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Mobile Media: Content and Services for Wireless Communication

Editor: Jo Groebel, Eli M. Noam, Valerie Feldmann
Publisher: Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006
Review Published: March 2006

 REVIEW 1: Susan Jacobson

Mobile Media: Content and Services for Wireless Communication, edited by Jo Gorebel, Eli M. Noam, and Valerie Feldmann, is a good book for scholars and upper level students who are interested in quickly coming up to speed on many of the major issues in mobile media, cellular telephones, and other aspects of wireless communication. Drawing on the expertise of 21 contributors, the volume focuses on the technology, content, economics, and policy implications of mobile media. What you will not find in this volume are analyses informed by the social impact of mobile communications, as explored by scholars like Manuel Castells (2004, 2000), and historical perspectives that attempt to situate the mobile media phenomenon as a whole, as Erkki Huhtamo's (2004) "archeology" of mobile media does. Like many edited volumes, the book has a handful of outstanding chapters, a good number of worthwhile chapters, and one or two less relevant contributions.

Some of the recurring themes in this book include: the ongoing conflict between operators of proprietary, "walled garden" cell phone networks, and those who would offer services over open, unlicensed spectrum networks such as WiFi; the idea that mobile users are content creators as well as consumers; the unlikely continuation of mass media content models in a mobile environment; and the impact of business and regulatory models on mobile wireless services. Readers will come away with a pretty good understanding of these issues, but it would have been helpful if the introductory chapter provided an outline of the debates at the outset. The book includes a glossary that spells out many of the acronyms which populate the mobile industry -- ARPU, GRPS, TDMA -- but does not provide any insight into what these terms actually mean. "3G," for example, is simply "Third Generation Mobile Network or Service," and does not reference the idea that 3G networks are usually thought of as broadband cellular networks.

One of the excellent chapters in this book is John Kelly's "Design Strategies for Future Wireless Content." Kelly begins his discussion with Andrew Odlyzko's declaration that "content is not king," noting that people pay much more for the ability to communicate with each other than to access professionally produced content. Kelly recognizes two trends that are fast becoming axioms of mobile media: 1) The user-created content and communication groups that proliferated on the Internet are most likely the best models for wireless content; and 2) the telecommunications companies' dreams of offering high-bandwidth (and higher-priced) content over new "3G" cell phone networks are likely to remain unfulfilled, while relatively low-bandwidth (and lower priced) applications like text messaging, or SMS, may prosper and grow in the United States as it has in other parts of the world. He offers several thoughtful ideas about how to approach wireless content design, including an analysis of the successful iMode platform in Japan, developed by DoCoMo, the Japanese telecommunication giant NTT's wireless division.

Valerie Feldmann's excellent chapter, "Mobile Peer-to-Peer Content and Community Models," analyzes the potential for peer-to-peer sharing of information in a mobile environment, particularly personal information such as photos, location, and other personal profile data. She also underscores the idea that, while on the Internet no one may know whether you're a dog, in a mobile network environment the identity of the user is "enforced rather than blurred" (101). According to Feldmann, there are many examples of identity construction and representation in the mobile environment: a unique cell phone number identifies the user; younger users in particular tend to personalize their cell phones with custom ringtones and other paraphernalia; and mobile social software allows users to broadcast their personal information -- sometimes even their location -- to other nearby users, or to their friends.

Several chapters discuss the conflict between proprietary cell phone networks, built at great expense by the major
telecommunications companies, and burgeoning local wireless
networks that use "unlicensed spectrum," and which are
therefore unburdened by the licensing fees paid by the
telephone companies. Current events show that the large telecommunications carriers seem to have a vested interest in stopping or at least delaying the rollout of local wireless networks. For example, at the end of 2004, Verizon succeeded in getting the state of Pennsylvania to pass a law prohibiting municipalities from building their own (low cost) city-wide WiFi networks. Philadelphia, which had been planning the rollout of just such a network for several years, was exempted from this provision, but the project has been delayed. Telecommunications scholar Eli Noam does an excellent job of outlining the pitfalls of the "walled garden" approach of the cell phone networks in his chapter, making a case for a new conception of "G4" networks that, instead of focusing on increased bandwidth, incorporates access to multiple wireless networks in the consumer handset -- cellular as well as WiFi. Unfortunately, Noam points out, the telecom carriers' revenue strategy rests on selling exclusive access to the services of one network.

