What We Learned at Mobile World Congress 2013

My last post questioned what drives 70,000 people to go to the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona. As I reflect on this while traveling home, the answer seems very clear: it intensely focuses our energy on working together to progress our business and the state of wireless technology in the world. This unified and concentrated energy not only progresses, it accelerates. In less than a week, we have greatly improved our knowledge, prospected numerous partnerships, met new potential customers, shared our agenda with a large number of people, and deepened friendships while enjoying great food and drinks. Even though social media and the Internet make it easy to learn about what is going on, nothing is as effective as meeting people face-to-face and seeing and touching the latest technology innovations first hand. So, what have I learned?

My goal this year is to take the most important technologies we are all talking about and clarify how they can and will impact the mobile experience (the end-user perception of wireless services and mobile applications). After talking to hundreds of people, it is clear that there are many interpretations. When asked what their number one mobile experience complaint was, my colleagues and I were given a wide variety of answers. We were told that roaming issues cause too many service disruptions or cost too much. Battery life is not good enough and a huge annoyance. Despite being the most fundamental service offered on mobile phones, the reliability and quality of voice calls is not meeting expectations. Data connectivity, data speed, and data services are unreliable and inconsistent. Smartphone and tablet applications crash too often. There are clearly real problems with the end-user experience of mobile devices.

If you followed @susanahimovic on twitter, one of my colleagues at Spirent, you would have seen an example of the responses coming back from people waiting in line at our coffee bar:

  • Connection issues at peak commuting hours in #sanfrancisco is Mobile experience pain reported today @Spirent coffee line survey @MWC13
  • Coffee line survey @Spirent booth #MWC13 reveals number 1 mobile user pain is #roaming issues with 2nd being #lte battery performance
  • Most interesting answer to @Spirent survey day 1 #MWC13: "biggest mobile experience pain is when my girlfriend keeps calling my mobile"!
Spirent booth at Mobile World Congress 2013

Taking all this into consideration (excluding the girlfriend comment), I will reflect back on the technology trends discussed in my last post and then analyze how three more—VoLTE, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS)—are likely to impact the mobile experience.

Trends from Last Post

The most visible technology trend at MWC 2013 was Small Cells, and I stand behind my previous conclusion that Small Cells & HetNets are going to negatively impact the mobile experience in the near term but improve it in the long term. Mobility makes both voice and data calls more challenging, and more Small Cells is going to mean more mobility issues in the near term. LTE Advanced & Carrier Aggregation, another very prominent technology at the show, is likely to make an immediate improvement. Finally, an emergence of a stronger 3rd, 4th, and 5th application ecosystem (beyond iOS and Android), if it emerges, will challenge the mobile experience by forcing applications to support 3 or more different environments/operating systems while maintaining a consistent and bug-free end-user experience. The people we spoke to care about applications working reliably, responsively, and intuitively. Application developers who want to reach as many mobile users as possible are going to need focus creating great applications that span three, four, or possibly five mobile application platforms.


Voice calls are fundamental to the mobile experience—this reality was repeatedly expressed to us throughout the show. As more and more wireless service providers roll out LTE, we must look at the evolution of voice services on these networks, and the future most certainly is Voice over LTE (VoLTE). Unlike the GSM, WCDMA, and CDMA technologies that we collectively called 2G and 3G, LTE (often called 4G) is a data-only service. That means there is no provision for circuit-switched voice calls. In most LTE networks deployed today, data is handled on the LTE data network while voice calls are made using the legacy 3G or 2G network. Wireless service providers are increasingly interested in moving all traffic to the more efficient LTE 4G networks and to do this, the IMS Core will be leveraged to handle voice traffic over the data network. Unlike Voice-over-IP (VoIP) technology where voice is treated like any other data stream (for example with Skype), the IMS Core treats voice calls specially and enables better and more consistent voice services. While the details are quite a bit more complicated than that, this is what VoLTE is all about.

