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27 Feb 2012
By Dr. Hugh Bradlow
Feb
27
2012

Mobile World Congress – Before it begins

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Once again, the annual Mobile World Congress rolls around. The whole world – and I literally mean the whole world as there is no country without a mobile network (even North Korea has one!) gathers in Barcelona to find out what forces are going to shape the world of mobile communications for the next year. So what do we expect to see this year?

For the developed world, LTE is the big story – rollouts, spectrum, devices, and most of all, applications. Beside the network and device issues, the big question is whether LTE is just more broadband or whether the higher speeds are opening up new application classes (and, if so, whether operators can monetise them).

Talking of network design, a lot of attention will be paid to the many new smart signal processing techniques designed to boost the efficiency of mobile networks to keep up with ever increasing data loads. Various forms of MIMO (pronounced my-moh) – the use of multiple antennas at both the transmitter and receiver to improve communication performance, will be the subject of a lot of discussion, as well as carrier aggregation. I expect most of the interest to centre on small cells and “Hetnets” – heterogeneous networks. This approach to increasing mobile capacity and coverage is in theory a cheaper way of doing what mobile operators traditionally do to handle capacity constraints – add cells to the network and then try and mitigate interference between them. The big question for all of these techniques, is how much real capacity do they add and is it enough? At Telstra, customer demand for mobile data is doubling every nine months.

The answer to the capacity question is almost certainly “no”, so my main interest will be in how other operators are approaching traffic management and prioritisation which are necessary parts of any solution.

The other network (and spectrum) related issue that will get a Guernsey is TD-LTE – a new standard developed by China Mobile over the last three years that many operators are experimenting with. TD-LTE adoption is proceeding apace and, of course, Optus will be playing in this space in Australia following their acquisition of Vivid Wireless.

M2M, or machine to machine, is also likely to take centre stage again, with the connected car getting most of the press. It is quite clear that every car will have a SIM and a modem in the near future for the telematics, but the big debate is around the infotainment – is it built into the car or synched with the user’s smartphone?

Cloud services will again be the buzzword de jour but that doesn’t make them less important. Of course, at Barcelona the talk is likely to focus on the somewhat inaptly (or is it ineptly) named “mobile cloud”. I will be participating in a panel where I will be pointing out that the whole point of the cloud is that it is for both fixed and mobile users and it’s the network that determines the services that are offered.

Cloud services and the data they provide offer the tantalising hope of targeted advertising and personalised services. This will again be a strong theme at Barcelona. Like the abominable snowman it is there every year, but still not seen.

I haven’t mentioned handsets or tablets: I don’t think we will see a dramatic change to what was revealed at CES this year, namely the clash of the Titans (Apple, Google, Microsoft) and of course more and more LTE devices. However, there are two aspects that I am very keen to see: (a) where we are at with NFC – near field communications (are the European 5 and Isis in the USA still so confident about their operator-centric plans?), and (b) has there been any progress on battery life? The latter was mentioned at CES but no solutions to the issue stood out. As smartphones consume more and more power on faster networks, this is rapidly becoming the “long pole in the tent”.

Beautiful Barcelona

Photo. Port in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. La Rambla famous Street in Barcelona on the left side

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