The 5 big issues the wireless industry is hiding from at this year's MWC

Mike Dano

BARCELONA, Spain -- 5G, virtual reality and the Internet of Things are dominating discussions at this year's Mobile World Congress show here. Indeed, vendors, carriers and others are making so much noise on those topics that it almost seems as if they're trying to drown out more pressing issues.

Here are the topics that wireless really should be addressing here at the industry's largest trade show:

1, Toll-free data. The wireless industry, particularly in the United States, is hurtling headfirst into a world where actual wireless users won't necessarily be paying for all of their own data access charges -- and few here at MWC show much interest in this dramatic change. Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile US, Comcast and others are in the midst of pushing this new model onto their respective customers, and it remains mostly unclear how users and regulators are ultimately going to react.

For example, T-Mobile is giving customers "free" access to select video and music services by modifying those data streams; Verizon is itself paying for the cost of delivering video to its Go90 users; and Comcast is running its Stream through its video delivery network, the result of which makes it free to the carrier's broadband customers to receive.

The advent of these toll-free data (also called zero-rated data or sponsored data) offerings marks a big change in how wireless users can access their services because it essentially introduces guideposts into users' digital travels. Instead of opening the door to the Internet for users, carriers like Verizon and Comcast are laying out paths to specific kinds of content. Users of course will like this because it makes their service bill cheaper than it otherwise would be -- but the ramifications of this new approach to billing are unclear at best. I like the idea of someone else paying my Internet access bill, though I want to know exactly who is doing it and why.

2, A third option: For years, Mobile World Congress has been the scene of hype and hope for a third alternative to Google's Android and Apple's iOS.

·        HP unveiled its webOS phones at the 2011 show.

·        Huawei, Fujitsu, NEC, Orange and others voiced support for the Tizen platform in 2013.

·        Mozilla launched its Firefox smartphone OS at the 2013 show, cautioning that the platform might not arrive in the United States until 2014.

·        And Jolla executives in 2014 said the company's ambitions go beyond smartphones. Today, of course, those platforms are either dead or MIA.

Carrier executives have often voiced support for smartphone platforms beyond Android and iOS, explicitly arguing for more choices for users but also likely hoping for leverage against the growing power of Google and Apple.

But at this year's MWC, it appears that most of the industry has accepted a two-option world. Yes, Canonical 's Ubuntu, Microsoft's Windows 10 and BlackBerry 10 remain options, but they definitively lacked momentum at this year's show.

The result is a smartphone industry that remains largely outside operators' grasp.

3, Passpoint roaming. The Passpoint program, also called Hotspot 2.0, launched in 2012 to allow mobile users to automatically sign on to Wi-Fi at any participating access point. The result for MWC attendees here in Barcelona would be cheap or free access to Wi-Fi where a cellular network wasn't available, or as a way for attendees to avoid the truly oppressive roaming charges often levied by U.S. wireless carriers.

For the Wi-Fi industry, the implications of Passpoint are significant. Via the technology, a Wi-Fi hotspot operator could build a network and then essentially open that network up to roaming traffic from cellular carriers.

But despite a few dabbles into the technology -- T-Mobile quietly tested Passpoint roaming with Bright House Networks last year -- mobile carriers in general haven't moved to offer this option to their customers. Here at MWC, mentions of Passpoint are few and far between.

Instead, most wireless carriers appear keen to deploy LTE-U or LAA technology, an approach that essentially pushes LTE into the unlicensed spectrum mostly used by Wi-Fi. It's a clear signal that wireless carriers want to retain control over their users instead of handing them off to local Wi-Fi network operators. That's an unfortunate position for users stuck with fading signals and hefty international charges.

4, Interoperability. At the 2012 Mobile World Congress, AT&T's Ralph de la Vega used his keynote appearance to urge industry players to agree on a standard for video calling, which would allow various video calling services to interoperate. "Our customers today can't do this easily," de la Vega said at the time.

Four years later, AT&T's customers still can't do this.

There are many reasons why this kind of interoperability remains out of reach for most wireless users. Video calling companies like Apple with its FaceTime have kept their services proprietary -- despite promises in some cases to open their standards to others. And most businesses built around messaging -- such as WhatsApp -- either can't easily interoperate or choose not to because doing so would loosen their grip on their users.

The GSMA for years has pushed the RCS standard for communications, which proponents argue would form the basis for interoperability that would extend to video calling. But for years, industry support for the technology has been lackluster and implementations have been mocked.

Despite some movement in this area this year at MWC by Google and Genband, video calling and other advanced services remains locked into siloed services. For an industry desperate to kick start the IoT, the absence of interoperable video calling -- a service first commercialized in the United States in 2007 -- is both laughable and telling.

5, Wi-Fi calling. This is the one that really bugs me. In 2007, T-Mobile launched Wi-Fi calling with partner Kineto. The service gave users free, unlimited calling as well as the ability to improve coverage inside their home with the Wi-Fi hotspot they already owned.

And what did most other wireless carriers do? Generally they argued their networks were so great that users didn't need Wi-Fi calling. They also in some cases sold femtocells.

In 2014, Apple breathed life back into Wi-Fi calling issue by adding the technology into its iOS 8. But it took AT&T roughly a year to support the technology. And Verizon? Big Red only just this month said it will support Wi-Fi calling via iOS 9.3.

Major wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon have been dragged practically kicking and screaming into support for Wi-Fi calling. In the meantime, Wi-Fi users with poor or no cellular coverage simply couldn't place voice calls from their phones -- despite the fact that Wi-Fi calling technology has been around for eight years. Eight years! It's difficult to listen to operators extolling the benefits of 20 Gbps 5G technology when they have a history of being unable to make relatively simple concessions to coverage solutions outside their direct control. Mike | @mikeddano