Industry Voices—Schoolar: MWC better than what it replaced but still has a way to go

Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure speaks during an opening-day keynote at MWC Americas.
Daryl Schoolar Ovum

The relevance of the CTIA show has been noticeably declining for at least half a decade. The show dwindled as North American operators consolidated and the shadow of the much bigger GSMA’s Mobile World Congress grew larger. To rectify the situation, CTIA partnered with the GSMA this year to host Mobile World Congress Americas. MWCA certainly was an improvement over the last few CTIA affairs held in Las Vegas, but the show still has considerable room for improvement.

The attendance at MWCA was announced at 21,000: respectable, but well short of the 30,000 that was promised in the preshow run-up. Part of that missing 9,000 attendees included a larger and more visible presence by the mobile operator community. Remember, this is MWC Americas, not MWC United States. Yes, the four major U.S. mobile operators were at the event, but the rest of the Americas weren’t nearly as evident on the show floor. Yes, to the credit of the event organizers, they did get América Móvil CEO Carlos Slim Domit in a keynote speaking slot. And representatives of some Asian operators like China Mobile, KT, SKT, and SoftBank could be found at the Moscone Center. The show overall still has a very noticeable U.S. focus, and that needs to change for the show to sustain itself. If vendors don’t find the show useful for meeting their operator clients, they will stop attending. Operator attendance plays a major role in keeping everybody else coming back.

Few gadgets but sharp focus on infrastructure and the IoT

Devices was another area lacking at the show. Sure, the biggest device event of the second half of 2017 took place in California the same week MWC was in San Francisco. However, that event was in Cupertino, California, not at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. While Samsung and ZTE brought some smartphones to the show as well as Shenzhen-based ODMs, no big announcements were made. CES, Mobile World Congress Barcelona, and vendor-hosted events are now the major device-launching platforms. But all of this doesn’t mean MWCA was a complete failure.

When it comes to network vendor participation, the show was a clear success. Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung Networks, and ZTE all had a large show presence. Along with ample displays showing the abilities of gigabit LTE and 5G, they also used the show to make announcements around new products like small cells including CBRS, MEC, and massive MIMO. But many of the product announcements were U.S.-focused. For example, CBRS (3.5 GHz) is specifically for sharing spectrum in the U.S. and isn’t fully applicable in any other market.

IoT was another big show at MWC Americas. The U.S. mobile operators and their vendor partners all demonstrated what IoT can do, especially for the enterprise. There was an abundance of other IoT enablement devices and services showing at the Moscone Center as well. Even the non-3GPP crowd made their way to MWCA with Sigfox, LoRa, and Ingenu.

Needed: A bigger operator presence

The value of the show depends on what you came for. If you were looking to engage with a wide group of global operators and hear about the latest smartphones, you would be disappointed. If you came to see network innovations and growing IoT ecosystem, this show was a success. The problem is, if the show can’t attract more operators, it risks losing the support of the vendor community, in which case MWCA will quickly become like the later CTIA shows: the place to see phone cases, screen protectors, and Bluetooth-controlled toys.

Daryl Schoolar is principal analyst of wireless infrastructure for Ovum. Daryl's research includes not only what infrastructure vendors are developing in those areas but also how mobile operators are deploying and using those wireless networking solutions. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him at @DHSchoolar.