There is no shortage of technology innovation—such as Carrier Aggregation, Massive MIMO, LTE-U/LAA, and pre-5G—to check out at MWC later this month. On top of the technology innovations, key markets in the USA, China, and Japan have new spectrum, as regulators seem eager to open up additional spectrum for mobile use. New spectrum availability at 3.5 GHz, 4.5 GHz, 600 MHz, and millimeter bands may spur added industry dynamism with new business models and new players. In the USA, the new FCC leadership appears more open to market consolidations, raising the prospects for industry consolidation and convergence.
With so many changes afoot, it seems that competitive lines in the industry are being re-drawn. Convergence of fixed and mobile networks may emerge as the major theme of the next few years. With that backdrop, I have many questions as I wonder what technology and business innovations will shape the industry in transition.
Does a mobile operator need a cable operator, or is it the other way around?
With the incentive auction coming to a close, there is a growing expectation that mobile and cable operators will more closely evaluate their strategic options. The recent rumor of a Verizon/Charter tie-up is one of many possibilities that we’ve been predicting for some time. In this type of fixed/mobile tie-up, who has the leverage? Does a mobile operator need dense fixed line network assets of cable operators to pursue their 5G network deployments? Or, does a cable operator need mobile operator assets to get into the wireless game in a bigger way (beyond MVNO)? Based on today’s competitive dynamics, mobile operators appear more in need of a relief from competitive pressures than the cable operators. I will be keen to understand the motivations of the differing players based on their network and technology investment choices.
Will “5G” fixed wireless succeed?
The leading mobile operators, Verizon and AT&T, have been trialing fixed wireless services using millimeter wave bands as they seek relief from a fiercely competitive core smartphone market where the challengers are offering “unlimited” data plans to lure new subscribers. A large swath of spectrum in the millimeter wave band along with massive MIMO and beamforming promises high peak capacity – enough to provide a fixed broadband alternative. In addition to the incremental revenue opportunity, we believe the 5G fixed wireless deployment trials provide a pathway for 5G technologies to prove themselves out in real-world scenarios. The fixed broadband application removes the engineering challenges of mobility and battery life. However, the RF propagation challenges of higher spectrum bands make the economics heavily dependent on whether a customer premise equipment (CPE) can be self-installed by a customer or whether a truck roll is required. If this “RF through the wall” problem can be overcome and if self-installed CPE deployment is possible, then fixed wireless broadband can find a foothold in the marketplace – firstly in multi-dwelling units near the radio sites. If this is successful, then some fixed broadband markets could transition completely to wireless over time, as the technology gains scale which will ultimately determine the underlying unit economics. I will be keen to look out for technology innovations that solve this type of deployment challenges.
LTE in unlicensed and shared spectrum - who will use what, and where?
Technologies like LTE-U/LAA, 3.5GHz CBRS, and MulteFire are inexpensive. Is lower cost for unlicensed or shared-spectrum technologies enough to drop the barrier to entry, and bring more players to the marketplace? New players sometimes bring different perspectives and enable new business innovations. The 3.5GHz CBRS is a good example of this. It has the potential to bring fixed, mobile and large enterprises to make additional investments in in-building and outdoor network projects. I will be looking for evidence that this new business model can attract major-league investment.
As I look forward to MWC later this month, these are some of the questions that I will bring to my conversations. What questions do you have?
Kyung Mun is a Senior Analyst at Mobile Experts LLC. Mobile Experts is a network of market and technology experts that provides market analysis on the mobile infrastructure and mobile handset markets. Over the course of his 20+ years in wireless and cable industries in a dynamic range of roles from engineering to product management and technology strategy, he has contributed to the advancement of mobile communication, while working at leading companies in the mobile value chain including Motorola, Texas Instruments, Alcatel-Lucent, and a few startups in between. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and Georgia Tech, and studied finance and strategy at Southern Methodist University.