By Philip Carden, Head of Alcatel-Lucent Consulting Services
Meet the digital nomads, a growing group of heavy mobile data users that's redefining how service providers think about connectivity.
There is a small, but growing, new class of data users amongst us. You've likely spotted one – that man hunched over a laptop at your neighborhood coffee shop, the woman swiping through a tablet in the park, or even that teen on the train whose eyes are glued to a video on his larger-than-average smartphone.
They are the digital nomads. Unlike the hunters and gatherers of the past, these nomads are always connected, regardless of where they are, and their expectations for connectivity have never been higher.
Nomadism isn't confined to an age group or a gender. It's simply a behavior determined by heavy engagement with data using one or more portable devices – someone who is sitting down and concentrating, not just casually checking it on-the-go. It's a phenomenon that's been talked about in the past, but it’s a behavior growing in prevalence thanks to the rise of wireless broadband in public places and the recent explosion of device form factors with which to take advantage of it.
Digital nomads may use any portable device, from a smartphone to a laptop, and likely own multiple, but the device this group of users is most likely to tote around is the tablet.
Tablets are highly portable – they work just as well on the sofa as they do on a train, in a stadium, or at a desk. The tablet category has also grown and morphed since Apple paved the way in 2010. It is now common to see larger-screen smartphones or "phablets" like the Samsung Note and smaller-screen tablets, like the Kindle Fire and, potentially, the rumored, soon-to-launch iPad Mini. Both new categories share the characteristics of the smartphone but have the data intensity of a larger tablet.
As a result, the digital nomad is using several times more data than the average smartphone user. They could be connecting via a home broadband network, a 3G or 4G cellular network via their phone or a data dongle, Wi-Fi, small cells, or some combination thereof. And, while they may not care which network they're on, provided it works well in their current location, the service providers should care immensely.
After all, it's up to the service provider to make sure the network is fast, the handoff is seamless, and the experience is comparable to that of in-home broadband. And, when any of those things fails to happen, it's up to the service provider to have one set of self-help tools and one number to call for support, whether the issue is on the fixed network, mobile network, or somewhere in between.
That's because nomadic users are not "broadband users" or "mobile users" – they are just data users above all else. That's a new way of thinking for many service providers.
Many operators have been busy deploying 4G LTE, filling in capacity gaps with small cell networks and managing offload to WiFi. This is all good, but a further network transformation will be needed to account for wireless nomads as the group continues to grow. Specifically, updates in policy and authentication are required to provide consistency of experience across different access technologies. Also, more sophisticated data plan pricing that takes into account fixed-mobile convergence – not only at the network level, but also in the IT that sits behind the network – would be much more conducive to the nomadic lifestyle.
If service providers are going to deliver the seamless experience and the kind of packages digital nomads really want to buy, there are a quite a lot of implications for the networks and the way they do business.
Luckily, this group also presents a host of new opportunities for service providers. And, just as it took a long time for the first species of nomads that roamed the earth to secure their niche, so the race to keep up with the wireless nomads is just beginning.