Impact on the Mobile Experience: Service providers who deploy VoLTE all agree that it is of critical importance for voice services to remain as good as, or be better than, services offered using circuit-switched networks. If that is the case, then the mobile experience may be as good as it is today, if not better. However, there are many mobile experience challenges to be worked through in the early phases of the technology rollout. Sending voice through an IP network introduces the possibility of latency, jitter, and quality issues. Anyone who has used VoIP services like Skype has experienced this. It is also possible that battery life will be compromised when voice calls are shifted to 4G, and this is something users are already dissatisfied with today.
Bottom Line: Once ironed out, it is likely that VoLTE will make our mobile experience better, but we will have to go through some short-term pain to get there.

802.11ac Wi-Fi

While ink on a new IEEE specification called 802.11ac is barely drying, Wi-Fi access point manufacturers and mobile chipset companies are rushing ahead to commercialize it in their next generation products. The big hurry is all about the likelihood of game-changing increases in data speeds and bandwidth efficiency. 802.11ac will increase the data speeds to mobile devices by at least a factor of three when compared to 802.11n (the current king of Wi-Fi), and may potentially move the needle even further. 802.11ac does this with a combination of improvements over 802.11n that includes increased channel bandwidth (up to 160 MHz), higher-order modulation (254 QAM), and more advanced MIMO technology (8x8, multi-user MIMO, and MIMO beamforming). The end result of this is rapid double-digit adoption rates of this technology in mobile devices.

Impact on the Mobile Experience: I have spoken to many people who said they stopped using Wi-Fi on their mobile phones when LTE services became available. Amazingly, LTE is often faster than 802.11n. This will not be the case with 802.11ac. In addition to dramatically improving our data speeds, 802.11ac is going to make Wi-Fi services more consistent because it enables access points to service multiple users more efficiently. Those of us who have been annoyed when Wi-Fi service suddenly becomes unreliable in a crowded coffee shop will hopefully be in for a more pleasant experience when they make the upgrade to 802.11ac. The only challenge faced by mobile phone manufacturers could be the coexistence of the wider 80MHz Wi-Fi channel at 2.4 GHz and adjacent LTE Bands such as 7, 38, and 40. If not implemented correctly, there is the potential for co-channel interference and desensitization of LTE receivers which would negate all the positive benefits of 802.11ac.
Bottom Line: Bring it on! This technology is going to give us a much better mobile experience.

Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) & Connected Car

Cars, trucks, and other vehicles provide a whole new frontier for mobile technology. In addition to more wireless services being integrated into cars, we see mobile technology being used in a whole new way: peer-to-peer (vehicle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-fixed communication terminal) connections that facilitate better safety, better services, and more optimized transportation. Collectively, efforts in these areas are being called Intelligent Transport Systems, or ITS. It is also being called the Connected Car, although these terms sometimes mean different things to different people. For the purposes of this post, let’s look at the whole trend of cars becoming connected with each other and everything else in the "Internet of Things." The most obvious benefit of connected cars is improved safety. Many safety promises are being made, including cars that can automatically anticipate—and proactively correct for—collisions, cars that make us better drivers, technology that is more seamless and less distracting, and the ability to automatically alert emergency responders (and provide accurate location) when accidents do occur. It also promises to make transport more efficient by automatically controlling traffic patterns in a way that minimizes aggregate travel times. All this can be enabled by cars that communicate with each other in real time as well as fixed terminals on the roadside that are connected to the Internet.

Impact on the Mobile Experience: There are many great promises here, but it is too early to tell if all of them will become a reality. If the industry can get aligned to the point where both vehicle technology and fixed infrastructure are in place, then we will have a mobile experience unlike anything prior. The whole driving experience will be different, and the wireless services we are used to experiencing on our smartphones and tablets will be transformed into something new and different in our cars.
Bottom Line: High risk, high reward. I can't wait to see this progress.

Mobile World Congress may be concluding, but the analysis of technologies and trends showcased there is not. Next week, I will wrap up this series with an analysis of Hotspot 2.0, Near Field Communications (NFC), Mobile Payments, Home Health Monitoring (mHealth), Connected Homes, and Location Services.

If you have anything to add, please share your thoughts on twitter (@brockbutler) or leave a comment on this blog.

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