It often seems that operators and vendors are forced to jostle for attention with device manufacturers at Mobile World Congress, the world's biggest mobile event, and this year's edition was no different.
With a glut of new tablets and smartphones, including devices tailored for gaming, and a number of devices optimised for 4G, device manufacturers stole much of the attention at the show.
However, as smartphones and tablets continue to grow in sophistocation and fall in price, and as ever more mobile broadband applications lure more people to take mobile broadband packages, so the amount of data on operators' networks continues to surge.
In this respect, the attention that was lavished on many of the impressive new devices at MWC was mirrored by the attention given to vendors and operators, who raised awareness of the issue of network capacity.
On the first day of MWC, Ericsson's CEO, Hans Vestberg, highlighted the need for smarter networks in metropolitan areas, and he also offered an interesting overview of data traffic that will be placed on mobile broadband networks in the next five years.
"Last year, there were about 600 million mobile subscriptions, and we expect this to touch 1 billion by 2011 end, reaching up to 5 billion in mobile broadband subscriptions by 2016," he says. "The data consumption in mobile networks will be 25 times higher by 2015, and the majority of traffic in the networks will be related to videos and pictures. By 2016, there's equally going to be as much data on smart phones as on PC," Vestberg adds.
"The biggest growth for operators is in mobile broadband, and it will see different paces of growth across regions. While networks will become a key differentiator for operators, the three driving forces that are to transform into a ‘networked society' are mobility, broadband and cloud."
And while LTE will offer huge capacity for mobile broadband, Vestberg pointed to the need for "smarter" networks in metropolitan areas.
Vestberg adds that providing coverage in urban areas will become the biggest issue facing the mobile industry. He says that while the speed will be available, the challenge will be how to provide "heterogeneous networks" that can cater for different needs, including giving priority to certain data traffic.
He says these will need to work in a different way from today and will be "dimensioned" differently. Vestberg adds that in a fully "networked" society where everything that can be connected to the web is connected, the ability of networks to handle traffic in a smart way will be a key differentiator. Vestberg says that part of the solution would involve operators dividing data services into premium and non-premium services such as video streaming, interactive gaming and push-to-talk; and non-premium services such as SMS services, addressing varying mobile user needs. This in turn will require from vendors smaller, smarter sites that are capable of being self-dimensioning.
"There will be devices that need an SMS every quarter - and then a fire-fighter that will require a live video stream using LTE. But operators should look at capturing the whole span of this market," Vestberg told members of the press.
Some of the technology being demonstrated by Ericsson at MWC was targeted at achieving some of these aims. The vendor launched a device connection platform for enterprises, which is designed to enable operators to connect different types of devices of their customers to offer cloud-based services. The platform is to be offered to operators as a software as a service SaaS business model offering operators benefits such as low initial investment in technology and faster time to market.
The volume of data on mobile broadband networks is also a concern to Phil Twist, head of marketing and corporate affairs, network systems, Nokia, Siemens Networks.He agrees that operators will need to start differentiating between different types of data traffic.
"We have noticed an almost complete correlation between how users are using fixed networks for data and how they are using mobile networks for data," Twist says. "The only difference is that the traffic volume is three to five years behind on mobile networks compared to fixed, so we have a pretty good idea of what the traffic load is going to be in the next three years."
Twist points to Finnish telecom operator, Elisa, which has put "quality of service packages" on to its mobile networks allowing subscribers to be a ‘gold' user with priority access and high bandwidth, or a ‘bronze' user who does not have priority and might not always get high mobile broadband speeds.
"My expectation is that this is the best way to manage the resources they have on the network and it means you can avoid getting yourself in the position where you have uncontrolled ‘brown-out' of the network. You can avoid getting into the position where the signaling from smartphones is tying up your network resource, rather than revenue-paying customers tying up your network resource," he adds.
Twist adds that while operators need to be a ‘bit-pipe provider', they also need to look at the content that goes across their pipes and work out if they want to charge for it in some way. He suggests that operators could charge customers for the value added service of providing a specific, guaranteed bandwidth along with a video download. "The operator could charge $3.50 for downloading a video and the bandwidth that goes with it. The operator can add value by giving quality of service - that is where an operator will have something to add," he says.
Handset makers such as Research In Motion (RIM) and Apple, who are often partly blamed for the surge in mobile data, also recognise the need to address capacity issues. Mike Al-Mefleh, director, product management and sales, Middle East at RIM, says: "There are network capacity issues on mobile broadband for operators, and we are working closely with them to continue to understand their products on the networks.
"As with Blackberry, it is network-friendly over the carrier and data traffic is compressed. So, it is not an issue with data traffic for BlackBerry," he adds. Meanwhile, Anders Lindblad, president of Ericsson for MENA region, says that mobile broadband traffic in the Middle East is at least doubling every six months. He also points out that there are no native applications to support the enormous data consumption needs that have been a barrier so far.
"Now that the barrier is being removed for both iPhone and Android markets, I foresee applications and content to start flowing on the internet on these platforms," he says.
Lindblad says: "We have to realise that we are in a transition phase for operators, and I see three to five business model scenarios of how the future operator could look like. In 2020, I am sure you'll see different tiered operators doing different things. Some will embrace the model of applications and content; some will focus on networks; and others will look into brands [...] we don't know yet. The more we talk about it to operators the more we understand where do we fit in."
Nokia Siemens Networks's own statistics revealed that about 70% of smart phone data is in houses or buildings where there is wireless LAN coverage, which opens up the possibility of transferring mobile data to the fixed network.
