The Trends at Mobile World Congress 2012

What a week! Finally MWC 2012 is behind us, so are the endless queues for taxis and sandwiches. The main themes this year at MWC were smartphones, Long term Evolution (LTE), small cells, quality of service (QoS) and Customer Experience Management (CEM).  Most of these themes were around in previous years as well, but what this year different is the emphasis on the implementation and commercialization.

Walking around the booths at MWC one gets a definite feeling that finally smartphones have achieved critical mass, forcing many operators to look at LTE and a host of other technology innovations to cost effectively address this ever growing market.

Although Apple was absent at the show, the smart phone revolution that they started has gathered steam and this was obvious at this year’s MWC.  Smart phones of every imaginable size and shape were on display. LG & Samsung had devices supporting LTE with quad core processors, while Fijitsu displayed water proof smart phones (perhaps a way to differentiate in a market dominated by the Android OS).

Google’s Android booth had a carnival atmosphere, complete with a slide chute and refreshments that included a real ice cream sandwich (since their latest OS goes by the name of Ice Cream Sandwich). Not to be outdone, Microsoft devoted most of its presence at this year’s trade show to its €100 “Smoked by Windows Phone” challenge, an international version of the campaign introduced at CES. Attendees were being invited to pit their smart phone against Windows Phone to complete everyday tasks such as uploading a photo to Facebook, texting a friend, or checking email. If the challenger’s phone is faster, they win €100. If they lose, they must pose for the cameras with a sign that reads “My Phone Just Got Smoked by Windows Phone.”

Smart phones are not only here to stay but they are growing at a very healthy pace. It is estimated that by 2015 there will be 2 billion of these smart devices in the market; and the market itself will increase the number of subscriptions by 6x. All this action in the smart phones camp had to finally spill over to the more serious equipment side. Responding to the proliferation of smart phones and the resulting need for high speed data networks, operators are planning to deploy LTE networks (and many already are).

This year the focus of LTE at MWC was on deployment and on addressing the practical issues, rather than on technology demonstrators. Nokia Siemens Networks showcased a host of solutions around their liquid radio concept. SK Telecom demonstrated a solution that simultaneously used Wi-Fi and LTE to offer amazing download speeds. As LTE networks get commercialized the reality & challenges in indoor coverage is pushing small cell technologies to the forefront. Increasing importance of small cells in the success of LTE was reflected at this year’s show, and there were least a dozen vendors displaying their small cell solutions.

In the weeks leading up to MWC, ‘Femto Forum’ changed their name to ‘Small Cell forum’ further underlining the importance of small cells in the LTE world. Ericsson one the largest telecom vendors who kept out of the Femto Forum, joined the newly renamed Small Cell forum. Another significant change is the acceptance of Wi-Fi within the telecom community. It is no longer a Femto/Small cell versus WiFi debate: there is acknowledgement that Wi-Fi and LTE can work together to provide a better indoor coverage solution. Ericsson’s announcement to acquire BelAir Networks further underlines this shift. Small cells are certainly an area where a lot of action can be expected in the coming months.

It was not just the radio vendors who were gearing up for the data tsunami. Core networks play an important role in the quality of service experienced by the users. The heavy data burden on LTE networks requires careful management and prioritization to ensure a good experience for all users. On display at MWC were a number of Deep packet inspection solutions that looks at the data streams to, for example, differentiate browsing traffic from ftp downloads and music or video streaming. Assigning quality of service for different types of users ensures that everyone gets a fair share depending on the content, the subscription type and other criteria.

As the dust settles on this year’s MWC, I feel confident that despite the prevailing economic scenario the telecom industry has some amazing opportunities to exploit and explore this year.

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