MWC: Operators fight back

With the Mobile World Congress once more behind us, the wireless industry can get over its exhaustion and take stock of the key themes that emerged. Overall, the mood was cautiously optimistic, with vendors and carriers expecting a slightly better year than 2009, but the emphasis was on real world issues of delivering systems, and profits, in the near term. This was not a show about consumer glitz or bluesky vision, but about leveraging carrier networks and application platforms to create real business models even in straitened times. Our key five themes:
Operator fightback
The most obvious development was a powerful collective effort by the 3G carriers, here in their heartland event, to enhance their position in the mobile internet value chain. From the Wholesale Applications Community, which created a common ecosystem for 24 of the largest cellcos, to Vodafone's stand-off with Google, to the new support for the carrier driven LiMO software platform, it was clear that the mobile operators were not accepting the dreaded “bitpipe” role any time soon.
Intelligent data networks
Related to the above, the most dominant topic of conversation was handling the mobile data explosion, in terms of capacity and, more importantly, quality of experience plus profit for the entire value chain. Some of the buzz was around business models, particularly those that involve carriers generating revenue from content providers and industries rather than the consumer. Most of the serious talk was about putting intelligence right through the network, and adopting a wide range of tactics to manage data cleverly - huge advances in the packet core, much talk of offloading data at various points, and the increasingly intelligent backhaul.
Small cells
This was not a new theme, but was intensified this year, with the increasing assumption that 4G networks will be built out using ever smaller cells, especially in developed economies and urban centers where capacity is challenged. This is boosting the vendors of picocells and of femtocells, as the latter category starts to broaden its role into being an outdoor as well as indoor solution to the capacity crunch. It is also letting some non-traditional players into the once closed ecosystem of base station silicon - the femto silicon pioneers like picoChip, and the DSP core licensors, notably CEVA, which is finding small cells an interesting way round the TI/Freescale lockdown of macro base stations for 3G and LTE (CEVA underpins an interesting Mindspeed picocell announcement).
As at all wireless shows, there was considerably lobbying by carriers - traditional and new - for more spectrum, more quickly, and with fewer strings attached. Shortage of spectrum in the short term is boosting Wi-Fi and Wimax offload, while one of the most discussed issues around LTE was the fragmentation of the bands and modes in which it will be deployed, creating challenges for rapid development of a device ecosystem.
New device formats and OSes
Devices, whether handsets or the emerging categories like tablets, were less prominent than at January's CES, but there were still some big launches, plus much focus on which device formats will succeed in the embedded wireless model. More important was the type of content that will be delivered to the tablets and other new form factors; how this will be done (Ericsson, Qualcomm and Alcatel-Lucent all offering white label stores); and to some extent the OS of the device. All the major OS platforms issued updates on new releases, and all of these upgrades will be targeted at spreading the reach of the mobile open OS upwards to hybrid products, and downwards to mass market phones.
This article originally appeared on Rethink Wireless