2010 Year in Review: Wireless data explosion creates chain reaction

Phil GoldsteinLooking back on 2010, it's clear that the explosive growth of mobile data traffic, driven by USB modems, smartphones and tablets, is now the omnipresent concern of almost every player in the industry. It is concurrently pushing carriers to find solutions to network congestion while at the same time stuffing coffers with data revenues.

The growth of data is not exactly a new phenomenon. This year we saw carriers actively working to handle the curnch, both via network and capacity upgrades and changes to pricing geared toward penalizing heavy data users.

One dominant theme this year was the rise of usage-based pricing for mobile broadband as a viable option for carriers to explore. After months of speculation, AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) in early June became the first U.S. carrier to switch from unlimited smartphone data plans to a two-tiered, usage-based pricing model. Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and T-Mobile USA followed shortly thereafter.

Another milestone was the emergence of LTE networks. Both Verizon and MetroPCS (NASDAQ:PCS) now offer LTE, and the launches represent the culmination of years of planning and toil, and also propel the United States into the cutting edge of wireless technology.

what was the biggest story in 2010?The seemingly endless battle over net neutrality appears to have shaken out in the wireless carriers' favor, with light rules planned for carriers, much to the chagrin of public interest groups and many Web companies. Throughout the debate I've been torn by the two main opposing arguments: the one from the carriers that argues spectrum is a finite resource and the laws of physics necessitate flexibility in actively managing the network, and the opposing argument that in a world where the Internet will increasingly become mobilized, consumers need strong protections against content discrimination. The consistent, and sometimes vehement, opposition of the wireless industry to net neutrality demonstrates to me that wireless carriers want to be as unfettered as possible as the demand for mobile data expands.

Two other big stories of the year--the prolific growth of Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android platform and the emergence of tablets as a mainstream product sparked by Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad--will likely accelerate in 2011, putting more pressure than ever before on operators' networks. I suspect that next year vendors that engage in policy management, dynamic subscriber intelligence and other network congestion solutions will find even more favor with carriers.

The test will be to see if carriers can both handle the massive onslaught of data and come up with innovative ways to deliver value to subscribers at the same time. I hope that carriers can begin to guide consumers to more dynamic data plans that would, for instance, be tailored around specific application usage and offer guaranteed, high-quality service for a premium--or at the very least, plans that offer a bucket of data for multiple devices.

This year we saw data course its way through the veins of the mobile ecosystem as never before. Next year, let's hope the industry will be stronger for it. --Phil

P.S. FierceWireless will be on a publishing hiatus through the holiday season. We will be back in your inbox on Monday, Jan. 3. Have a safe and enjoyable holiday!