MWC Preview: Data pricing, LTE deployments to dominate operator discussions

At this year's Mobile World Congress, expect to see representatives from all the major U.S. operators--including Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S). The CDMA/WiMAX operator will host an event Tuesday, Feb. 15, with its network vendors Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE:ALU), Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) and Samsung. Sprint will discuss its Network Vision, the company's $5 billion project that includes the deployment of a multimode base station that will allow it to offer new technologies using any of its 800 MHz, 1900 MHz or 2.5 GHz spectrum bands. Sprint may use the event to announce plans to deploy LTE--indeed, the company has said its Network Vision project will give it greater flexibility, including the option to deploy LTE should it decide too.

But Sprint will not be the only U.S. carrier newsmaker at this year's MWC. AT&T (NYSE:T) CEO Randall Stephenson will be part of a roundtable discussion Tuesday, Feb. 15, that will include the CEOs from other top global operators including Vodafone, Telefonica, China Mobile and America Movil. AT&T could use the event to emphasize its broader enterprise mobility strategy. Analyst Mark Lowenstein, managing director of Mobile Ecosystem, said he expects more focus on the enterprise at this confab than at previous MWC events.

U.S. operators also will be in the spotlight during a panel discussion Wednesday, Feb. 16, that focuses on the U.S. market. The panel will feature presentations from all the Tier 1 operators plus MetroPCS (NYSE:PCS). FierceWireless Executive Editor Mike Dano will be moderating that discussion.

Beyond the press events and panel discussions, what will operators be talking about on the show floor and at cocktail parties? Now that many operators are deploying mobile broadband--whether it's LTE or one of the many iterations of HSPA+--we expect them to be searching for ways to optimize their networks so they can price their mobile broadband offerings effectively.  

Expect to hear the catch-phrase "profitably manage your network" at many of the vendor booths on the slow floor. Many policy control vendors, OSS/BSS firms and data analytics providers have hinted that they will be releasing research at MWC that provides specifics on what types of data traffic operators have going over their network. The goal is to help operators better understand their data traffic so they can develop new pricing models.  

Lowenstein also expects operators to be searching for ways to create unique operator-branded experiences and content, especially on Android-based phones. And he thinks content delivery, distribution and monetization across multiple screens--with a focus on bringing tablets into the fold--also will be a hot topic of discussion.

Another key theme at the event will be embedded devices--gadgets that insert wireless into consumer items (tablets, ereaders and GPS devices) and machine-to-machine offerings (vending machines and utility meters). Many U.S. operators have been talking about embedded devices for the past few years but we expect operators in other regions of the world (particularly Western Europe) to jump on the bandwagon.