Key Takeaways and Coolest Items from Last Week’s Mobile Conference

on September 21, 2018

Last week, more than 20,000 people descended on Los Angeles for the Mobile World Congress Americas (MWCA) Congress – the second year of a partnership with the CTIA to stage a signature annual mobile event in the United States. While Apple stole some of the spotlight with its own, Cupertino-based event on September 12, this year’s MWCA was really a preview of some major ‘what’s next’ themes in mobile. Here are a few of my key takeaways, and some of the more interesting new products/services I saw at the show.

The über theme was that this is the “eve of 5G”. All major U.S. operators are expected to launch a version of commercial 5G services in the coming months. Verizon surprised many with the launch of its Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) service, branded Verizon 5G Home. Verizon is taking orders in its four initial launch cities. The service targets 300 Mbps, is priced at $50 per month, with all the equipment free, including an Apple TV or Google Chromecast and free YouTube TV for 3 months. This is exciting because it is the world’s first launch of a mmWave-based service. Verizon is taking on established broadband providers – not launching ‘wireless as a last resort’ Internet, which has been the province of most FWA offerings to date. Though all eyes will be on Verizon here — will the performance of mmWave be reliable, and can Verizon take meaningful share in broadband — bear in mind that this initial launch is little more than a large market trial. It’s based on non-standards based equipment. Initial coverage at will be modest, and the ‘white glove’ installation service won’t scale to a larger deployment. Still, this is the most anticipated new wireless service launch in some time.

Although 5G dominated the headlines at MWCA, I was equally excited about developments on the LTE roadmap, which will bring greater capacity and faster speeds – rivaling initial 5G, in fact. In addition to broader rollout of gigabit LTE, we’re also seeing some significant deployments of LAA by T-Mobile and AT&T. There was also substantive news about CBRS (the 3.5 GHz band), where we’re likely to see some commercial launch of GAA service in the coming months. Successfully combining LAA and CBRS can get an operator over the capacity hump as 5G gets built out, and can also achieve speeds of up to 2 Gbps.  Developments in the 3.5 GHz band will also hasten discussion of mid-band spectrum, and over time could bring some new players into the space.

There was also significant emphasis on edge computing. The narrative from operators, vendors, and even some of the sports/media/entertainment entities that are driving this need was remarkably consistent. Those with fiber and data center assets appear to be well positioned, given the processing going on at the baseband. Immersive entertainment and hyper local ad tech are driving the development of a services layer at the RAN.

I was also pleased to see a more positive outlook from two of the industry’s major network equipment vendors, Ericsson and Nokia. Both announced major 5G contracts, and have taken important steps toward addressing new opportunities in IoT and edge computing, while also rationalizing targeted business segments. They are also investing and hiring substantially in the United States. And this was their show to shine, given the relative absence of Chinese vendors from the North America equipment business. I also came away with the impression that Samsung (network side) and Intel will be much more significant players in 5G than they were in 4G.

One area of disappointment was IoT. Not a lot of detail was shared on network deployments or major customers. It seems like the NB-IoT ecosystem is still maturing, and there has been some shakeout among the LoRaWAN community. We’re still waiting for a larger number of significant deployments in IoT needed to drive greater investments on the network side. There’s a growing number of IoT companies that are treading water, waiting for this market to pop.

At the end of the day, even with the increased media/entertainment focus given the venue of the show, this is still largely an infrastructure event. Some of the most exciting stuff a this show, such as MIMO antennas, won’t exactly grab Wall Street Journal headlines. One standout was Pivotal Commware, which is doing some interesting work on software designed antennas and beam forming technology. It also appears that small cell deployments are accelerating. I was also encouraged to see discussion at a couple of the high-profile regulatory sessions about smoothing the way for small cell approvals. This is critical, given that 200,000-300,000 new sites will be required for 5G (the approximate equivalent of today’s installed base).

Amidst all the focus on data, some of the coolest new products centered around good ‘ol voice and messaging! An exciting company called Orion Labs showed a push-to-talk service on speed, adding a host of messaging functionality, a platform to develop OTT apps and messaging services, and a standalone device called Synch that I could see being quite useful in certain verticals. There was also excellent discussion about rich communication services (RCS), where an increasing number of brands are using the mobile platform for the next generation of customer engagement. It also appears that Google and Facebook are determined to play in a major way here.

On the downside, there was very little in the way of headline grabbing news at the show. There were few significant device-related announcements, perhaps due to Apple’s event and its outsized share of the North America market. But it’s surprising there was so little news about 5G devices — even dongles, pucks, or 5G ready laptops. And not much exciting on the IoT device front, either.

On a side note, I also have to say that downtown L.A. is less than desirable as a conference venue. Overpriced and not very good hotels, poor transport, and a convention center that is far from world class — even though it was built in the early 1990s. The contrast to Barcelona is quite remarkable. Downtown L.A. itself is improved, but still very much a work in progress. The number of homeless and street people was disheartening.

A final takeaway is that this show was really a set up for what is looking to be a landmark year for mobile in 2019: real 5G network and device launches, spectrum auctions, CBRS, NB-IoT, outcome of T-Mobile/Sprint, and likely other M&A on the heels of that. We’re going to know a lot more about 5G’s prospects a year from now, and will have a pretty good gauge on whether FWA can take meaningful share in broadband.