Jarich on MWC14: Why this one matters more (think LTE-A, small cells, SDN, NFV and carrier innovation)

Current Analysis Peter Jarich

     Peter Jarich

Every year, shortly after we've all returned home from Barcelona and begun the painful process of tapas withdrawal, the GSMA takes time to update us on how much of a success the latest iteration of Mobile World Congress was. While I'm not generally a betting man, I'll give you some pretty sweet odds that we'll be treated to the same news this year. Mobile World Congress 2014 (MWC14), we will hear, was marked by more attendees, more exhibitors, more of just about everything.

Yet, before you get all jaded on me, there are some very real reasons to think that this year will a particularly important one for the market's largest mobile-focused confab. More than ever, the mobile ecosystem is at a crossroads around a number of key topics and themes. To be blunt, there are a number of '"battles" shaping up the results of which will determine how carriers run their networks, the way they roll out new services, and the way vendors support them. So, which dynamics am I hoping MWC14 sheds some more light on?

•   Small Cells vs. LTE-Advanced.  I know, small cells and LTE-A aren't mutually exclusive. LTE-A features around Het Nets even support small cell roll outs. I get it. At the same time, I also know that operators can only support a limited number of strategic priorities while both small cells and LTE-A are positioned as serving a common set of goals--spectral efficiency and user experience enhancements in terms of coverage and capacity. Vendor messaging will be telling particularly in terms of how small cells support macrocell feature parity (including LTE-A Het Net features).

•   SDN vs. NFV.  Last year, I took some time to lament the conflation of Software Defined Networking and Network Functions Virtualization in vendor messaging. A recent survey we did with carriers from across the globe bore out my frustration. When asked about SDN and NFV buying criteria and value propositions, it was clear that operators are thinking about the two in a nearly identical manner; their responses to what they valued were very similar. Yet, when asked about deployment timelines and whether or not the two will be deployed in tandem, it was clear that operators see SDN and NFV as distinct. Navigating these waters is tough; vendor messaging needs to simultaneously speak to the similarities and differences between the two. If MWC 2014 is a repeat of MWC 2013 and the differences are glossed over, that will be a shame.

•   SDN + NFV vs. Reality. It will be almost as much of a shame if SDN and NFV are positioned as fully baked. Pre-MWC vendor announcements signal a focus on specific NFV use cases along with some broader SDN messaging. That's good. Bounded use cases give operators and vendors a place to start--something to build on. Again, however, messaging will need to be nuanced. Today's starting point needs to be balanced against a broader vision in order to meet the tactical needs of network planners with specific problems to solve while "selling" SDN and NFV to the C-Suite focused on the pair as a strategic initiative they're willing to pay for.

•   Operators vs. Innovation. How many times have we heard that mobile operators can't innovate? It's a cliche, sure. But most cliches contain at least a grain or two of truth and there comes a point at which we can no longer just say, "I sure do hope these guys get their acts together some day." CES kicked off the year with service innovations from AT&T and T-Mobile.  MWC14 should include more of the same. More precisely, it needs to. Speaking of needs, operator innovation needs to be supported by vendor service enablement tools, along with vendor insights from the operator-led innovations they've seen across their customers.

•   Android + iOS vs. Everyone Else.  Remember last year when the Firefox, Ubuntu and Sailfish folks all showed up at Mobile World Congress to proclaim themselves as viable alternatives to the two dominant smartphone and tablet OSes? Well, it's a year later and the dominance of iOS and Android hasn't been altered in any real way. Where Microsoft has begun to make some progress, Blackberry continues to fight the good fight, and the OS upstarts that showed up last year make it back to MWC14, we haven't heard the end of this story. Unlike last year, however, tying new platform hype to actual ecosystem momentum (progress with device OEMs and developers) would help to make this year a little different from the last. It's great, for example, that Firefox OS has gotten launched in a number of markets. Building on initial successes, however, requires playing to ecosystem realities vs. some of the visionary value propositions we saw highlighted at MWC13.

If you want to tell me that MWC14 will be marked by major news on a number of other fronts, I won't argue. There will be plenty of buzz around IoT, WiFi, VoLTE, WebRTC, and a thousand other things. Some of them will play into the dynamics above. Some won't. The best I can hope for is that, amidst the record number of records, we can all come away from Barcelona with a better understanding of real operator priorities circa 2014 and how vendor innovations support those priorities (or don't). That's not too much to ask for, is it?

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