Lowenstein: Upbeat mood will prevail at CTIA

By Mark Lowenstein

Anyone doing a last minute search for a hotel room in Las Vegas for next week might think they're the only ones going to CTIA.  But contrary to conventional wisdom and the Vegas hotel price index, I think the mood next week will be decidedly upbeat.  After all, if you take the global wireless industry in aggregate, flat-to-down 10 percent means we are over-indexing just about every other sector in the economy, by a good beat. 

I believe the most significant effect of the economy on the tenor for next week is that there will be an attempt to focus a little more on the big picture, longer-term wireless future. Three themes within this will be: how the U.S. could be in a position of wireless network leadership with the planned deployment of LTE; the beginnings of greater integration of wireline and wireless from a network, service delivery, back office and content perspective; and vigorous debates about monetization--of apps, location services, search and social networking, to name a few. 

Below are some thoughts on what to look for in a few specific categories. 

Infrastructure: In contrast to the Mobile World Congress where LTE was largely downplayed by the European operators, I think 4G will play a prominent role in the discussions next week. Personally, I want to dive into whether LTE substantially alters conventional wireless economics (from a $ per megabit delivered perspective), and the extent to which LTE allows us to think very differently about the types of services that can be delivered over wireless networks.

Expect also to see more about alternative network architecture models, such as the growth in distributed antenna systems. Cheaper backhaul is becoming more important, given the continued growth in data traffic, and the likelihood of more vigorous price competition in data service plans in North America.

Devices: Do not expect any blockbuster device announcements at the show. I believe Nokia, RIM and HTC will over-index, while Motorola and Sony Ericsson will under-index.  Most of the device news will be related to component improvements, such as displays, touch, power consumption and photo/video capabilities. 

App Stores: The most significant development in this industry since CTIA 2008 has been App Store concept. But I am sensing a need to turn the corner and focus in the following:

  • What are the monetization models for these app stores?
  • How do we improve the navigation to and discovery of the great applications that exist?
  • How do we address the frustration that developers are facing, who must contend with some ten different platforms?
  • Can real companies be built here, and what are the investment opportunities?
  • How do we spread the app store love and elements of the user experience to the traditional feature phones that still comprise 80 percent of the market?

Open Development: Expect the major U.S. operators, notably AT&T and Verizon, to attempt to show some meaningful progress in their open development efforts. There will be discussion of tools/SDKs, more flexible business models, and select demos "open" devices. 

User Experience: A zippier experience on the phone will be an important theme. Several new and improved mobile browsers will be showcased, featuring lower latency, faster rendering and a more effective display of Web content on a broader range of devices.  Also, look for companies showcasing innovative ways to create a quicker path to desired content. The tools here are varied, and include voice search, personalization tools, and learning/predictive solutions. There has also been some good progress with widget platforms, though the field is a little crowded.

Monetization: Growth in mobile content, and in subscriptions to value-added services such as mobile video, music, and navigation, is leveling off, in favor of browsing, app stores, and 'substitute' services available as part of data plans. I think there will be vigorous discussion at CTIA of new sources of monetization, particularly around the next phase of mobile search, location-enabled "premium" applications, and early stage, cautious efforts to more effectively utilize subscriber data to both deliver a more contextually relevant mobile experience and targeted content and advertising.

Bridging landline and wireless: Rather than the continued drumming of the landline substitution beat, I expect to see a more aggressive presence by the integrated telcos attempting to leverage their fixed and wireless networks, for both voice and data. This will take a few forms:

  • Continued evolution in pricing plans that attempt to treat these multiple networks as assets, rather than liabilities;
  • Development of content--such as music and video--across fixed (Internet, TV) and wireless network platforms;
  • Continued discussion of fixed-mobile convergence, although not as much hype around femto cells as last year; and
  • Demonstration of some innovative devices, such as Verizon's Hub

Social Networking, Phase II: The intersection of mobile and social networking is a key area of opportunity. The news will focus on improvements to the user experience with mainstream social networking sites on mobile devices in the areas of message integration, location, and easier uploading of pictures and other content.

I'll be moderating a session on mobile search on April 2. Look forward to seeing you next week.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem.  Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter.