On the network side of things, this year's Mobile World Congress looks like it's going to get retro: A major focus by vendors and carriers will be on W-Fi and how it should integrate into the macro cellular network. Though Wi-Fi has been around for years, dramatic increases in mobile users' demands for data--sparked by the popularity of high-powered smartphones--is driving a renewed interest in the idea of offloading cellular traffic onto Wi-Fi networks.
To wit: According to Cisco, mobile offload onto Wi-Fi will increase from 11 percent (72 petabytes per month) in 2011 to 22 percent (3.1 exabytes per month) in 2016.
Not surprisingly, noise on the carrier Wi-Fi front appears to be gaining steam. Stoke, Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE:ALU) and BelAir Networks have each announced new products for carrier customers that help manage mobile phone users' movements from cellular to Wi-Fi, and vice versa. Indeed, Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC)--the world's largest network infrastructure vendor--recently announced a purchase of Wi-Fi network company BelAir. The acquisition represents an acknowledgement of the importance of Wi-Fi in future macro wireless networks.
"When something happens just once or twice, it can be discounted as a market outlier or anomaly. When it starts to happen regularly, as has been the case with recent announcements about carrier Wi-Fi, it becomes a trend," wrote Ovum analyst Daryl Schoolar in a post on the research firm's blog. "Carrier Wi-Fi comprises Wi-Fi solutions especially designed for communication service providers. Since the 2011 Mobile World Congress, infrastructure vendors have been talking about the benefits of Wi-Fi to increase capacity on mobile networks. Coming into the 2012 MWC, this topic appears to be gaining momentum."
"With operators griping about their spectrum needs, who can turn down free?" summed Peter Jarich, an analyst with Current Analysis and a Fierce contributor.
At the MWC show, a number of companies are planning demonstrations and news around the nexus of cellular and Wi-Fi:
- Network vendor Alvarion plans to introduce the first in a series of 802.11n solutions via its BreezeULTRA family of products.
- Modem company Option plans to announce a hotspot that can connect to either Wi-Fi or 3G before passing that connection on to others. (Thus, if you've paid for one Wi-Fi connection, you can share it with nearby users.)
- Test and measurement company Spirent will show off a performance test of Wi-Fi offload gateways.
MWC attendees keen on catching the latest comments on this topic should probably check out the Tuesday keynote "Exploring the Mobile Cloud," featuring vendors including Cisco and Alcatel-Lucent. Attendees may also want to catch Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg's keynote Wednesday.
Of course, Wi-Fi offload won't be the only topic among the world's network infrastructure vendors. Small cells will likely be a key topic, particularly in light of the Femtocell Forum's decision to change its name to the Small Cell Forum. "One hot topic is small cell backhaul--that's a major unresolved issue in small cell deployments," noted Monica Paolini, founder and president of Senza Fili Consulting, a Fierce contributor. "There are many solutions, many promising, but there everybody is still experimenting and trying to figure out the business model."
Voice over LTE likely will be another hot issue. "The GSMA have completed our work on VoLTE, including the standardization of the approach, the interoperability and the call roaming," the group said in a recent statement to FierceWireless. "We expect to see a number of announcements at the show around the implementation of VoLTE services and support in new devices."
Finally, operators' moves to LTE Advanced network technology could also generate MWC interest. Interestingly, Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) CEO Dan Hesse is scheduled to speak on the "Driving the Mobile Technology Evolution" keynote Thursday, and LTE Advanced is billed as one of the topics to be covered.