Seybold's Take: What's ahead for wireless in 2011?

Andy SeyboldIt is time once again time to theorize about what is ahead in wireless for next year. What I know for sure is that 2011 will be an exciting year for all of us in the wireless industry. 4G, in the form of LTE, will truly become available across the United States and in some other parts of the world. It will also be the year that determines Clearwire's future--it will either find a way to stem its losses, merge with another company, sell its spectrum and go out of business, or (fill in your favorite option here).

It could be the year the FCC does something with the net neutrality issue it has been batting around for a long time. I hope it will let it die and allow those who operate the wired and wireless networks figure out how to handle the increasing demand for data services. The wireless networks have a significant advantage here since they can manage the demand across their networks with different pricing models and other management tools to ensure all of their customers experience equal access to data and services. Cable and DSL providers can also manage data demand on their networks, but there is no one to manage the Internet. It does not have an "owner" who can limit how much data is delivered to which Internet provider. However, perhaps following the European lead, those who have basically stopped building out Internet capacity, will be able to make deals with those whose content needs to reach their customers.

Tablets will be big in 2011. Will someone come up with a tablet that challenges the iPad? My guess is that we will see so many different tablets that the market will be glutted with products and some of them will no longer be here this time next year. There are already predictions by some that tablet sales will outpace notebooks and netbooks while others seem to believe that tablets will be a short-lived product category.

The first public safety network(s) using LTE in the 700 MHz spectrum will be turned on and for the first time, public safety will begin to be able to use broadband networks for data services and video, which will enable them to better protect all of us. The issue of whether the D Block goes to auction or is reallocated to public safety to augment its existing broadband spectrum should be resolved. Public safety really needs this spectrum if it is to solve its interoperability problems and other problems those of us who have devices that can do voice, text, MMS, broadband, etc. find it difficult to comprehend.

What will happen with wireless or mobile TV in 2011? Qualcomm's MediaFLO is going away and there is a question as to what will happen to its valuable 700 MHz spectrum. The TV industry is still enamored with mobile TV, but so far no one has found a formula that works for delivering TV to handheld devices and the mobile-viewing public seems to be a very small portion of people who carry wireless devices.

Will there be any mergers or acquisitions? This is always an interesting question to ponder. There are a lot of possibilities, of course. Sprint Nextel could end up buying Clearwire or T-Mobile could try to merge with Sprint. LightSquared might be purchased by someone, I still don't think it is serious about building a wholesale LTE network, nor do I think it will have enough terrestrial spectrum to provide a good return on its investment. Since I am a skeptic when it comes to wireless wholesale-only networks, I don't believe it will be successful.

For the most part, 2011 will be a repeat of 2010 but with faster broadband speeds, more smartphones, and many tablets. I think it will also be the year when network operators change their business models to allow customers to have a single contract that supports multiple devices. Many of us have talked about this concept for a long time now and so many of us now own and use multiple devices that this is an idea whose time has come. It makes sense, it would not be difficult for network operators to implement, and it would add more devices to networks. I don't think there will be unlimited data plans with the demand for data increasing as rapidly as it is. I don't think wireless operators can afford to do that and still ensure that each of their customers has equal access to wireless broadband.

Finally, 2011 will see a lot more consumer devices that include wireless capabilities. The Consumer Electronics Show in January will be full of devices for the home, office and person. Consumer devices are enhanced by wireless capabilities and the network operators' move toward one contract, multi-device pricing will appeal to a growing number of us.

Andrew M. 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. www.andrewseybold.com

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