Jarich on Mobile World Congress 2016: Do you know what to expect?


I've been thinking a lot about Mobile World Congress 2016 lately. In part, I'm just mentally preparing for a ski trip in Gstaad the week prior, the first time I've been skiing in forever (note: If you see me hobbling around La Fira in a cast, don't ask). But there are also a handful of other reasons. CTIA's Super Mobility Week just finished up earlier this month; while not approaching the stature of Mobile World Congress (MWC), it's still one of the largest mobile-focused trade shows, providing insights into what we might see in Barcelona. Just prior to Super Mobility Week, we completed our first Mobile World Congress planning session with a customer. And since that was a cue to book my flight home from MWC, I soon realized that all the window seats are taken on any flight I'm likely to take. First world problems -- I know.

The basic reality, however, is that MWC is the one trade show that no vendor or operator can afford to ignore. They may quibble about the other shows to attend (or not), but checks always get cut for an annual trip to Barcelona -- even if the price tag for showing up is inflated over most other events.

And if people have already started planning for it, I suppose it only makes sense to put down some predictions for the Big Show. Six months out, the accuracy here may be limited, but it's not too early to start planning.

5G Use Cases: If I were to suggest that 5G would be a big topic at MWC 2016, I wouldn't be telling you anything you don't already know. And yet, if 5G at MWC were nothing more than basic technology demos, vendors and operators would have a hard time saying they're making progress. What will progress look like? Multiple 5G technologies wrapped around tangible use cases that serve operators demands today and going forward. We may still be years away from 5G standards, but at least we can make it clear that 5G is more than a fun technology exercise and give operators a roadmap on how to get there.

IoT in the RAN: Did you happen to catch Sigfox on the show floor at this year's MWC? If you made it all the way out to Hall 8, you couldn't help notice the crowds and feel the interest. Yet, for all the energy, there was something strange about its presence. The presence of a proprietary RAN technology at MWC was strange, if only because GSM and LTE come with their own evolutions to support the same sorts of low-data-rate IoT applications Sigfox (and LORA, Telensa, Ingenu, etc.) is supporting. Fast forward to this August, and the GSMA's "Mobile IoT Initiative" (putting weight behind LTE evolutions, GSM evolutions, and "clean slate" technologies) only highlights this tension. The same can be said about operators with LTE networks deploying these proprietary technologies; see Orange's recent LORA deployment plans and T-Mobile's Sigfox deployment in the Czech Republic. We'll, doubtless, see this tension play out at MWC 2016. Hopefully the 3GPP options can show enough commercial viability and scale to drive investments amid continual, incremental technology evolutions (IE, Cat 1 / Cat 0 / CatM / NB-IOT).

LTE for U, LTE for Everyone: 2015 kicked off with vendors beginning to talk up commercial integration of LTE in unlicensed spectrum (LTE-U) into small cells by the end of the year. Since then, we've had additional vendor commitments, operator endorsements…and operator objections. We've also had a greater push for LTE-LAA; with the all-important addition of "Listen-Before-Talk" (LBT) functionality, the value here would be extensibility to markets around the world. The real issue of LTE in unlicensed spectrum, of course, isn't a technical one (we know LTE can operate in unlicensed spectrum) or even a business one (we all understand the value of added spectrum). The real issue is around fairness. Can LTE and WiFi co-exist in the same spectrum, or will an LTE land-grab disrupt the WiFi ecosystem as we know it? With commercial LTE-U products in the market, and 3GPP R13 completion planned for the first half of 2016, there's no doubt we'll see lots of co-existence demos and proof points at MWC 2016. Hopefully there will also be some focus on other technologies pairing up LTE and WiFi in an intelligent way (like LTE + WiFi Link Aggregation -- LWA) if only by vendors and operators looking to sidestep the politics and crowded marketing scrum around LTE-U/LAA.  

Pork. Lots of Pork: There's a bar down the street from my house that just recently opened up. In addition to Manhattans on tap, they serve up a mean cured meat platter including Serrano ham. Cocktails on tap and cured meat platters? I know, it sounds a bit too much -- but it's the Bay Area, so you have to put up with stuff like that. In any case, the ham just reminds you of Barcelona and MWC. That's because, if you eat pork, you'll spend MWC getting your fill, loving every bite of the diverse ways they serve it up, and leaving Barcelona feeling like you don't need to eat any for a while. You'll still miss it by the time you head back in 2017.

Lots of Stuff You'll Expect: More than anything, the story of MWC 2016 is likely to involve a lot of what we heard over the last year: 5G, IoT, LTE in unlicensed spectrum, mobile edge computing, SDN/NFV, RAN evolutions (2G, 3G, 4G), wearables, small cells, C-RAN, wireless and fixed transport and maybe even some VoLTE, RCS and Web RTC. Who am I kidding? Of course we'll see hopeful communications evolutions technologies on display. This is only natural where the goal of an event is to fill in the market (potential customers) on their current interests. That said, if you're going to talk up stuff that isn't exactly new, you'll need to come with some sort of "twist" or risk being ignored.

Something Surprising: Do you remember Mobile World Congress 2011 and Alcatel-Lucent's lightRadio? We can debate the commercial success that followed, but there's no denying that it was all the buzz in the infrastructure space. Why? Because it largely came out of nowhere and took everyone (somewhat) by surprise. While maybe not on the same level of surprise, every year at MWC is marked by some sort of "a-ha" or "wow, that's new." Near-term commercial success isn't the No. 1 concern, but to be credible, it should borrow from existing technologies or trends. From a marketing perspective, this is where companies get the best bang for the buck. So what would I be surprised by? Think maybe Qualcomm's rumored datacenter offer, yet another re-birth of Free Space Optics or a major (operator or vendor) endorsement of residential LTE femtocells. Of course, it wouldn't be a surprise if actually I knew, would it?

What actually captures everyone's attention at MWC 2016 we'll only know when next February rolls around. In the meantime, vendors and operators alike will all be putting their stories together, and I'll be doing skiing visualization exercises. I'm not joking about it being 20+ years since I last hit the slopes, so if you have any tips of great ski tech I should check out, pass them along -- drop them into the comments or send them to me.

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