Wireless Industry Preps for a Big Breakout

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The 2013 edition of the Mobile World Congress (MWC) held in Barcelona broke a record, with over 72,000 people attending the four-day show in the last week of February. Under the "New Mobile Horizon" theme, the MWC gathered 1,500 companies from more than 200 countries and has once more proven itself as the marquee event in the wireless industry.

At this year's conference, we saw both a rehash of already existing themes such as the ongoing migration to 4G/Long-Term Evolution (LTE), solving current wireless networks' capacity crunch and machine-to-machine (M2M) communication. The move to 4G is about to shift into high gear, with 145 commercial LTE networks announced in 66 countries as of January, as per the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA). The same organization forecasts 234 commercial LTE networks in 83 countries by the end of the year, which makes LTE the fastest-developing mobile standard ever.

Meanwhile, the mobile traffic explosion continues, as forecast by Cisco's ( CSCO) latest Visual Networking Index (VNI) study released just before the start of MWC. In 2017, global mobile data traffic is expected to reach 11.2 exabytes per month, a 13-fold increase from 2012. The same study attributes a lot of that growth to mobile video, which will represent 66% of all mobile data traffic by 2017.

In order to cope, operators are looking more and more at mobile data offload services, including small cells and Wi-Fi. The idea is to reduce capital expenditures (CAPEX) while concomitantly lowering operational expenditures (OPEX) and consequently the operator's total cost per megabyte (MB). Case in point: Alcatel-Lucent claims that small cells can reduce network total cost of ownership (TCO) from 30% to 60%.

As a result, a wireless carrier's CAPEX will shift from the "front end" traditional Radio Access Network (RAN) toward smaller cells and backhaul. Our discussions at MWC revealed that the small-cell market is highly competitive, with large equipment makers such as Alcatel-Lucent ( ALU), Cisco, Ericsson ( ERIC), Huawei and NSN jockeying for position with one another and smaller "pure play" Wi-Fi vendors such as Ruckus Wireless. It is conceivable that the bulk of small-cell deployments in the future will be in heterogeneous, multi-vendor environments combining macro cells from one vendor and small cells from another. In fact, a couple of small-cell vendors confirmed that the bulk of their wins have come in exactly those setups.

Another existing technology that made its way into a lot of headlines at MWC was M2M, or the so-called "Internet of Things." The key takeaway from the show is that if a new consumer device does not have an LTE or Wi-Fi chip, it might as well be relegated to a research lab. There were many demonstrations made by automotive and consumer-goods manufacturers showing what can be achieved via a connected device. Car makers such as BMW and Ford ( F), and telecom infrastructure vendors such as Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson are examples of early thought leadership in terms of automotive connectivity. While some of these M2M use cases are still a few years away from commercial fruition, we will start to see some proof points being developed this year. In fact, one of the mini-conferences this year at MWC targeted third-party application developers for the "connected car" using MirrorLink, a non-proprietary technology developed by the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC).

The dawn of Software Defined Networking (SDN) also was a hot topic. SDN is an architecture that enables a controller (server-based software) to determine how packets are forwarded by networking elements, so the concept is all about the separation of the control and data planes within switches/routers. There are three key distinctive features in an SDN topology: 1. separation of the control plane from the data plane; 2. a centralized controller and view of the network; and 3. the "programmability" of the network by external applications. The current SDN market is still at a nascent stage, with both startups and established vendors refining their solutions. At the conference, players such as Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, Ericsson, HP ( HPQ), Huawei and Juniper ( JNPR) presented their opinions and high-level roadmaps. An Alcatel-Lucent announcement of its spin-in (Nuage) is expected this spring.

MWC served more evidence of the rise of the "phablet," a crossover between a smartphone and a tablet or, more specifically, any smartphone with a 5-inch (or larger) screen size. The idea is to satisfy consumer demand for larger-screen displays. At the show, vendors such as Huawei, LG Electronics and Sony ( SNE) showcased new models. Huawei's new models with 5-inch (Ascend D2) and 6.1-inch (Mate) full-HD displays, both having 1.5 GHz quad-core processor, demonstrate how far the company has come in terms of smartphone technological advancements. LG Electronics demoed its Optimus G Pro with a 5.5-inch full-HD display, while Sony showcased its Xperia Z and Xperia ZL with 5-inch display, as well as a 6.4-inch phablet model. Samsung unveiled its Galaxy Note 8, an 8-inch tablet PC, and is expected to introduce its 5-inch full-HD Galaxy S IV during an event this week.

But despite the hype about their latest high-end smartphone launches, handset vendors are focused on putting low-cost smartphones into the hands of people in emerging markets. Case in point is Nokia ( NOK), which launched its 15-euro Nokia 105, aimed at "the 2.7 billion people who don't have a mobile phone." It comes with a 1.4-inch display, FM radio, splash-proof keyboard, basic games and a built-in flashlight, but no browser or camera. Nokia says the battery can last a month on standby.

There were several new mobile operating system (OS) initiatives unveiled in Barcelona, including Mozilla ( Firefox), Canonical ( Ubuntu), Jolla ( Sailfish) and Tizen (jointly developed by Samsung and Intel ( INTC)). From all of these, Firefox grabbed most of the headlines, announcing support from 18 operators (including Telefonica) and handset vendors such as Huawei, TCL and ZTE. With Google ( GOOG) Android and Apple ( AAPL) iOS controlling nearly 88% of the OS market, one wonders if there is enough room for these new ecosystems to flourish, considering also the efforts to seed a viable third OS option, such as Windows (Nokia) and QNX ( BlackBerry ( BBRY)).

In conclusion, if MWC serves as a bellwether for the current pulse of the overall wireless industry, this year's edition drove home the point that LTE is beginning to shift from "early adopter" to "mainstream" status. As a result, the vendors are showing cautious optimism in observing that the market is experiencing the start of a CAPEX snapback. These positive headwinds should pave the way for a recovery of the wireless market in 2013 and set the tone for more activity in areas such as the RAN and packet core, accompanied by more consumer demand for handsets at both the high and low end.

Ronald Gruia is the program leader and principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan covering emerging telecommunications solutions. He is available at rgruia@frost.com.
Ronald Gruia is the program leader and principal analyst for emerging telecoms at Frost & Sullivan. He covers NGN transitional technologies, 4G, VoIP, Broadband Access, Triple Play Services, IP telephony, Enterprise Communications Systems, among other topics. He has spoken at conferences including Supercomm, CTIA, Intel Communications Summit and VON Canada.

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