Editor’s Corner—Here are 6 things you missed at MWC Americas 2018

The MWC Americas trade show this year was held in Los Angeles. (Mike Dano / FierceWireless)

This year’s fall trade show was a relatively pivotal one for the wireless industry. Not only was it the second under the management of GSMA—and the first in Los Angeles—it was the final show before the industry’s commercial launch of 5G.

Mike Dano

If operators’ promises are any indication, by this time next year AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint will all be in various stages of rolling out commercial 5G services, both the fixed and mobile variety.

Indeed, by this time next year we might even have a commercial NB-IoT network from Charlie Ergen’s Dish Network.

So, if this year’s show was so critical, what did we actually learn?

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Perhaps the most important development this week was Verizon’s commercial launch of its fixed 5G service. The company opened the offering up for customer registration and unveiled the final and perhaps most important details of the service: It will cost $50 per month for Verizon mobile customers or $70 per month for others, it will require professional installation, and it will initially be based on Verizon’s proprietary 5GTF standard.

As I have previously written, Verizon’s “5G Home” service is a major new development in the ongoing battle between the wireless industry and the cable industry, but the offer suffers from a few key problems.

But Verizon’s 5G Home launch wasn’t the only major piece of news to hit this year’s show:

  • AT&T announced it will embark on a fixed wireless deployment of CBRS 3.5 GHz spectrum with partners Samsung and CommScope.

  • AT&T will use equipment from Samsung, Ericsson and Nokia to launch mobile 5G in 19 cities in the coming months.

  • Although the company didn’t announce the news at MWC Americas, Apple introduced three new iPhones, each aimed at slightly different market demographics. The phones also represent a major step forward for eSIM technology.

  • RCS messaging technology continues to make commercial progress, which a number of major players including Samsung announcing support for the technology.

  • Although it didn’t provide many specific updates to its 5G plans, T-Mobile quietly unveiled additional details around its efforts to improve its network with backhaul and small cells ahead of its pending commercial 5G launch.

  • Sprint, for its part, reiterated its desire to merge with T-Mobile, while former CEO Marcelo Claure discussed the potential created by the intersection of 5G and artificial intelligence.

  • And the nation’s four largest wireless operators announced some progress in their attempts to combat SIM hacking via their Project Verify, a joint attempt by Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile to develop an authentication system for apps that’s more secure than simple phone numbers.

So, clearly, this year’s MWC Americas wasn’t bereft of news. But the keynotes and events at the show certainly weren’t comprehensive. Specifically, this year’s MWC Americas show didn’t have much information on some of the most pressing issues facing today’s wireless players; from cable players to fixed wireless to satellite developments to 5G monetization, this year’s show was lacking in several key departments.

Here are six things you missed at this year’s MWC Americas:

1.The cable angle. Comcast, Charter and Altice—three of the nation’s largest cable operators—are making significant inroads into the wireless industry. Comcast and Charter both operate MVNOs through Verizon, while Altice is preparing to launch its own Sprint-powered MVNO next year.

Further, all of those companies are working to expand into the wireless networking space: For example, Comcast is toying with LoRa IoT offerings in unlicensed spectrum, while Charter has made it clear that it hopes to grow into a major player in the CBRS 3.5 GHz space. And Altice is leveraging its extensive fiber and Docsis network to roll out small cells for the likes of Sprint.

Although Charter’s Craig Cowden made an appearance at the CBRS Alliance’s event at MWC Americas, neither Comcast nor Altice had a public presence at this year’s MWC Americas show—and that creates a distinct and important gap in the show’s schedule.

2. The satellite angle. OneWeb, SpaceX, Boeing and others are working to deploy low-orbit satellites in order to provide wireless internet coverage in underserved areas of the United States and elsewhere. This effort has received some support from the FCC, which is moving to speed the approval process for low-Earth orbit satellites as a way to improve internet coverage in rural areas.

Satellite service, of course, has long stood as an alternative to cellular options, but recent technological advances have made satellites a more compelling choice for travelers. And the growing noise around low-Earth orbit satellites makes this a space to watch (pun intended).

