Dubbed the largest industry tradeshow for anything and everything mobile, the Mobile World Congress (MWC) is expected to see over 50,000 visitors--spanning vendors, service providers, both small and large businesses connected to the mobile ecosystem--descending at the Fira de Barcelona, Spain, next week.
I remember first covering this show--organized by the GSM Association--some nine years ago when, I believe, I was the only journalist to do so from Malaysia. Then it was known as the GSM World Congress, and only about 25,000 people attended the event at a much smaller venue, the Palais de Festival, in Cannes, southern France.
And boy, do I remember those events: the topics covered were so technical and would put most people to sleep, let alone worthy of reporting them in the press.
But the mobile world has indeed come a long way since. Thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones around the world, the rapid advancement in technology, the pervasive nature of application and services, and the development of social media, smartphones and the likes, all eyes will be on the MWC next week.
Although I won't be attending this year, I've been tracking some pre-event stories that I found interesting. Not counting the plethora of announcements expected to be made by major handset vendors on the newest devices that'll hit the market, two stories I've tracked so far caught my eye.
The first is Ericsson, which is set to demonstrate how it plans to boost uplink speed (from mobile to base station) without acquiring additional spectrum, or requiring any form of modification to the handset to do so.
Mobile uplink, argue industry pundits in the story, is the reason why much mobile wireless transmissions today are asymmetrical in nature, meaning that download speeds always trump upload speeds. This is due to the inability of the mobile handset to transmit as much power as the base station.
This development will certainly be a boost for mobile operators as more people find the need to have both uplink and downlink at equal speeds as user-generated content increases, especially with the advent of long-term evolution (LTE) this year.
The second is the amalgamation of two widely used wireless technologies, Wi-Fi and cellular wireless. PC World yesterday reported that Wi-Fi specialist Ruckus Wireless will unveil carrier-class Wi-Fi access points that can accommodate 3G/4G radios, as well as a gateway to manage networks of both types.
Ruckus will be taking on this role even as the giants of the cellular world launch forays into Wi-Fi, notes PC World. It's also worthwhile noting that Alcatel-Lucent last week announced a system for users to roam easily between Wi-Fi hotspots and its cellular infrastructure, while Ericsson said Tuesday it would acquire Wi-Fi vendor BelAir Networks.
Last year, I had a chance to interview Ruckus here in Malaysia and the ambitious Silicon Valley startup made it very clear that it planned to break into a domain long held closely guarded by cellular operators.
In the past, such a move would be deemed almost impossible as mobile operators are fiercely protective of their main bread and butter--voice and data traffic.
But the reality is that mobile operators have become victims of their own successes. As they aggressively marketed their wares and services in the past few years, they have not only created an always-on, on-demand mobile consumption culture, but also one that is driven by an insatiable appetite for more data everywhere consumers go.
Doing so was great for business but soon, mobile operators realized that they might possibly have gone up the creek without a paddle, or at the very least, with a paddle so small that they can't keep up anymore.
The timing can't be better for Ruckus, and other similar carrier-grade Wi-Fi players. As mobile operators struggle to keep up with the exponential demand in mobile data, they have little choice but to rely on a cheap, proven, and viable technology--Wi-Fi--to aid them in offloading the burgeoning data traffic.
Here in Malaysia, I know of at least one large cellular operator that is rolling out some kind of Wi-Fi offload, but not in a widely deployed way as yet so the potential is there.
According to Hisyam Halim, COO of local Wi-Fi carrier-grade services provider, Privanet, this trend isn't new, as the more developed nations in the west have long experienced this phenomenon. Privanet is a local managed network service provider, which provides mobile data offload products via Wi-Fi technology, powered by Altai Technologies.
Hisyam said AT&T went through a torrid time managing their mobile data uptake when they first tied up with Apple to introduce the iPhone in the U.S. in 2007.
Citing various U.S. media reports which noted that AT&T resorted to buying a Wi-Fi technology company as a means to keep subscribers happy with its service, he said: "The most successful Wi-Fi offloading of a mobile operator's data network is the one where AT&T bought Wayport for US$275 million in 2008."
Reports indicated the Wayport acquisition gave AT&T access to 80,000 hotspots across the United States. Doing so made it the first commercial implementation of a 3G 'offloading' plan, Hisyam added.
So just how good are these systems exactly?
There is no empirical data to say for sure but Hisyam reckoned that by using today's commercial-grade Wi-Fi offerings, operators that had aggressively embraced 3G offloading such as AT&T and PCCW estimated that about 20 percent of their overall data traffic was riding over Wi-Fi.
Using Wi-Fi offload products does help operators reduce capex. Thus, the business case is clear and companies like Privanet aim to help operators meet the demand for data by lowering their cost, and at the same time, improve their quality of connections.
Certainly, there will be many more announcements made next week, not in the least surrounding up-and-coming technology such as LTE, NFC (Near Field Communications), and a whole gamut of other acronyms.
So stay tuned here as I hope to bring you other announcements in the coming weeks.