What To Expect At Next Week’s Major Wireless Conference

Lost amid the hype surrounding Apple’s September 12 event in Cupertino, the Bay Area is also host nest week to a major wireless conference, MWC Americas. Developed in partnership with the CTIA, the objective is to breathe new life into the concept of a big tent wireless event in North America, leveraging successful MWC confabs in Barcelona and Shanghai.

Every indication is that MWC Americas will be a success. Attendance figures are looking positive, major players across the mobile ecosystem will be there in force, and the conference program looks strong. So, what to expect?

I believe that the two major themes will be IoT and 5G. So far, the IoT has been slower to develop than anticipated. There have been few breakout sectors — lots of base hits but no doubles or triples — and several key components of the value chain needed for IoT have not yet fallen into place. But I think folks will leave San Francisco more positive on the status of IoT. In addition to several purpose-built IoT networks that are being deployed using unlicensed spectrum, the wireless operators are also building out dedicated LTE-based IoT networks, which will support low cost, low power devices requiring greater coverage range. Module prices have come down, and there has been a lot of progress on the ‘back end’ of IoT, such as the systems for provisioning, authentication, security, and billing. Although there aren’t any breakout consumer devices as of yet, we are starting to see some significant deployments and lots of trials in the areas of smart cities, medical devices, and the industrial sector.

5G will be another key theme. The major equipment vendors will be demonstrating 5G radios, while at the same time, selling gear that offers continued improvements in LTE performance. In fact, even with the hype around 5G, there will be talk about “gigabit LTE”, which could result in operators marketing services as 5G in advanced of the standards-based version (example: AT&T’s ‘5G Evolution’). And even though the incumbent equipment vendors are in a pole position, the move toward a more open, virtualized network framework means that the barrier is lower for a broader supplier ecosystem. Expect to see some new kids on the wireless block at MWC.

There will also be a significant policy track at the show. This year is of particular importance, with a new Administration and FCC. I expect FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, in his Day One address, to solidify the FCC’s commitment to expanding broadband access to unserved and underserved areas. Wireless is figuring to be a bigger piece of this, as fixed wireless access is becoming an increasingly compelling option. There will also be lots of discussion about unlicensed, particularly the 3.5 GHz “CBRS” band spectrum being proposed for Shared Spectrum. There is intense lobbying to change some of the rules proposed by the Wheeler FCC, namely to increase the size of serving areas and also allow for longer license terms. At the same time, there’s an effort to get the FCC make available more ‘mid-band’ spectrum in the 3.7-4.2 GHz band (adjacent to CBRS).

I am also hoping that Chairman Pai will reinforce former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s call to action on siting for small cells. It is all well and good to have 5G Spectrum and 5G radios, but a way must be found to more easily deploy small cells in greater numbers. A big part of this is simplifying the permitting process.

Finally, amidst the discussion about artificial intelligence, connected cars, smart cities, and fancy accessories for the new crop of smartphones, there’s the rather unsexy underbelly of products and services that really make our networks tick. Hundreds of component manufacturers, selling antennas, filters, power amplifiers, and so on, will be at MWC. So for those taking a trip down the road to Cupertino on Tuesday or having one eye on Apple’s website while they hear a pitch from some antenna manufacturer, let’s remember that the iPhone would still be an iPod without all this wireless gear.

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Mark Lowenstein

Mark Lowenstein is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem, an advisory services firm focused on mobile and digital media. He founded and led the Yankee Group's global wireless practices and was also VP, Market Strategy at Verizon Wireless. You can follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein and sign up for his free Lens on Wireless newsletter here.

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