Wireless Walls

Back to Contents of Issue: October 2000

by Daniel Scuka

ENJOYING STRONG mobile terminal sales and growing service revenues, wireless network operators here are happy pushing their Internet-ready cell phones based on customers' expectations of being able to access the Net, surf the Web, and send email. And the purchasers seem delighted with their shiny new pocket rockets, weighing no more than a few dozen grams and providing full-color display of the coolest new sites.

Curiously, very little mention of "the Internet" is made in any of the operators' marketing campaigns, and for good reason. Despite what mobile surfers here may think, they aren't exactly surfing the Internet per se -- at least, not as in the commonly understood experience of logging on to the Net by dialup modem to an ISP and then freely browsing HTML-formatted sites using software like Internet Explorer. Instead, surfers are being provided access to highly select offerings from the network operators' proprietary content and service partner sites, and although some surfers can gain access to the Internet (notably NTT DoCoMo's i-mode users), there remain significant technical and other barriers to accessing the larger Internet via keitai (mobile phone).

This situation is known as the walled garden syndrome, and critics charge that the growth of semi-walled-off mobile networks raises issues of (global) network fragmentation and efficiency, and, more seriously, affects the individual surfer's free access to information, a cornerstone of the Net's transformative effect on business and culture.

The situation is not unique to Japan. A draft report from the spring meeting of the IETF's Internet Architecture Board (IAB) Wireless Networking Workshop recognizes the growing importance of wireless technology worldwide, but states that, "wireless operators have not, however, chosen to use IPv4, TCP, full HTTP/HTML, and other applications for a variety of reasons. [This] will be a serious impediment to the usability of the combined Internet if not addressed."

The report explains that wireless networks, especially WAP (Wireless Application Protocol)-based networks, have been created under protocols and specifications that vary considerably from those usually assumed by the Internet community. Mobile network operators typically maintain complete (or as great as possible) control over the entire service profile, including the mobile terminals used to access the network, transmission facilities, and offerings of service and content.

While this may have positive implications for security, it does allow the network operator to gate most content on offer. "This service model appears to have been inherited from the classic telephony provider model," states the IAB report, adding that, "The term 'walled garden' was coined to describe the resulting captive customer economic and service model [wherein] the user is constrained within the limits of the service provided by the carrier with limited ability to extend features or access services outside the provider."

The walled garden service model lies in stark contrast to the open service assumed on the Internet at large. There, the access devices (PCs and other hardware from a multitude of makers) and the services and content (from a multitude of Web site operators) are independently controlled, and the Internet service provider is typically viewed as little more than a "bit pipe." Since content really is king, mobile network operators are legitimately worried about being reduced to low-margin commodity-based access providers, much as wired Net ISPs have been.

How high are the walls in Japan? On an i-mode phone, for example, users access a start page menu of preferred content and service partners carefully vetted by NTT DoCoMo. Banking transactions are transmitted over a leased line between DoCoMo's gateway servers and the bank, so sensitive data doesn't flow onto the Net at large. Likewise, DoCoMo collects fees on behalf of proprietary content and service providers, so payment, authorization, and accounting are all centrally managed. There is no way to change gateways with i-mode handsets, nor the default start page, and one industry insider here asserts: "i-mode is nothing more than paid access into a proprietary intranet operated by NTT DoCoMo."

On a cdmaOne phone equipped with a WAP-compatible microbrowser, users of IDO/DDI's EZWeb/EZAccess services can access any WAP-enabled site in the world. But since such sites are encoded using WML (Wireless Markup Language), which is incompatible with HTML, EZ surfers don't get to see existing Web sites. Designing for WAP incurs a not insignificant learning curve, so there are significant barriers to new sites going up. Also, in Japan, all WAP phones are preconfigured and there is no way to change default server configuration.

In short, it appears that in Japan the network operators are the supreme gatekeepers controlling who gets in to their wireless gardens, zen-like in their simplicity of revenue model and content control. And although both WAP and i-mode are subject to some technical constraints (especially related to their radio networks, proxy servers, and billing support) that may encourage walled garden behavior, similar walled garden triggers exist on the fixed Internet as well (e.g. shortage of domain names), but operators have overcome these. "Technology does not force WAP or i-mode operators to walled or non-walled behavior," says Heikki Hammainen, VP of network systems at Nokia. "Operators have a choice."

One reason for the success of NTT DoCoMo may be the fact that the i-mode walled garden is not entirely sealed off. Despite the content control and traffic gating exercised by DoCoMo, i-mode users can access non-preferred sites because the phones' browsers use compact HTML, a subset of the HTML used to code regular Web sites, and DoCoMo purposely allows traffic to and from the Internet at large to flow to i-mode users (sites must be properly designed and formatted for the small screen, of course). Some operators realize that offering prospective users as much content as possible makes their services more popular, while allowing them to charge a premium for the preferred sites that provide users quick and efficient services via menu drill-down. "Almost 50 percent of the traffic on i-mode now goes to non-preferred sites," says Andrea Hoffmann, a mobile developer at WestCyber. "One major reason why i-mode is so successful is because DoCoMo allows access to any i-mode compatible content on the Net at large, and anyone can provide that kind of content."

Ultimately, mobile network operators and protocol composers alike will realize that it's in everyone's interests to offer as much content as possible to as many surfers who wish to access it. The IAB report strongly recommends early adoption of the IPv6 umbrella of protocols, which will offer, among other benefits, a much larger addressing space, allowing wireless operators to provide individual Internet addresses to mobile devices on their networks -- something that can't be done now since there aren't enough addresses available under the current IPv4 protocol (see the item below).

"There will be a struggle, but I think the Internet and its netizens will still prevail," says Paul Saffo, director at the Menlo Park, California-based Institute for the Future. He explains that i-mode is a special case -- it managed to take off only because Internet diffusion was pathetically low to begin with. "i-mode is thus stepping into a vacuum in Japan," he says. Nokia's Hammainen seems to agree, adding: "A very likely scenario is that the walled garden [approach] is useful in the beginning to get the market to fly, but gradually the mobile Internet will become more diversified in the same way as the fixed Internet."

In other words, although mobile network operators might wish to control the platform, and all the content that goes into it, competition and customer demand for open access will eventually prevail. Explains Saffo: "The Internet was designed to survive nuclear attack, and over the years has withstood multiple attempts by bureaucrats and monopolists to co-opt it. Moreover, we have several competing wireless networks. In this environment, in the long run, openness always wins. To be open is to live, to be closed is to die."


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