Seybold's take: CES--the other wireless show

andrew seyboldLast week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas you couldn't walk anywhere within the Las Vegas Convention Center or the Venetian/Sands Convention areas without tripping over something wireless. Only a few years ago, wireless at CES meant a few handset vendors, Qualcomm, a WiFi area, and a Bluetooth area. Now wireless can be found almost everywhere on the show floor and beyond.

Verizon, Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent rented rooms in the Venetian Hotel for their live LTE demos of multi-player games, video surveillance, digital photography and a host of medical and other vertical-market applications. There was plenty to see and it was all impressive, but it was all over a controlled indoor network. LTE will be with us in major cities this year and we will have a chance to kick the tires and compare and contrast real-world LTE to today's 3G networks.

One thing is for sure, Verizon's flavor of LTE is not merely another add-on to its 2G/3G network. It is being rolled out as a new network in every sense. There are even new device test labs for anyone wanting to build a device and have it approved for the LTE network--a developers' heaven where developers have access to help and can test their applications, and perhaps even help with funding from a new venture group that works with Verizon's money, its suppliers and a number of other venture firms. And, of course, there will be new pricing models that will be based on bandwidth use, types of devices, and perhaps even number of devices.

It was also a great show for Qualcomm. CEO Paul Jacobs was a keynote presenter, the Nexus One phone from Google features the Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, as does the Lenovo smartbook, being followed closely by smartbooks from HP and others. Flo TV was also evident. In fact, Chairman and CEO Paul Jacobs gave away some Flo TV sets at the end of his keynote. Intel had to play second fiddle at a show it normally owns, but times are changing and it is wireless that is making the difference and giving rise to non-traditional CES players such as Qualcomm.

Palm announced some developer advancements, but more importantly, it announced the Palm Pre Plus and the Palm Pixi Plus that will be running on Verizon's 3G network. The "Plus" indicates more memory and the fact that these phones double as access points. Using Verizon's 3G network as backhaul, up to five devices can be connected to a Plus phone via WiFi. Want an iPhone on the Verizon network? Try an iPod touch over WiFi to the Plus and then on to the Verizon network for the world's first iPhone for Verizon!

Rumors are always fun at shows such as CES and there were a bunch floating around about Sprint. Some believe it will ditch Clearwire in favor of LTE (it doesn't have spectrum for that), and Comcast will buy Sprint (which would be interesting since Sprint got its start in a partnership with the cable companies when it bid on the 1900 MHz spectrum in 1996).

However, the most significant observations about CES this year were its size with 2,500 exhibitors and a larger crowd than last year, and that wireless is now a major part of the show and is having a huge impact on the consumer industry. There will be more sessions and keynotes on wireless and more interest in local and wide-area wireless in the consumer world as we move forward. It was a great show with a lot of buzz and good product previews, hopefully an indication of a great year to come for wireless.

2010 will definitely be a year of change for wireless. The FCC and its leanings are unknown at this point and it has the potential to greatly enhance wireless or to hinder its growth. If it insists on "net neutrality" and it being the same for wired and wireless, the FCC will get in the way of wireless progress. If it "finds" more spectrum and insists that it be auctioned to new players for competitive reasons, the FCC will create another situation where incumbents lose customers in the short term and new arrivals don't survive beyond their first three or four years. Through mergers and acquisitions, the market will determine how many networks are needed to serve our population, not government agencies.

It is really difficult to sit back and listen to those who hold the future of wireless in their hands talking about more competition, net neutrality, broadband for all, and how to regulate the wireless industry. Wouldn't it be great if we could educate those in a position to make smart decisions? But I guess that won't happen. Perhaps since the FCC chairman sat on the stage at CES and talked about the future, he also had a chance to walk some of the show and see the future--a future that is market-driven, not mandated.

Andrew Seybold is an authority on technology and trends shaping the world of wireless mobility. A respected analyst, consultant, commentator, author and active participant in industry trade organizations, his views have influenced strategies and shaped initiatives for telecom, mobile computing and wireless industry leaders worldwide.