By this point, you probably know most of what took place at Mobile World Congress last week. Between late-February previews, the daily updates from Barcelona and the post-show updates, nearly everything that was announced, discussed or even hinted at has been documented somewhere. Strangely, what I haven't seen talked about much is the key theme linking much of what took place at the Fira: Pragmatism.
Last year, when Alcatel-Lucent announced its lightRadio solution, we were somewhat isolated in taking a dubious stance on the solution. Our issue: The solution seemed to be one part vision, one part commercial roadmap that still needed to be squared with Alcatel-Lucent's broader small-cell story. A year later, the vendor's lightRadio-based LTE small-cell deployments in support of Telefonica's LTE demos at the Fira demonstrated that we've moved past the "vision" stage. Since operators are facing real issues with addressing mobile data demands and battling over-the-top players, it's only logical that vendors and operators, alike, focus on pragmatic solutions. It's no surprise, then, that this focus on pragmatism wasn't limited to any one vendor, operator or technology.
LTE-A. Last year, there were plenty of LTE-Advanced technology demonstrations. Carrier aggregation, for example, was on display in many booths. So, too, were hetnet demonstrations and lots of other LTE-A functionalities. A year later, you'd expect the LTE-A noise to be even louder. It wasn't. Some people we spoke with blamed device R&D, but not all LTE-A features require major device changes. Instead, LTE-A simply lost out to the fact that greater network efficiencies could be gained--leveraging existing spectrum--by deployments of technologies like small cells and Wi-Fi. Yes, LTE-A will bring important efficiencies in the long-run, but small cells and Wi-Fi represent the near-term's low-hanging fruit.
LTE Femtocells. Speaking of small cells, it would seem that MWC 2012 was a good year for LTE femtocells. I won't point you to any specific vendor, but a quick Google exercise will point you to a few. But, the femtocells introduced generally weren't the residential, cellular access points you might normally think of. Most featured 16-plus user devices aimed at enterprise or public applications. That's smart. The focus is on monetizable opportunities and capacity hot spots and acknowledges that cellular femtocells--in the home, at least--are primarily about voice capacity and coverage.
Wi-Fi. Just days before MWC 2012 kicked off, Ericsson's acquisition of BelAir Networks set the tone on carrier Wi-Fi. Yes, other major cellular network vendors had telegraphed their moves into Wi-Fi (think Alcatel-Lucent's light Radio Wi-Fi or NSN's Flexi Zone), but the outright acquisition of a successful carrier Wi-Fi vendor suggests a different order of commitment. At the same time, for Ericsson--a champion of all things 3GPP--to back Wi-Fi on this scale can only be cast as pragmatic; it's a sign that, faced with growing data demands, no operator or vendor can afford to overlook a potential data offload technology backed by the availability of free spectrum.
Videoconferencing. On the Thursday before MWC 2012, a group of equipment manufacturers and European operators announced an initiative to deliver, "an open solution for videoconference services" with the expected benefits of interoperability, mass-market scale, etc. Demos were held from booth-to-booth at the show, highlighting the effective use of things like IMS and the GSMA's IPX for interconnection. On several occasions, I heard the videoconferencing work related to the industry's work on VoLTE over the past few years; both, in particular, pulled together multiple vendors and operators to narrow down existing standards and technologies into a commercially workable communications service. Yet, where the VoLTE work was broad-reaching and pulled in players from across the globe, the absence of any non-European operators in the videoconferencing initiative is telling. It's not that video isn't important outside of Europe. Rather, it's simply easier to move quickly with a small body of like-minded players. Standards are necessary to move industries forward. Coming into standards setting with a workable, agreed upon set of specifications is easier and allows for quicker action.
Operator Innovation. If you followed the Global Mobile Awards from MWC, you noticed that the "Best Mobile Broadband Technology" went to KT for its Premium Wi-Fi Solution. In the same way that OTT players (vs. service providers) took home many service-related awards, an operator taking home a technology award might seem strange. KT, however, wasn't alone on the innovation front. Telefonica had its work with Mozilla and the continued progress with Blue Via. SKTelecom was proudly demonstrating its solution for melding cellular and Wi-Fi connections into a higher-capacity pipe. You might think of some of this as "visionary." Instead, a better way to position it is as operators taking matters into their own hands - solving their own problems rather than waiting on vendors to help them.
While futuristic technology introductions are always fun (who could forget the IMS demonstrations from five years ago?), the MWC 2012 focus on pragmatism was refreshing. The difficulty, of course, is balancing far-reaching innovation with near-term business priorities and technology commercialization. If MWC 2011 was strong on vision, and MWC 2012 was strong on pragmatism, hopefully MWC 2013 can find the balance.
Peter Jarich is the Service Director leading Current Analysis telecom infrastructure practice. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.