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What To Expect at MWC 2016

It’s that time again. We’re off to Barcelona next week for Mobile World Congress 2016 (and there’s a partner discount code below too if you’re looking for a last minute deal). 

Last year we outlined why we think the Congress holds an abiding interest. This year, the strapline is ‘Mobile is Everything’, and there are all the big telco and vendor guns you might expect on the podium, plus Mark Zuckerberg is back, and there’s a fair spread of speakers from commerce and industry too, such as Mercedes, Mastercard, Paypal, WPP and GE. The reason for this is of course that mobile commerce and the Internet of Things are becoming even hotter topics as the industry steps up its search for new business models.

So what is the Telco 2.0 team expecting from this year’s show? We will of course bring you back our in-depth analysis, but for now here’s what we’re looking out for.

1. The Gigabit Race

Vendors and operators have been vying all year to outdo each others’ speed records. This has been going on in the lab, in trials, and in the field. Claims of outlandish theoretical maximum data rates are nothing new in wireless, but let’s take Tele2 Netherlands’ new 4G network as an example. They’re shooting for 375Mbps, but the telling detail is that if they had more spectrum, like the competing Vodafone OpCo, they could go much higher. Observed speeds from sites like OpenSignal are always sobering in this light, but their top performers are already well past DSL speeds and threatening lower-tier cable packages. Between 5G and 802.11ac Wave-2, the primary access network is going to be wireless; the question is whether the backhaul is fibre to a cell site, or co-ax to a WLAN router.

Expect a lot of announcements, some of which might even be honest. And don’t forget that the faster the network gets, the less pageload time comes from data transfer as opposed to latency. Which brings us to….

2. The Cloud is the Network is the Cloud

If the latency targets in 5G are going to be worth the effort - and it’s going to be gigantic - apps and services will have to migrate towards the network edge to take full advantage. This might yet give mobile operators another roll of the dice in cloud, hosting, and infrastructure services. After 5G, we expect NFV to be Top Buzzword this year - but look out for literally every vendor of anything that could be described as software splattering it all over the same old products. (Also, watch for billing systems companies suddenly being “Big Data” or “Analytics”.) Announcements about Mobile Edge Computing will be worth watching, as will the regulatory ones floating down the hill from the ministerial sessions…hold on, it’s not down the hill any more, is it?

3. Silicon Wars

The last couple of years have been a bit…dare we say it…dull when it comes to devices. On the one hand, there’s Apple and its A-series chips. On the other, there’s Samsung and everyone else with the latest Qualcomm Snapdragons. But now things are hotting up.

Samsung dramatised this by binning the Snapdragon 810 from the Galaxy S6 devices, ironically for hotting up far too literally. Instead, Samsung turned to its own in-house Exynos SoCs. Since then, Qualcomm has been desperate to break back in with a completely new architecture, codenamed Kryo (heat was obviously on everyone’s mind). Perhaps that’s why Qualcomm is getting the Snapdragon 820s fabbed on the same 14nm process at Samsung as the Exynos. Huawei is easing itself into the game by making its own RF modems. Intel hasn’t given up, and has a new mobile x86 line out. And there’s a wild card, with Imagination Technologies bringing back the MIPS architecture. Meanwhile, at the low-end, there is new ARM intellectual property available, Intel’s Skylake chips are finally here for the laptops, and IBM and partners are pushing OpenPOWER8 hard for server applications.

Chip wars tend to bring out the creativity in the rest of the industry, so it’s going to be interesting to see how much of this gets traction and what we do with it.

4. The Internet of (Terrible) Things

Expect even more hype than usual about the Internet of Things. There’s a standards war to fight here, between a couple of different flavours of LTE, an IoT-optimised version of GSM, and several different long-range, low-power radio technologies. There’s also a fight for the future applications platform, with a whole range of players nervously eyeing Amazon Web Services and IBM. And the silicon vendors are pushing hard for market share. The names are slightly different - Freescale is a much bigger player - but Qualcomm recently announced a special platform for connected cars. Not coincidentally, connected cars seem to be the only segment in the IoT that’s unambiguously profitable.

5. Ambiguous Angst

Beyond the serious stuff, though, there’s also a steady flow of terrible ideas coming out of Silicon Valley, driven by chips that are cheap as chips and easy to program, venture capital that’s also pretty cheap and desperate for a home, and a large pool of general-purpose software developers. There’s a decent chance of a major shakeout here in 2016, perhaps catalysed by regulatory or political events that might themselves be cued in by a really big security/privacy disaster - we’ve already had the baby monitors that leak pictures of your kids and the French dam whose controls are exposed on Shodan. And while all this is going on, the online advertising sector is in full-on crisis…with one exception, Google.

Commodity prices are tanking and there’s been a massive sell-off in shares, especially banks. Meanwhile, money is flooding out of China. Both Apple and Samsung have cut back their orders into the supply chain. On the other hand, even European telcos are beginning to see some growth, and the industry is in investment mode. The US price war, though, rages on with no end in sight, and it’s even beginning to eat into VZW’s margins. How scared should we be?

6. A Good Old-Fashioned Net Neutrality Row

And then there’s the combination of T-Mobile USA’s Binge On!, Verizon Wireless’s FreeBee sponsored data product, and Facebook’s Free Basics (deceased, but still walking). The net-neutrality debate, it turns out, is not over, but rather has been reframed around zero-rating rather than throttling. And the effect of net-neutrality legislation has been to make the issue more political than ever. The Indian debate over Free Basics took in a huge range of issues, from the fate of Indian startups to the development of Indian infrastructure. We expect this to be a major theme of MWC.

See you in Barcelona… and as we’re proud to be partners with the GSMA again this year, why not take advantage of our special 15% discount - click on the link here to register and take advantage of (use code OSPT1572).


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