bounce the messages through nearby phones running the same application.
Jott creates and uses these mesh networks when enough application users are within range of each other. These applications directly send texts using Bluetooth or wireless signals alone. They allow messages to travel from someone’s iPad to someone’s Android phone, even if getting there requires hopping across several other devices. The amount of data and processing required for a text message is so small that the other functions going on in each phone are not impacted in the least.
Think about how teenagers get together in school or at the mall. If you want to text a friend nearby why not use a wireless signal that skips the cell phone towers? It’s really basic technology applied over small areas. This is not that much different than the walkie-talkies popular decades ago. Except for one very important detail; mobile network operators make money from text messages.
Granted, text messaging as a source of revenue has been declining for years, Apple’s iMessage is not really a new application. But at least applications like iMessage used mobile data, another precious commodity sold to us through our monthly phone bills or pre-paid cards. When you are at home or at your workplace, WiFi probably carries those iMessages, but someone still pays for the cable or other Internet connection too.
My friend’s daughter explained Jott to me in this way:
“When both of us are using the Jott app, I can text my friend on the other side of the classroom. My message might move through our friend Lucinda’s phone, she uses the Jott app too. Lucinda would not even have known that happened, and she cannot read the message anyway, her phone just acted as a path for our message. Lucinda’s texts to Alice, who sits behind me, probably crawl through my phone too!”
Some of you are thinking of a whole host of issues here. Teenagers have learned the hard way that texting costs money, or does it? With businesses and governments tracking so much of our on-line activity it feels good to communicate “off-network.” Teens aren’t exchanging anything mission-critical, like quiz answers, just chatting about a movie they both saw last weekend. At least we hope so and texting during an exam would quickly get you in trouble anyway.
Of course cheats and criminals can use Jott or any existing communication method for their nefarious activities but this has always been possible. What has not been common is the use of a mesh network by teenagers in school yards. Or dissidents living under some repressive regime.
Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have already contributed to the overthrow of governments in the Middle East. Despots will find mesh networking quite unnerving once activists learn to get together and share information using Jott.
This is also the start of a revolution in communication that will continue to erode the profits of the major carriers. Add mesh networks to downward pressures on pricing, the cost of subsidizing handsets, and the higher costs to build and maintain networks and the total starts to look troubling.
Some at Ma Bell may shrug off applications like Jott for now. Just like they did with Skype. So people are using mesh networks in addition to the Internet and mobile networks for their texting, so what? Skype and FaceTime already make a serious dent in the profits telcos glean from international dialing. But many mobile networks already run at or near capacity during the peak hours of the business day. During disasters mobile phone towers are quickly overloaded. Jott may turn out to be a lifesaver in those situations.
Think about it, Jott and Airdrop don’t really require a central server, they are simply ad hoc solutions. This is where the threat to phone company profits begins to materialize. What happens when a voice calling app that uses mesh networking hits the market? You can be certain it will.