CTIA 2013: Big data, Wi-Fi, MVNOs and the last hurrah

Current Analysis Peter Jarich

     Peter Jarich

For the past week or so, I've been waiting to see a good write-up of CTIA Wireless 2013; it's always good to compare notes, if only to see what you've missed. Unfortunately, I haven't seen many. I suspect it's a function of what people think was an event where not much took place. 

(Editor's Note: I'm just assuming Mr. Jarich somehow missed Fierce's own CTIA 2013 Scorecard, with a look at the big themes from the show!)

I don't fully understand that view. Jennifer Lopez was there. Mario Lopez was there. Ashton Kutcher showed up. It was like Hollywood showed up in Vegas for more than the long weekend. If you showed up expecting that floor traffic was going to fill your booth (vs. customer meetings), that's your own fault. Beyond that, where the last episode of CTIA's spring show remained an event where operators showed up to meet their suppliers and telegraph their demands, the themes (however marginal they were) coming out of CTIA do a lot to tell us about what's keeping the industry up at night…at least in North America.

So, what did we see?

  • Big Data.  Fierce's own Mr. Dano called this out last month, noting, "if you are an American and own a cell phone, your location, demographics and activities are probably already for sale to anyone with the cash to buy that data." Hope you didn't check in anywhere unsavory while in Vegas! Having come off of Google I/O the week before CTIA, there was no way to be surprised at the amount and types of data being collected on each and every one of us. It was surprising, nonetheless, to see all the companies who came to CTIA ready to talk Big Data. Beyond the ones Mike referenced, I thought the ATIS panel on the topic was particularly instructive--if only because it brought together Sprint and Verizon Wireless with Cisco and Teoco (not to mention a stellar moderator) to talk about Big Data monetization. The best part? The topic of "monetization" was danced around spectacularly. Big Data as a way to improve the customer experience; nobody was afraid to talk about that. Big Data as something that can be directly monetized; welcome to an episode of Dancing with the Stars. It's understandable. Trust is a key asset for any operator and privacy/security concerns risk damaging it beyond what many people is already a tenuous position. It's also true that there's value in data on the behalf of network optimization and service personalization. That's why I was happy to see Guavus in CTIA's innovation showcase. If Big Data monetization remains something operators have a tough time talking about--even while engaged in it--moving the industry forward will be a slow process.
  • The Mobile Device Zoo. The days of CTIA as a venue for high-profile handset launches are over. Vendor-hosted events, combined with CES and Mobile World Congress have stolen its thunder. So, what did we get? We got the Hydro Edge and Hydro XTRM from Kyocera. We got Mobelisk's MoGo Chimera. We got the CAT B15 (as in Caterpillar). Seeing a theme? No, not the fact that smaller vendors still remain committed to competing with Samsung and Apple. I'm talking about the animal names. It's worked for wine, right? 
  • MVNO's Fill a Vacuum.  Let's get one thing straight--J Lo's Viva Movil is not an MVNO; people might refer to it as such, but it's a reseller paired with some custom accessories and colorful stores. Let's get another thing straight--there was no reason to drag Mario Lopez away from The Grove in LA to moderate Day Two's keynote session, "Mobile and the Fastest Growing Consumer Segment: The Modern Latino." But, back to the MVNO theme… As fewer and fewer big name exhibitors booked space on the CTIA show floor, the vacuum needed to be addressed. That's why you probably saw more retailers and accessory vendors this year. Joining them, in force, were MVNOs. Sure, the TracFone acquisition of Page Plus set the tone for the show, but its multi-brand booth was truly impressive. The Ultra Mobile presence (lounge?) was impressive too, and our own Kitty Weldon gave Truphone an "honorable mention" award on the enterprise mobility front for its shared international data plans. Combined with new players like Zact, it's clear that these players are filling more than a vacuum in the show floor; it's a vacuum in the market around innovation and service niches, be they around international calling, demographic targeting or service personalization.  Having dinner with some of the folks from Aio Wireless (AT&T's new no-contract brand), it's also clear that as the space gets more and more crowded, a compelling story--including branding, service pricing, devices--becomes more and more important.
  • Wi-Fi vs. Small Cells. Circa 2013, it's virtually impossible to attend a wireless show where small cells aren't a topic of conversation in some form. At CTIA, however, Wi-Fi seemed to rule the day--at least if you were paying attention to the news coming out of Ericsson, NSN, Aruba, Ruckus, and the plea from AT&T's Kris Rinne for, "intelligent selection." I won't bore you with the specifics (if you're reading this, you probably have access to the Internet), but integration with mobile networks was the clear theme. Well, the clear theme was that integration of Wi-Fi with mobile networks means different things to different people. For Ericsson, it's a homegrown "real time traffic steering" solution combined with a commitment to integration standards and new controller options. For NSN, its ANDSF support. For Ruckus, its secure hotspot support (combined, of course, with gateway solutions announced earlier). Most mobile operators may be investigating (or in the middle of) WiFi launches, but any expectation that there's a solid agreement on what integration of WiFi into the mobile network means is still mistaken.

Peter Jarich is the VP of Consumer and Infrastructure at Current Analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.

Article updated June 4 to correct Kyocera phone names.