A Wild September for Wireless: Putting it in Context

10/1/13Follow @marklowenstein

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the public sector’s shortcomings. There’s a lot of available spectrum out there, and there are creative approaches and technologies (such as TV White Spaces) to effectively harness it. But the spectrum issue is becoming increasingly caught up in the politicized vortex that is Washington, as demonstrated by the nearly year-long confirmation process of the proposed new FCC commissioner Tom Wheeler. Washington’s near paralysis is starting to visibly hamper the progress of one of this country’s most promising industries.

Another piece of this is our educational system. There are well in excess of 100,000 job openings, broadly, in the wireless sector. We aren’t producing graduates with technical skills (at all levels) fast enough. Plus, the country that is producing all these fabulous devices, software, and apps, has yet to figure out how to harness this technology in K-12 education. On a daily basis, our kids wake up in a 21st century home and commute to a mid-20th century classroom, then back to 2013 again (at 2:00 p.m., no less).

7. Networks will be a locus point of innovation.

Over the past few weeks, I have spent significant time with the leading companies in wireless (cellular and Wi-Fi) networks. My conclusion: I think we are entering a period of accelerating innovation in mobile networks, driven by:

  • Continued rollout of 4G LTE. A year from now, there will be four 4G LTE networks in the U.S. with a near-nationwide footprint. This will spark some price competition and innovative business models.
  • The first LTE-Advanced networks. The two most important words for you to know: carrier aggregation. This means the ability to combine channels across an operator’s spectrum holdings, leading to significant improvements in speed and capacity.
  • Aggressive deployment of small cells. Small cell products designed to improve coverage and capacity have made significant products over the past couple of years from the standpoint of form factor, performance, and price. A great example is Ericsson’s announcement last week of the Dot base station. Major operators have announced substantial commitment to small cell technology, and over the next three years, we should see broadening deployment inside buildings. Combined with iBeacon, sensors, low power Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), and Wi-Fi, there will be exciting new opportunities for in-building applications leveraging location.
  • Network optimization. There is a broadening toolset available to help wireless operators optimize their networks for data and video traffic. This is an exciting area of innovation, and is a frontier for venture investing in the wireless sector.

9. Wi-Fi will be critical.

Even with these developments in the macro network, Wi-Fi is playing an important role in the deployment of mobile broadband and in managing data demand. In the past year, Ruckus Wireless went public; Cisco acquired Meraki; and Ericsson acquired Bel-Air. The leading cable companies deployed some 150,000 public Wi-Fi hotspots, with more on the way. Public Wi-Fi is being deployed in cities worldwide, using innovative business models. Wi-Fi will be an integral element of the “wireless” experience… and might even drive it.

10. Ericsson and Cisco are the two most important companies in wireless networking.

While everyone fawns over Apple, Google, Facebook, and Qualcomm, did you know that 40 percent of global wireless traffic uses Ericsson equipment, and that they employ 25,000 R&D engineers? Cisco, too, made a big bet on wireless with the acquisition of Starent in 2009, and has been steadily increasing its portfolio of assets in the mobile sector. Both firms have sizeable share, talent, and assets in IP, wireless radio, data gateway, and other elements of cellular and WiFi networks.

These are some of the broader themes I think we can take away from one of the busiest months ever in the mobile ecosystem.

Mark Lowenstein, an Xconomist, is managing director of Mobile Ecosystem, a wireless industry consulting firm. Subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless newsletter here. Follow @marklowenstein

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