Unfortunately, MWC Americas attendees didn’t hear much about these topics on any of the event’s main stages or conferences.

3. New phones. While phone makers routinely use IFA and the MWC show in Spain as a launching ground for new devices, this year’s MWC Americas show felt like a phone graveyard. Companies like Samsung, Motorola and Alcatel were surprisingly quiet this year—likely due to the fact that Apple unveiled its new iPhones during a media event in San Francisco on Wednesday.

Indeed, the GSMA is aware of this situation, and said that next year’s show has been scheduled in Los Angeles later in October in order to be better positioned as a launching ground for new phones and devices hoping to cash in on the holiday shopping season.

It’s unclear whether that strategy will work—the handset market is nowhere near as interesting and competitive as it was five years ago, at the height of the smartphone wave—but this year’s MWC Attendees certainly didn’t get any new insight into the phone market at the show.

4. The fixed wireless angle. If you’ve been reading FierceWireless this year, you know that fixed wireless is a thing. It’s a technology that companies ranging from Midco to C Spire to AT&T to Rise Broadband to Starry are embracing as a way to deploy internet services into both urban and rural locations.

Fixed wireless technology, at its core, is growing into a viable alternative to the staid wired internet world. It’s basically the ISP equivalent to over-the-top video: OTT internet, if you will.

But beyond Verizon’s new “5G Home” service, MWC Americas attendees didn’t hear much about this trend—one that I think is poised to grow significantly in the months to come.

Instead, the fixed wireless trend will likely be addressed during the WISPA’s upcoming Wispapalooza show in October in Las Vegas.

5. Dish. Charlie Ergen’s Dish Network has promised to build a nationwide 5G wireless network with its extensive spectrum holdings. Already the company has begun purchasing tower space and equipment for its NB-IoT network.

Some continue to believe that this gambit is merely an attempt by Dish to retain its spectrum licenses by meeting the FCC’s spectrum build-out requirements while holding out for an eventual spectrum sale to a company like Verizon.

That may well be true, but MWC Americas attendees wouldn't know anything about it because Dish wasn’t on the agenda.

6. The Wi-Fi angle. Did you use Wi-Fi to connect to the internet at the Los Angeles Convention Center or at your hotel? Did you wonder whether the Wi-Fi Alliance’s Passpoint technology is being used to offload excess cellular traffic onto the venue’s Wi-Fi networks? (Spoiler: It was, according to Passpoint supporter Boingo.)

How about the newest Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ax? Did you hear anything about how this technology may be able to provide speeds similar to 5G? Already, companies like Starry and Common Networks are investing heavily in 802.11-based fixed wireless services.

More importantly, did you know that the cable industry is working to develop a nationwide network of Wi-Fi hotspots that could give the companies a competitive advantage in the sale of mobile services—and that Comcast’s Xfinity Mobile and Charter’s Spectrum Mobile are both aggressively selling Apple’s new iPhones?

No? Too bad.

Now, I want to be clear here: This year’s MWC Americas show wasn’t a dud. Attendees learned much more about the commercial rollout of 5G service, and how that trend might affect cities, media companies, building owners, automobile companies and others. Moreover, MWC Americas show organizers addressed a wide range of other topics in keynotes, sessions and events, from artificial intelligence to edge computing to the IoT.

But my point is that show attendees should know that there are other big trends affecting the mobile industry that were not covered at this year’s show—and that it’s risky to venture into the trade show season with blinders on.

Now, here’s where I’m going to take a minute to engage in some shameless self promotion: FierceWireless is hosting its second annual Next Gen Wireless Networks Summit in Dallas next month, Oct. 17-19. We’re going to tackle some of the issues I brought up in the above list. Our show is by no means comprehensive, but we designed it to address some of the issues that we think are important to companies playing in the wireless industry. We hope you’ll join us there.

The remainder of 2018—and 2019 in particular—present a critical test for a wireless industry in the midst of a major transition to 5G. Will cellular companies be able to live up to the 5G hype? That remains to be seen. — Mike | @mikeddano

Editor's Corners are opinion columns written by a member of the Fierce editorial team. They are edited for balance and accuracy.