Bertil Thorngren addresses the problems inherent in the cell phone network providers' ever-increasing-bandwidth "generational" approach to services, noting that "there is simply more revenue to be shared by providing high-interest but low-bitrate content" (136) over the proprietary cell phone networks. Thorngren also recommends that cell phone service providers allow subscribers to access both the cell network and other local wireless networks, such as WiFi, which handle high-bandwidth content, like multimedia, much more cheaply.

"Unmodified video and audio content on demand will never be economically viable over traditional cellular . . . networks" (17), notes Timothy X. Brown in his chapter on mass media, speaking directly to the problem of transplanting the mass media content model onto mobile networks. In his excellent chapter on copyright in the mobile environment, Yochai Benkler argues that the copyright model of mass media content is unlikely to be the dominant business model in a successful mobile industry, primarily because mobile customers are more interested in communication than passive consumption of produced media. Benkler says that while there will be opportunities for licensed content to be sold over wireless networks, it will most likely be in the form of time-sensitive communication features, such as real-time videoconferencing. He also favors unlicensed spectrum networks such as WiFi as the delivery platform of choice for mobile communication. Benkler notes: "Mobile wireless should focus on business models oriented toward providing tools for users to make and exchange their own information and cultural expressions" (198).

Safety and security are two categories of mobile media that seem to hold promise for future investigation, at least under some circumstances. Jonathan Liebenau asks what kind of emergency information could be delivered over mobile wireless network in a post-9/11 world. In addition to devices that can send location information to emergency workers, he makes a compelling argument for the feasibility of providing mobile subscriber access to building plans and escape routes in emergency circumstances. In a chapter on the OnStar network, Jonathan Lawrence writes that, while consumers are willing to pay for security services in their cars (through direct purchase or higher sticker prices where OnStar is included as part of the standard package), they are not willing to pay for additional information services, such as news, stock quotes, or even real-time traffic information, that could be delivered over the same network.

One section of the book focuses on business models and strategies. Sylvia Chan-Olmstead and Byeng-Hee Chang provide detailed analysis of their research on how the largest global media conglomerates are approaching diversification into and within the wireless market. The big seven -- Vivendi, Bertelsmann, Sony, News Corp., Time-Warner, Viacom, and Disney -- pursue several strategies, including directly purchasing wireless distribution networks, licensing branded content to wireless providers, and engaging in joint ventures to offer products and services in the mobile environment. Carleen Maitland describes the complexities of mobile commerce business models that are implemented by the joint efforts of several firms. Maitland points out that, because mobile commerce is still evolving, few companies have all of the expertise or resources to support it, and "networks" of companies form to make the services possible. James Allerman and Christopher Swann round out the section by providing a pretty straightforward analysis of the U.S. cell phone industry in their chapter "Mobile Communication Business Models in the United States."

Overall, Mobile Media: Content and Services for Wireless Communication is a good starting point for anyone who is interested in studying the fast-evolving world of mobile communications. It provides a good summary of the technology, content, economics, and policy implications of the current mobile environment, but is less useful as a guidebook to the social and cultural impact of mobile media. The essays in this volume would be an excellent addition to any upper-level undergraduate or graduate-level class on mobile media.

Castells, Manuel, et. al. "Social Uses of Wireless
Communications: The Mobile Information Society." Paper
prepared for the International Workshop on Wireless Communication Policies and Prospects: A Global Perspective,
USC, October 8-9, 2004.

_____, The Rise of the Network Society, The
Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Vol. I.
2nd Edition. Cambridge, MA & Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2000)

Castells, Manual, Ed. The Network Society: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Cheltenham, UK & Northampton, MA: Edward Edgar, 2004.

Huhtamo, Erkki. "Pockets of Plenty: An Archaeology of Mobile Media." Keynote speech at ISEA, 2004.

Susan Jacobson:
Susan Jacobson is a full-time faculty member in the Department of Journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. Her research interests include the social and cultural impact of municipal wireless networks, and how the hypertextualization of media informs the representation of history, documentary, and journalism. She writes about some of her projects on her
blog at http://susanjacobson.livejournal.com.  <susanj@temple.edu>

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