British Telecom could be marking a reappearance in the mobile world with its bid for a 4G license – but we’re not betting on it. Internet sources including the redoubtable Cnet.com have highlighted the possibility of a return to mobile services following the sale of what was then BT Cellnet to Telefonica in 2005 – it has been known as O2 ever since then. It is certainly in the bidding for a 4G license.
However, the best guess is that we shouldn’t expect a full-blown mobile service from BT again anytime soon. Or if we do see such a thing, it won’t be in the traditional form of a mobile phone service as we understand it at the moment.
Data will become pervasive
The fact is that BT is already indirectly serving mobile phones right now. People who are out in the field, visiting friends or whatever else they’re doing so that they’re mobile, will often start looking for WiFi hotspots as a faster alternative to their 3G connection. This will typically be a shared hotspot and performance may sometimes be variable as a result, but if the user is within range it can be more reliable than 3G if the reception on the mobile data network isn’t spectacular.
That much is common knowledge to every mobile worker. The thing is, 4G – as long as reception is strong – will all but eliminate any advantage to being on a WiFi rather than mobile data signal. BT will therefore lose market share and money unless it can provide an equally fast alternative.
This is where its 4G offering could fit. A service to replace the infernal BT OpenZones, which pop up on your phone or tablet as the default every time you’re in a reception area even when you’re trying to log on to something else, will enable BT to retain those mobile customers who might otherwise stick with their existing providers.
Two other possibilities occur, looking further ahead. First, Internet calling has improved dramatically since O2 split away from BT. Presumably if BT had a 4G license and wanted to issue a soft-phone-only-but-with-a-handset contract, so consumers could use Skype and businesses something more Microsoft Lync-ish, there would be no technical reason why not.
And of course there will be carriers who don’t get the 4G license. If BT can resell 4G bandwidth to them, it should have a pretty decent mobile business without declaring its hand as a ‘new’ mobile carrier for a fair while.