The Best and Worst of CTIA’s Super Mobility show 2016

Credit: Monica Alleven

There was plenty to talk about last week in Las Vegas at CTIA’s annual Super Mobility week trade show. From autonomous cars to spectrum auctions to 5G, the wireless industry continues to move forward in new and interesting ways.

To be clear, though, there was little in the way of major announcements at CTIA this year. That was a big difference from past years, when carriers would pull out all the stops to announce their latest wireless network advancements, and handset makers would hold major press events to take the wraps off their latest and greatest.

Indeed, the most noteworthy news in the wireless industry last week happened not in Las Vegas but in San Francisco, where Apple unveiled its latest iPhone and made the “courageous” decision to remove the gadget’s 3.5 mm headphone jack.

But anyway.

Although CTIA this year was a relatively quiet affair, those in the industry generally argued that the future remains bright as networks continue to become more flexible and capable and the opportunities to connect things – bikes, drones, the list goes on – continues to grow.

CTIA, for its part, declined to release attendance figures for this year’s event. Instead the association released a statement from chief executive Meredith Attwell Baker: “With standing-room only keynotes, educational sessions and more activity than ever before, CTIA Super Mobility 2016 exceeded our goals and expectations. This was a great foundation for our new event next year in San Francisco.”

With that in mind, here are the best of worst of this year’s CTIA show, compiled by me and my colleagues Monica Alleven and Colin Gibbs:

Best: Smart cities, smart city tech implementations

One of the smartest things CTIA show organizers did was the Smart City Park, an area on the show floor highlighting interesting and innovative implementations of smart city technologies. Big leafy creatures – including one on stilts -- walking around the area certainly drew attention, and a lot of show attendees used the area to sit and collect their bearings.

In the same general area, AT&T set up an exhibit that featured several smart tech implementations that are either here or coming, including an acoustic device that can be attached to public infrastructure for detecting gunshots on a city street or sidewalk, for instance, and alerting first responders. Some of these devices already have been deployed, although it’s unlikely that public safety officials will want to point out where they’re set up due to security reasons. Smart trash bins alert authorities when they’re full and need to be changed, saving unnecessary trips to check on them, and smart traffic solutions presumably will be coming with the advent of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure implementations that are often tied to 5G.

CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker called out the mayors of Atlanta and Kansas City during her Day 1 keynote, saying that with the kind of leadership they possess, smart cities will revolutionize urban America. AT&T also played up the smart home and connected car at its booth, and Qualcomm CTO Matt Grob during his keynote talked about how Qualcomm is working with AT&T to test drones in LTE spectrum – all of which could make communities safer.

During a panel on smart cities and the infrastructure of IoT, Mike Bell, president and CEO of Silver Spring Networks, noted examples where utilities are able to avoid building another power plant altogether thanks to the data they’re collecting. “This kind of IoT thing that we talk about and smart city thing, it’s making a huge difference and it doesn’t always get the publicity” that other stuff gets, he said. Fortunately, smart cities and the impact that technology promises did get a fair share of the limelight at last week’s CTIA show. – Monica

Worst: 5G dominated CTIA. But what exactly is it again?

There’s no question that 5G played a major role in last week’s CTIA Super Mobility 2016 in Las Vegas. Next-generation technologies and services were mentioned in nearly every keynote, they were the subject of events such as FierceWireless’ own An inside look at building and deploying 5G breakfast, and the show floor featured a “5G Launchpad” from Qualcomm.

But just what 5G is – or will be – and what it will mean to consumers and businesses has yet to be explained. After all, the standard has not yet been defined, and most players remain unable to explain clear needs and use cases for the super-fast wireless technology.

Attendees at this year’s show heard a lot about network densification (primarily via small cells) and how that will improve existing wireless networks. They also heard how the IoT will continue to bloom through LTE networks as well as through other network options like Sigfox and Ingenu. And 5G proponents explained how the technology will move both of these areas – as well as a wide range of other sectors – forward.

Given all those variables, the term “5G” may not actually mean much in the end. While 4G – which eventually came to mean LTE – clearly signified better network speeds for smartphones and tablets, 5G doesn’t fit cleanly into a single category, whether we’re talking about use cases, technologies, antennas or devices. All these new technologies will increasingly connect countless devices in a massive range of markets. But that might make it difficult for marketers to stick a “5G” label on offerings and hope they sell themselves. --Colin

Best: Networks evolve with small cells, MIMO, carrier aggregation

Perhaps the most noteworthy developments during a relatively low-key conference were related to the wireless networks themselves. T-Mobile took advantage of a quiet Tuesday in advance of the show to announce that it had doubled the speed of its network using 4x4 MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) in 319 cities. The carrier also said its network now covers 312 million people, 99.7 percent of the number Verizon’s network reaches.