"To this end, what we have launched at MWC is a package of elements that allow a mobile operator to switch that traffic from a macro layer on to a wireless LAN but still in the tariff package," Twist says.
4G gains traction
While leading vendors including Ericsson and Nokia Siemens Networks demonstrated network innovations to help a fast growing volume of data flow seamlessly on their networks, so device manufacturers including Motorola and RIM demonstrated devices optimised for 4G networks.
Canadian smart phone maker RIM was just one manufacturer to unveil 4G-enabled devices at MWC. Mike Al-Mefleh says that BlackBerry launched four tablets to its range, addressing both HSPA+ and LTE networks.
"Apart from the existing features such as mobile hotspot, bluetooth connectivity, Wi-Fi and BlackBerry bridge, the new tablets will have 4G connectivity which will give more speed while running movies or accessing the internet [...] and the mobile user will be able to do everything at the same time," he says.
"We at MWC announced the Travel Apps, both designed and developed for travelers, will enable to plan, book and manage their travels and itineraries on the go. The application leverages the BlackBerry push technology that keeps users informed and in control of their itineraries by monitoring flight statuses and providing information in case of any changes to them.
"We are in discussion with operators to ensure that we develop relevant local content for consumers, be it e-commerce, e-government, or entertainment.
"We are engaging with many developers and are ensuring that we focus on the diversity of applications on this front for consumers," he adds.
US wireless technology giant Qualcomm also made some major announcements relating to high speed mobile broadband at MWC. The company announced its next mobile processor architecture for the Snapdragon family of processors. The new processor micro-architecture, code-named Krait, in the next-generation Snapdragon will "redefine performance" for the mobile industry, the company said.
It will offer speeds of up to 2.5GHz per core and deliver 150% higher overall performance, as well as 65% lower power than currently available ARM-based CPU cores. The chipsets will be available in single-, dual- and quad-core versions and include a new Adreno GPU series with up to four 3D cores, and integrated multi-mode LTE modem.
All chipsets in the family will integrate a "quad-combo" of connectivity solutions, comprising WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth and FM, and include support for near field communication, as well as stereoscopic 3D video and photo capture and playback. "Just as the original Snapdragon revolutionised smartphones with the first 1GHz processor, these new generations of Snapdragon will revolutionise the next wave of mobile entertainment and computing," says Steve Mollenkopf, executive VP and group president, Qualcomm.
"We believe we have an incredible line-up of chips and software, representing a single platform that OEMs can utilise to create new devices ranging from mass market smartphones with integrated LTE, to tablets, to next generation computing and entertainment devices."
Qualcomm also introduced its newest Mobile Data Modem (MDM) chipset for use in mobile broadband data devices, the MDM8225, during MWC. The new MDM will support HSPA+ Release 9, the latest version of the mobile broadband standard, and incorporates technology enhancements that help the chipset deliver data rates of up to 84 Mbps on the downlink.
"Dual-carrier HSPA+ has proven to be a popular standard with mobile network operators who are now looking to improve their wireless networks' performance," says Cristiano Amon, senior VP of product management for Qualcomm. "Qualcomm's new chipset will allow device OEMs to develop high-performance, low-power and small-form factor devices, such as USB modems or portable WiFi hotspots that take advantage of the higher data rates provided by HSPA+ Release 9."
ITS, a Kuwaiti IT solutions and software services provider, used Mobile World Congress to raise awareness of its churn-busting products and services. Khaled Al Saeed, GM and MD, ITS, said the company focused on promoting its core telecom solutions, which are designed to help telcos improve efficiency and reduce churn.
Al Saeed said that operators all face similar challenges including tough competition, market saturation and churn. He said that these challenges call for “a new strategy based on three main pillars” of churn reduction; customised service offerings, and campaigns to attract new customers.
“ITS came to MWC to show its 360° offering of complete end-to-end business solutions to address these needs through ‘3C’ platforms,” Al Saeed said. This package consists of a customer retention platform, a customer care and billing platform, and a campaign management platform.
“At MWC we are mainly looking to increase our presence in Africa, meet existing customers and build new business for Latin America,” Al Saeed said. He added that ITS already has more than 40 customers around the Middle East, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Its customers in the Middle East include Etisalat, Viva Kuwait, Zain, MTN, and Orascom.
Eye on backhaul
EXFO, a test tools and monitoring solutions provider for telecom operators, launched the SyncWatch, a synchronisation device that helps in wireless backhaul, at MWC. Etienne Gagnon, vice president for wireline division and corporate marketing, said: "As operators are going through enormous growth of data, they need to structure and organise their networks to handle it.
"Apart from putting the new LTE cell sites, at the back of the site they need to upgrade backhaul and eventually the core of the network itself so that they can stand the growth of bandwidth. To do this, usually there is the need for more fibre to the cell, upgrade from legacy to Ethernet communication to the cell site, and finally, on top of that the need to put different products to manage areas such as media.
"We help operators increase their efficiency while they deploy their wireless backhaul," he says, adding that the SyncWatch fits in the wireless backhaul space helping operators in addressing the network synchronisation for network turn-up, monitoring and troubleshooting applications.
As Gagnon puts it, "I think there is a strong commitment to go for LTE in the MEA region. Reality is probably going to be slower than what everyone speaks. With HSPA providing quite good bandwidth, the driver to go LTE is not so strong." However, all operators designing and deploying LTE are obviously making it software upgradable for future.