The thing about technology is that its value can only be realized when people understand what to do with it and how it can change things, and 4G mobile broadband services are no different. So in the UK, where 4G connectivity is very new, service providers have been offering incentives to entrepreneurs and small businesses to see exactly how far they can push the extra performance. The idea is that this in turn will inspire other users.
The first 4G services became available to British businesses a year ago, although geographical coverage initially was very limited. Everything Everywhere (which combines France Telecom's Orange with Deutsche Telekom's T-Mobile in the UK) was the first operator to be awarded a license to offer a 4G service, so has had a head start. Earlier this year, it equipped five entrepreneurs with kit and services to the value of GBP 3000 (around $4800) to see what new business opportunities they could unlock.
Rival network providers including Vodafone and Telefonica's O2 now also have licenses and are busily ramping up services, with the result that coverage is expanding rapidly and more businesses are coming online. But what are the early examples showing them about what's possible?
Taking gaming to the next level
Birmingham-based SoshiGames, led by entrepreneur Cliff Dennett, creates games for the music industry. Its most popular invention, Music Festivals Game, involves players designing, building and managing their own music festival - in much the way that other games allow users to build and run their own city, farm or football team. Commercially, SoshiGames works with musicians, management companies, specialist publications and festival organizers to sell premium content through online games.
4G has transformed SoshiGames' time with music executives. Before, employees had to wait until they were back in the office to adjust images and game files. Now, at a moment's notice, Cliff and his team can pull down the files they need from the cloud and make any edits while with the client or on the way back from a meeting.
But, more than that, SoshiGames plans to use 4G to increase its players' interaction with bands. Its Festivals Game on Facebook has over 450,000 players. Soon the developers will attend a concert by a local band and capture the set with their 4G devices. The performance will be streamed live into the Facebook experience on an in-game virtual 3D video wall. This is expected to secure thousands more views for the band, as well as boosting the gaming experience for fans.
Dessert with a chilling twist
Elsewhere, husband and wife team Ahrash Akbari-Kalhur and Nyisha Weber of Chin Chin Labs are using 4G to drive the growth of Europe's first liquid nitrogen ice cream parlor. The shop, located in the heart of London's fashionable Camden Town, looks and feels like a science lab. The ice-cream is made to order using molecular cuisine.
Chin Chin Labs has been in business for three years but 4G is revolutionizing the way it manages sales and predicts demand for different ice-cream flavors. The speed of 4G means transactions can be recorded quicker than before, allowing the owners to capture and analyze information about 600 sales a day over 4G. As well as saving Ahrash half a day of administration time each week, this meant that during this year's surprisingly hot summer in Britain Chin Chin Labs was always ahead of demand and never ran out of stock.
Next on the agenda for the business is an expansion into pop-up events, where 4G will be used to keep the company connected with suppliers, and to record data and process payments while away from its permanent premises.
Video as the way to a food fan's heart
The ability to use rich media such as video in a mobile context can be transformational. One of the most innovative examples of this to date is the experience of London street-food seller Mark Gevaux, otherwise known as ‘The Rib Man'. He is using 4G mobile to build an online fan base, many of whom now physically follow him across the city because they can't get enough of his food. To entice them, he posts live video feeds of his barbecued pork ribs and his special-recipe hot chili sauces.
Gevaux started out as a butcher but began cooking samples of pork on his market stalls to show customers how good the meat was. They soon craved more, he says. "Now we sell more rib meat in rolls than we do fresh racks!"
But cooked food carries a bigger risk, as any unsold produce cannot be kept until the next day. This is where 4G comes in. Gevaux's Twitter following has been growing at a rate of 1,000 a month (he now has an audience of close to 10,000) since he was able to start posting live images and video footage of the stall in action. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. "The other day I saw how much meat I had left with just half an hour to go on the stall, so I uploaded some pictures and within five minutes I had a long line of people," Gevaux says.
Before 4G, the most meat Gevaux sold in a week was about 400 Kilos (equivalent to just over 880 pounds). This year, at the height of summer, he was averaging a metric ton [over 2200 pounds] of ribs across 3-4 markets. "4G has more than doubled my business," he says. "The fact that I can get to so many people so quickly, and show them what I'm cooking and where I am, is incredibly powerful. Even before customers have left their homes I am creating demand."
Gevaux also has a live satellite feed, so he can keep one step ahead of the notoriously unpredictable British weather. "In the past I've been caught out by sudden rain which can empty a market," Gevaux says. Now all he has to do if the weather is about to turn bad is remind loyal Twitter followers what they're missing and promote the right offer to shift stock quickly.
In the case of Lewis Bowen, the 25-year-old founder of Sheffield-based Geco Industries, the real-time video potential of 4G offers a way of providing live demos of its flagship product, Fuel 4, a bio-ethanol gel-based cooking fuel.
Says Bowen, "We use video to get our message across and more recently have been experimenting with using 4G to show our product to customers in stores or at shows, where health and safety regulations would prevent us doing this live. 4G will also be a powerful tool for promoting what we do at large festivals," he adds.
But what of 4G's reach? "There's obviously more work to do to improve this, but it's getting better," Bowen says.
Hot-desking gains new appeal
The arrival of additional 4G services from other operators is certainly helping drive coverage, as well as momentum.
One of Vodafone's first business customers is NearDesk , a small start-up firm which rents desk space by the minute across the UK, exploiting the flexible-working trend. Increasingly pervasive 4G will mean not only that its proposition will appeal to more customers, but also that NearDesk's modest-sized team can be more productive while on the road building the business.
Says CEO Tom Ball, "Getting to the point where you can have access to full-motion, full-HD video almost anywhere in a city is very exciting. We pay slightly more for 4G but we're getting more done in a day [Ball can join and fully participate in conferences from the back of a taxi now, for example], and the value of that compared to those extra pounds made the switch a no-brainer."
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