Meanwhile, Samsung last week said it is collaborating with T-Mobile on new demonstrations and lab tests designed to bring 5G technologies to market. The companies plan to launch tests later this year of 5G mobility in an outdoor environment using T-Mobile’s 28 GHz spectrum and Samsung’s 5G proof-of-concept system, which uses advanced beamforming technology. Additional trials starting early next year will use Samsung’s pre-commercial 28 GHz system.

While the small cell market has yet to live up to some inflated expectations, carriers clearly view the newer transmitters as crucial for densifying their networks in advance of commercial 5G launches. “Regardless of the spectrum allocation, 5G will require a lot more cells, particularly at the higher frequencies,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said during his keynote to open the proceedings. “How many more small cells are we talking about? That’s hundreds of thousands, if not millions of siting decisions.”

And all four major operators are already investing in the small transmitters, Jennifer Fritzsche of Wells Fargo Securities wrote in a research note following the show. Wells Fargo analysts met with Mobilitie and other small cell vendors, and reported that “small cell activity remains very robust with all four carriers spending on this initiative, although strategies vary.” The nation’s two largest carriers are pursuing “a turn-key model approach for small cells,” which should benefit ExteNet and Crown Castle, while Sprint is partnering with Mobilitie for a more surgical deployment of its 2.5 GHz spectrum, the analyst firm said.

“From an overall market standpoint, we expect small cells to continue to ramp in 2017,” Wells Fargo concluded. “But the continuous take-away from the many panels and meeting we attended is the 5G world needs a heterogeneous network – where BOTH small cells and macros play a significant role.” --Colin

Worst: Lack of big news or exciting announcements

CTIA typically schedules its shows far in advance, so it’s an unfortunate situation when its biggest trade show of the year happens to open the same day Apple makes its next big iPhone announcement. It happened last year and again this year. On Wednesday last week, much of the same media that covers the wireless industry was, of course, in San Francisco to see Apple CEO Tim Cook and his team unveil the iPhone 7.

That in and of itself makes a big impact, but the lack of any other super exciting news at the CTIA show magnified the situation. Ericsson made its big 5G New Radio announcement the week prior to CTIA, though then it was able to show off all the features tied to that announcement at its booth. And none of the wireless carriers made much noise; indeed, Verizon announced its acquisition of Sensity Systems on Monday after the show, even though Sensity’s CEO shared a keynote stage with Verizon EVP and President of Operations John Stratton during CTIA.

Speaking of keynotes, most at CTIA were dull and uninspiring. When you have to pull out billionaire Mark Cuban as your big draw on Day 2, something’s awry. Yes, he drew in crowds, that’s for sure, but typically that’s the type of speaker you’d feature on Day 3. – Monica

Best: Next year’s show

One of the best things about this year’s Super Mobility show is that it’s the last one. Next year, the GSMA and CTIA will partner to host the “GSMA Mobile World Congress Americas, in partnership with CTIA,” September 12-14, in San Francisco. CTIA will provide next year’s policy-focused educational sessions, including collaborating on keynotes, while GSMA will be responsible for event management and production.

GSMA, of course, is the European-focused organization that holds the Mobile World Congress trade show every year in Barcelona, Spain – an event that has arguably grown into the world’s most important wireless industry event. But the GSMA has been working to expand the MWC into other regions; already this year it held the MWC Shanghai event in June, billed as “Asia’s biggest mobile industry event.”

It’s safe to assume that the GSMA will probably pull out all the stops next year to breathe some life back into U.S. wireless industry trade shows with the MWC Americas event. A change in ownership and location (everyone at this year’s Super Mobility show was keen to move away from Las Vegas) will likely help drive interest in the show next year.

But what MWC Americas really has going for it simply boils down to timing: 2017 is when the industry can expect significant movement on 5G and related technologies, and it’s a good bet AT&T, Verizon and others will stop at nothing to hype the technology as well as the United States’ position in the global marketplace. MWC Americas 2017 stands as that opportunity. --Mike | @mikeddano