Andrew Seybold: What Was and Was Not at CTIA Wireless 2008

CTIA Wireless 2008 (held last week in Las Vegas) is the largest of CTIA's two annual shows. Each year, numerous reporters flock to this show to discover what is hot and what is not, and perhaps even what was missing. This year was no exception. What was missing was meaningful dialogue about the results of the 700 MHz auctions, as Sue Marek pointed out in one of her editorials. The FCC kept the clamps on everything by not lifting the anti-collusion rule until April 3, the day the conference ended. As a result, we did not learn much about what the 700 MHz winners have planned, although on the 4th AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless sent out press releases saying their 700 MHz spectrum would be used for 4th-generation systems based on LTE (Long Term Evolution). But discussion about the failed D block shared public/private sector spectrum auction was not permitted, though I am sure everyone associated with it has his or her own ideas (including me, see my Commentary at www.andrewseybold.com).

Nevertheless, there was plenty of interesting things at CTIA. First, we saw handsets from UTStarcom, Samsung and others to support Leap's Cricket AWS properties that are being rolled out (the CDMA handsets support 1900 MHz as well). Meanwhile, other handset vendors including Nokia have announced GSM/UMTS phones for the T-Mobile UMTS network that will be built on the AWS spectrum. It also seems that everywhere you went, in every booth you visited where handsets were being shown, there was at least one IPK (iPhone Killer), although these devices lack the ecosystem that is so much a part of the success of the iPhone.

Location-based services are gaining in popularity and there was a lot of noise about GPS and non-GPS LBS wireless chipsets being embedded in consumer GPS devices to add instant updates and even traffic reporting services. The best traffic service I have heard of was not being demonstrated at the show, but in a press release from IntelliOne and Rogers Communications about the first commercialization of IntelliOne's Traffic-Aid system. I believe this is the gold standard of traffic reporting. IntelliOne monitors every phone on a wireless network, stripped of ESNs and phone numbers for privacy, locates the phones and, if they are on a roadway, be it a freeway, secondary or neighborhood roadway, it tracks the direction and speed of the phone. By doing this, it can update traffic every thirty seconds as long as there is wireless services from that network provider. Look for this service to be rolled out in the United States shortly.

Meanwhile, in FCC Chairman Martin's speech during the keynote address on April 1, he called for a renewed look at E911 (Enhanced 911) accuracies as reported by the network operators to the PSAPs (Public Safety Answering Points). Companies such as True Position that has been the leader in TDOA (Time Difference Of Arrival) have taken up the challenge and are combining an updated version of TDOA, GPS at each cell site and GPS in handsets to provide for a hybrid method of location that can be used for better E911 location determination and better navigation accuracy. The LBS ecosystem is gaining momentum as these new products and services come online and over the next few years we will see LBS become a mainstream application that will soon be taken for granted in our phones, just as most of us have come to expect a camera.

WiMAX was all over the floor too, partly because the WiMAX community has learned how to increase the buzz surrounding WiMAX and partly because this year and next will be "truth time" for the WiMAX community. Will it really perform as well as they say it will? Will you really get 30 KMs of coverage per cell site at 2.5 GHz? Will it become a ubiquitous contender in the mobile data (and soon voice) space? What will happen to Sprint's Xohm and Clearwire? Will they make another deal and will some cable companies join them? Is there a business model for WiMAX outside of rural areas or underdeveloped countries where there is no existing infrastructure?

There are those who believe WiMAX will be vindicated and its performance will be everything promised and more, and then there are those of us who believe it has been so over-hyped it will be a disappointment to network operators that have deployed it in good faith. The story will be told in 2008 and 2009.

One thing that was not at the show this year was a "buzz"-a new product or category that took everyone by surprise and promised to change the wireless world as we know it. Sure, there was far too much discussion of open access, and there were many developers showing some really great programs, but there was no real buzz, just an air of excitement. More spectrum (AWS) and now 700 MHz means more business for tower companies, infrastructure companies, handset makers, software developers and chip companies. So there is reason to be optimistic.

When I worked as a sales engineer for some of the leading two-way radio companies, the worst economic times were the best times for us. Why? Because communications enabled companies to do more with less, to route their trucks more effectively and eliminate the need to add trucks or people for service. Using voice communications (in those days) they were able to get more out of what they already had. This down period in our economy, coupled with new spectrum and 3G and 4G data services in addition to voice will promote more growth in our industry.

While there wasn't a real buzz at CTIA Wireless 2008, there was buzz about the new opportunities that await us all between now and next year's show.

Andrew Seybold is an authority on technology and trends shaping the world of wireless mobility. A respected analyst, consultant, commentator, author and active participant in industry trade organizations, his views have influenced strategies and shaped initiatives for telecom, mobile computing and wireless industry leaders worldwide.

P.S. Join Sue Marek, Andy and Linda Barrabee of the Yankee Group on Thursday, April 10 at 2 p.m. EST for a Webinar on "The newsmakers of CTIA." Sign up here.

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