Key Takeaways from ‘Super Mobility’ Week

on September 12, 2016

While a lot of the tech world’s attention last week was focused on Apple’s announcements in San Francisco, some 30,000 people attended CTIA’s ‘Super Mobility Week’ in Las Vegas, the largest annual wireless convention in North America. There was some concern the show would be a bit flat, with no major device announcements and Mobile World Congress and CES having stolen a bit of the CTIA event’s fire over the past several years. But many key executives from major industry players were there and there was substantive focus and important developments in areas such as the Internet of Things, 5G, and technologies that are an important part of what’s next in wireless and that power many of the devices and apps we enjoy every day.

My takeaways from the CTIA show fall into three broad themes.

Real Progress on the Internet of Things

One of the great quotes from a presentation qas, if there are supposed to be a 20 billion connected “things” by 2020, well, we still have 15 billion to go. So, perhaps it will just be ‘many billions’ of connected things, the wireless version of the McDonald’s sign. But I sensed some real progress on IoT being shown. CTOs at many large enterprise companies are talking about IoT in a different way than before and are starting to commit real resources towards it. One thing should be realized about IoT: when we’re talking about things like connected utility meters, packages, and sensors in buildings regulating temperature, success is going to be measured in base hits, rather than home runs.

There has been significant progress in networks and platforms for IoT. One example is Verizon’s ThingSpace platform announced nearly a year ago, which is seeing success in some sectors such as ‘smart grid’ solutions. There was also a lot of discussion and some great demos at the show in the area of ‘smart cities’. Real progress has been made on developing the technology for smart cities, such as the chipsets and the sensors, and major tech companies have formed alliances to develop a ‘framework’ for smart city projects. There was a lot of discussion about how to urge local governments to embrace smart city concepts more aggressively and how we can get these types of projects to scale more effectively, rather than the onsie-twosie way they are occurring today. As New Cities Foundation Founder and Chairman John Rossant said in one of the keynote sessions: “There are new, innovative models for financing these big infrastructure projects for them to move forward quickly and efficiently”.

Pharma will be another burgeoning area of IoT as a requirement of the Drug Safety Act of 2013 (shipments of pharmaceuticals be tracked from the point of manufacturing to the point of distribution) is phased in.

The Road to 5G

Even though true 5G is not likely to be standardized until 2019 at the earliest, important seeds are being planted today. There was a lot of discussion about the business case for 5G, such as its potential for fixed wireless broadband, given the scaled back fiber deployment plans of companies such as Alphabet.

But just as important as the 5G discussion were vendor announcements of products along the LTE roadmap, which will have many 5G-esque characteristics. Recently, you have heard operators talk about Deployment of Carrier Aggregation and 4×4 MIMO, which are leading to increases in LTE speeds. The next phase, which we will see layered in over the next 2-3 years, is LTE Advanced Pro, which could result in data speeds exceeding 500 MB and significant improvements in latency, among other features.

Alongside the LTE-Advanced roadmap was discussion about some waves of new spectrum becoming available over the next few years, with the potential for significant increases in capacity. None of this is going to be easy. The 600 MHz auction, which we are in the midst of right now, is complex and requires incumbents to clear before it can be commercially deployed. Ironically, several discussions I had were about whether 5G or LTE should be deployed for 600 MHz, if it’s only going to be available circa 2019.

There was also frustration expressed about the status of LTE Unlicensed, whose progress is being held up by a fairly nasty dogfight between the cellular world and the Wi-Fi world. Things are at a bit of an impasse right now, the result being the pre-standardized version of LTE Unlicensed, LTE-U, might not get deployed and we have to wait for the 3GPP version, called LAA.

The industry seems more excited about the prospects for the 3.5 GHz (CBRS) band, where several vendors showed 3.5 GHz – ready products. And there was a lot of praise for the FCC’s ‘Spectrum Frontiers’ plan for 5G, where the U.S. could be in a global leadership position with regard to millimeter wave deployments and the associated technology required to support these high frequencies.

The Unsexy Underbelly of Wireless Networks

The CTIA show has tilted toward network infrastructure rather than shiny mobile gadgets in recent years. And while this stuff might not make headlines, these are the unsung products and technologies such as base stations, antenna arrays, filters, and myriad other components that help power our fancy devices and bandwidth-consuming apps.

One area of collective industry frustration at the show was progress on small cells, both for outdoor and in-building. The products are there and small cells have the potential to deliver meaningful improvements in network coverage and capacity. But there is mounting disappointment about the process required to deploy small cells with any level of scale —the zoning, permissions, and so on. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler even weighed in on this, calling for cheaper and more available backhaul solutions, which are important to the deployment of small cells.

Overall, the state of the wireless industry coming out of the ‘Super Mobility Week’ is optimistic: steady progress on IOT; a pretty aggressive spectrum roadmap, with opportunities for real business model innovation and new market entrants; and a constant stream of product announcements and demonstrations revealing what should be continued improvements in wireless network performance over the next several years. Subtext: lots to get excited about on the road to 5G.