USSD: Lost in the Crowd?


All day long I am surrounded by BlackBerry and iPhone apps and business models. After listening to an intriguing talk by Nathan Eagle, a Professor at MIT, I started to think about how a single application can be developed to reach everyone in developing countries (a much larger proportion of mobile phone users than those in developed countries). Nathan mentioned that some applications in developing countries use USSD protocol as opposed to SMS or data-rich applications. I wanted to learn more.

Here are some of my findings:

USSD (“Unstructured Supplementary Services Data”) is a mature core mobile-network technology similar to Telnet; it is session-based. In fact, it is as old as GSM technology — and guess what — it works on EVERY GSM-based handset from a Nokia 1100 to a BlackBerry Bold.

Mobile software developers are constantly trying to find a way to write (code) once and reach many (different handset models). USSD can work for some application types, but not all. USSD will not offer feature-rich capabilities, but it can send and receive data through sessions (no data is saved on the device), allow for navigable menus, and it can interact with billing accounts on-file with wireless carriers.

After doing some research, it seems as though this technology is predominantly being exploited in developing countries, where there have been some very creative uses of USSD applications.

Here are some of the many uses this technology can provide (at a much cheaper cost than SMS messaging — a huge consideration for communication in developing countries):
– Mobile banking and payments
– Point-of-sale banking (using your mobile prepaid account as the source of payment)
– One-time password request notifications
– Weather services
– Menu-based navigation of corporate or city services
– Advertising
– Voice Chat
– Roaming

As it stands, USSD technology is being underused primarily due to a lack of available applications and content providers, a lack of understanding, and a lack of motivation at the operator level. Only recently, Bharti and Vodafone have productized this medium by launching USSD portals; largely however, this technology is under-developed and under-utilized.

Comments on a LinkedIN thread about USSD showed the following benefits of USSD technology (post from Gaurav Sarin):
1) Handset agnostic – 99% compatibility of active handsets
2) Easy Surfing – browser based experience for customers
3) Free content discovery for customers – since most operators do not generate CDRs of USSD sessions
4) Real Time session with the server – faster & more secure than SMS
5) Higher reliability as compared to SMSSMS has a 70 -80% successful delivery rate

What are your thoughts on USSD?

Nanotech Blood Pressure Monitor


Coming soon to your body: A real-time blood pressure monitor.

As discussed in the article Nanowires in the blood could feel the pressure, reseachers at the Georgia Institute of Technology used the piezoelectric effect in zinc oxide semiconducting nanowires to generate a current proportional to the amount the nanowire is bent. When implanted in the body, a change in blood pressure could easily be monitored by a device using this sensitive technology (detection of forces at the piconewton scale: 10^-12 N). Zinc oxide is also biocompatible, so it is very unlikely to be attacked and rejected by the immune system.

Get ready for a variety of devices that could interact with this sensor, as it could relay information through a simple wireless signal. Just think of the number of other biological applications this could have. Brain pressure sensing in concussion patients? Researchers are constantly developing new nanoscale, biocompatible sensors, generators, switches and transmitting systems. This nanowire pressure sensing device will surely be added to the biosensing and reporting toolkit.

Some nano toolkit links:

Wednesday: Canada’s Wireless Telecom Battle Begins


On Wednesday, March 14, 2007, the battle begins for Canadian wireless phone providers. Why? Because wireless number portability (WNP) finally kicks in after a VERY long waiting period. We are already seeing a flurry of activity in the plans of the wireless carriers, namely, Rogers Wireless, Bell Canada, Telus Corp, and Virgin Mobile Canada. Virgin and Telus are butting heads over who claims to have the “happiest clients” and are both prepared to go to court over it. Instead of paying lawyers millions of dollars … come up with an innovative plan, increase your marketing, or actually give subscribers what they want.

According to a 2005 report, PricewaterhouseCoopers expects 850,000 numbers to be moved from one carrier for another.

Implications? What can we expect?

  • These companies are going to spend more money on advertising and marketing
  • More cost-effective phone and data plans to be more competitive
  • For consumers, its good time to take advantage and get locked in to a ‘likely’ great rate while these companies are fighting over subscribers
  • Upcoming quarterly revenues/EPS may fall shorter than expectations due to increased costs and/or lost customers (who is going to be the big gainer?)

Also, another exciting event happens on Wednesday! Research In Motion (RIM) is finally releasing their latest BlackBerry 8800 into Rogers stores. Hmmm … I wonder if they are going to try for a big promotional event in correlation with WNP? My suggestion, go out and see what deals you can find. Who knows how long they’ll last?