OTA: On the path to worldwide adoption

Learn the history behind over-the-air (OTA) -- the standard for the transmission and reception of application-related information in a wireless communications system.

In January, over-the-air (OTA) mobile device management was introduced in the U.S. Sprint PCS, announced it would utilize OTA to send software updates wirelessly to customers using its Sanyo and Samsung phones. After five years of development and deployments across the globe, it was the first step into the U.S. market for a technology that has shown incredible promise. Getting its start in Japan, and then moving across Asia and into Europe, OTA mobile device management technology is now on its way to becoming a ubiquitous offering from carriers and manufacturers worldwide.

As early as 2001, OTA providers had developed the capability to update software and firmware using cable connections. That same year, this wired updating technology was provided to Japan's NEC and by early 2002, it was commercially implemented in NEC, Panasonic and Sharp manufacturing plants, as well as customer service and retail centers at NTT DoCoMo across Japan. This commercial release, and success, was the first viable proof that the technology behind OTA could be used to update software and applications on existing devices. The mobile industry's confidence in the technology increased, and several rapid deployments and advancements resulted.

Despite initial concerns that downloading software, applications and firmware might not be possible at the relatively slow wireless network rates of 10 kbps, in February 2002, NTT DoCoMo became the first carrier in the world to introduce an ambitious plan to integrate a complete and commercially-viable OTA solution. By October 2003, NTT DoCoMo's customers were able to receive new software and firmware updates wirelessly, without the need to visit customer service centers. Although 3G networks were slow to develop, the increasing data speeds of the interim networks like 2.5G also aided in the acceptance of OTA by providing rapid updating capabilities. In reality, OTA technology had advanced to the point that it could have been used on the 10 kbps networks with only minor complications.

The completion of NTT DoCoMo's revolutionary plan pushed OTA to the forefront of mobile technology, where carriers and manufacturers across Asia quickly jumped on the bandwagon. That same year, in 2003 China Unicom announced its OTA development project, followed closely by KDDI in 2004 which completed its OTA testing phase and will be commercialized later this year. Sprint PCS commercialized its OTA solution in the US earlier this year, and other US carriers are not far behind. Virtually all of the major CDMA and GSM carriers are aggressively planning or commercializing OTA. Carriers have been convinced that OTA device management solutions are a must-have proposition, and in 2006 the technology will be commercially available from eight to 10 carriers across the globe.

OTA offers many substantial benefits. More and more carriers recognize that the service, as a software foundation for mobile phones, can be used to promote new and exciting wireless data services and device upgrades. With OTA, users can alter, update or delete applications directly, staying current with the most advanced functionality. Moreover, carriers can offer value-added applications and services, such as Flash and other media players, instant messenger clients and whatever that next killer application may be. Advanced services and applications are becoming a much larger portion of carrier revenues, and the ability to instantly notify users when new features are available and allow those users too quickly and conveniently download services using OTA can rapidly expand those revenues. Without returning to the customer service location, or purchasing an entirely new device, customers can customize and receive the maximum upgrade capabilities out of their existing phones.

In the mobile phone industry, increasing standardization of operating systems and use of open specifications, coupled with increasingly sophisticated functionality means that mobile devices are becoming more vulnerable to malicious code attacks. There is little doubt mobile viruses are on the evolutionary fast track with over 50 different mobile phone viruses in the world today. Subsequently, the mobile industry is sitting up and taking notice -- and realizing that waiting too long for virus protection leaves cellular networks open to serious potential risks. Though the majority of viruses have appeared to have been only proof-of-concept, they demonstrate where the industry may be headed. In order to stay ahead of the security curve, OTA providers offer a way for device manufacturers and carriers to ensure that mobile phones remain in compliance with the latest firmware and anti-virus software and parameter configurations. OTA not only lets carriers send new virus protection software to end users, but can also assist in repairing the system, removing malicious applications, and protecting important data, keys, and files on the system.

In addition to meeting the needs of customers through faster software updates, OTA technology will provide wireless operators and handset manufacturers a way to increase revenue opportunities, reduce warranty cost, lower customer support costs and improve subscriber satisfaction and loyalty.

Today, carriers and manufacturers around the world are making OTA integration into their mobile devices a priority, and the technology should ultimately become a standard offering in most countries. Like many other aspects of the mobile market, manufacturers and carriers in Asia took the early lead in developing and offering OTA, with quantifiable rewards. That early success was the main driver behind the U.S. and European carriers' more recent move to join the crowd in offering new services, protecting customers from viruses and software bugs, and creating new revenue streams, all over-the-air.


Dr. Luosheng Peng, CEO and co-founder, InnoPath Software
Dr. Peng is a noted expert and leader in the field of mobile network computing and distributed application system design. He holds significant patents in mobile network computing and has actively been involved in international industrial efforts for mobile network computing standards.

Early in his career, Dr. Peng worked at Horizon Systems Laboratory, Mitsubishi Electric Information Technology Center America. As a principal research engineer and project leader, Dr. Peng was responsible for the mobile network computing initiatives. Prior to joining the team at Horizon Systems Laboratory, Dr. Peng was a senior research engineer with Mitsubishi Space Software, a leading supplier of space shuttle software tools.

Dr. Peng is a graduate of Kobe University in Japan. He was one of 100 people selected by the Chinese government to attend after completing a national qualifying exam. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science.

This was first published in May 2005

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