Jarich: What should we expect from CTIA Wireless in the aftermath of MWC?

Peter Jarich Current AnalysisCTIA Wireless traditionally occupies a rather precarious position in the annual telecom tradeshow calendar--and this year is no different.

The premier wireless trade show in North America: There's never a shortage of operators to meet, vendors to grill or topics to discuss when the trade association's spring confab convenes around March or April. The problem is that CTIA Wireless follows both CES in January and Mobile World Congress in February. By the time it rolls around, then, most of the device introductions, services launches and technology innovations that will shape the upcoming year (or years to come) have already been announced. Some news--particularly focused on where North America focused--will be held back. Some of it will be important. Doubtless, issues that should be part of the agenda will be ignored.

So, with Orlando hosting the 2011 edition of the show in just a few weeks, what should we expect? What should we hope for?

  • 4G network evolutions. For the past two years, MWC has been the occasion for major U.S. operators to announce their LTE launch plans. In 2009, Verizon revealed its network vendors. AT&T followed suit in 2010. We were spared any such revelations in Barcelona this year. For Orlando, there are only two "majors" left and one of them is on the record as pre-occupied with HSPA+ as its near-term 4G strategy. That leaves Sprint--the operator that recently picked vendors to support a multi-standard network evolution (including LTE) and has promised news on an LTE decision sometime this year. Oh, it's also the operator whose headquarters shares a locale with various 3GPP meetings in March.
  • Femtocell silicon. The silicon powering femtocells is one of the areas that's least likely to get people excited about small cells. Femtocells, femtocell services, femtocell applications--they're all relatively accessible topics. Silicon--not so much. Regardless, as femtocells move from a niche coverage tool to a larger part of operator data offload strategies, the opportunity for silicon vendors is clear. This is why heavyweights like Qualcomm and Broadcom have moved into the space. Where both vendors are competing against an entrenched rival in the form of picoChip, you would have expected new customer or innovation news at MWC. Hopefully you weren't holding your breath. Hopefully we hear more at CTIA.
  • Wi-Fi solutions. Slowly but surely, mobile operators seem to be coming around to the fact that Wi-Fi is not their enemy. The creation of mandatory smartphone data plans helped them to get over their original distaste for the technology, but now it's the simple realization that Wi-Fi is a viable tool for supporting traffic offload. MWC carried forward this message with significant launches from Cisco, NSN and Ruckus. Here's the problem: For the most part, the solutions being proposed aren't actually solutions, they're products. Solutions include, at least, access points, subscriber management and charging tools, roaming support to (and from) cellular networks and backhaul if we're talking about outdoor deployments. Few of the offers launched--at MWC or before--were framed in this way; they need to be in order to communicate on a level with operators who aren't necessarily expert in 802.11 technologies. Of course, many major 2G/3G/4G RAN vendors haven't even launched solutions. All of this must change, and CTIA is an obvious place to move this discussion forward.
  • Mobile marketing. To be sure, mobile marketing was far from absent as a topic at MWC. It included a Mobile Ad Forum with all of the major players present (almost--Apple never shows up, right?). The CEO of the people who make Angry Birds was even there! If you were looking to plan or launch a mobile marketing campaign, you could find plenty of companies ready and willing to help out. Yet, more so than network infrastructure, marketing is often local in nature. Interactions and tools need to be tuned to the needs of a specific market. This is why we saw CTIA and the Mobile Marketing Association at the start of February build a task force to support common short code marketing programs in the U.S. It's also why we'll still see mobile marketing be a focus in Orlando.
  • Mobile payments. You might think that following the 2011 edition of MWC, a show that ended with 16 operators committing to NFC service launches by 2012 following payment initiative announcements (if not initial work) from players like Deutsche Telekom and joint projects in Belgium, Spain and France (those last three were actually announced "at" MWC--they were sort of before/during--just FYI in case you want to change the wording, not a big deal). Yet, if advertising is a local phenomenon, payment solutions are even more so; in many instances they require participation by operators, device makers and financial players--all of which come with their own regional and national priorities. Last November, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless announced a JV to build out a national mobile commerce network, Isis. While given an 18 month time frame to roll out services, CTIA will be the first major North American trade show where an update on its progress (maybe even an expansion of its members) would make sense.

No discussion of CTIA's spring show would be complete without questioning its long-term health. Again, its proximity to CES and Mobile World Congress limits its stature, forcing some companies to hold back secondary news just to have something to say when March or April roll around. This year, vendors who've been longtime participants have even pulled out; they'll be there for meetings, but their exhibition investments went towards buying one-third of an entire hall at Mobile World Congress. The economy might be slowly recovering, but nobody can afford to exhibit at--much less attend--show, after show, after show. It's a simple issue of costs vs. decreasing marginal value.

With CTIA running shows in spring and fall, the solution has been suggested a number of times in the past: consolidate the two and make CTIA Wireless the most important wireless (telecom in general, even) show of the 2nd part of the year. Would it marginalize smaller shows focused on 4G, backhaul, IMS or small cells? Sure. Would operators, vendors and everyone else benefit, while driving more attendees to the conference? Seems likely.

Peter Jarich is the Service Director leading Current Analysis telecom infrastructure practice. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.