Super Mobility Week, the recently concluded CTIA show in Las Vegas, was supposed to be bigger and better than ever. It combined what were previously two annual CTIA events: the technology-focused Wireless Expo and the enterprise-focused MobileCon. The result was an event that seemed to me to be lacking in much of the “deep tech” that is so vital to the wireless industry. In its place a couple of contrasting themes appeared to dominate, and that contrast in many ways illustrated the problems that the industry is likely to face over the next few years.
Theme one is the effort to get users to consume more data on wireless broadband networks, particularly in the form of streaming video. In fact, during the first-day keynote session, one industry analyst proudly proclaimed the theme of this year’s show to be video. Taking it a step further, a number of high-end smartphone vendors, many exhibiting models with super-high resolution screens, expressed confidence that consumers would soon be demanding streaming HDTV as the norm.
Presumably the aim here is to push customers to more expensive rate plans by fueling their demand for more and faster data services. This is pretty surprising when you consider than just within the past couple of years network operators were bemoaning the havoc being done to network performance by a few “data hog” users. But a real concern is that in telling people they can reliably stream HDTV on their wireless devices whenever and wherever they choose, the industry will instill just such an expectation.
To make matters worse, it seems likely that fierce competition among service providers, both physical network operators and MVNOs, will continue to exert downward pressure on per-user data service revenues. This looks like a repeat of the situation that occurred in the industry about 15 years ago. As market penetration approached saturation carriers tried to steal market share by offering ever more generous “bucket of minutes” rate plans. The result was a huge upsurge in usage without a corresponding increase in revenues to pay for the infrastructure upgrades necessary to support it. Needing to add a lot of capacity without laying out much capital investment, operators put the squeeze on their infrastructure providers, a major factor contributing to the demise of industry giants Nortel (bankruptcy and liquidation), Lucent (fire-sale acquisition by Alcatel), and Motorola (abandoned the wireless infrastructure business).
In stark contrast to the push for increased usage, a second theme of the show was the industry pleading with the FCC to find more spectrum for wireless broadband. Aside from the usual assurances that they are continuing to work on the problem, and talking up the impending AWS-3 auction, the feds didn’t have much to offer. Realistically, there probably won’t be a lot of new, dedicated spectrum available in the foreseeable future, at least in the bands that are practical for use in broadband wireless networks.
With the industry pushing for more usage while paradoxically expressing frustration at the paucity of new spectrum to serve it, I was surprised that a third theme was apparently absent from the show. I went searching for exhibitors offering, or at least willing to talk about, new technologies aimed at LTE network optimization, and didn’t find much that was noteworthy. Hopefully some have much-needed breakthrough products in the works, which we’ll be seeing at next year’s show.