Mobile World Congress, or MWC, is one of the most important events in the smartphone and mobile device world, as it’s this time when new products are showcased, as well as technologies not expected to make it into the hands of consumers for a number of years yet. It’s easy to get excited about the announcements of new devices, with the LG G5, Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and the Sony Xperia X range springing to mind. Some of the showcased new technologies should make a big difference in the coming years and months, such as Intel’s new 33-band LTE modem. However, a little closer to home, shows such as the MWC can be very frustrating as carriers, device and component manufacturers typically ignore some of the pressing issues of today and instead concentrate on the tomorrow, the next week or the next year. There’s an element of running before you walk so to speak: the industry is changing but relatively few have been talking about it at this year’s Congress.
The first thing to discuss is that of another smartphone platform. The mobile operating system market is currently broadly divided into two main camps – Android and iOS – with a small section of “others,” which includes examples such as Windows Phone and BlackBerry 10. It also includes Palm (then HP, then LG) WebOS, Nokia’s Symbian, Samsung Tizen, and Canonical Ubuntu. Over the years, we’ve seen new mobile platforms launched or at least discussed at Mobile World Conference, with examples such as HP’s new WebOS devices in 2011, Samsung Tizen and Mozilla Firefox OS in 2013 and Jolla OS in 2014. In each case, big name carrier executives have publicly voiced support for the new platform, presumably wary of giving so much control to Apple and Google – and of trying to snatch some control back. Their argument is that a new platform will give customers more of a choice, something quietly forgotten when announcing a planned carrier merger. Carriers face a difficult decision: customers want their Apple iPhone or Samsung Galaxy device, and offering competitors with little new to bring to the table apart from a cheaper price isn’t working. It seems that the message has gotten through: this year, the alternative mobile operating systems have been very quiet. BlackBerry appear to be concentrating on Android, Canonical have recently announced their new Ubuntu smartphone and tablet, and then there’s Microsoft Windows 10 where we have seen an interesting HP device at least.
Another important change that has already started to happen is that of sponsored data, also known as zero-rated or toll-free. We are seeing AT&T, Comcast, T-Mobile US and Verizon changing their business models to include toll-free data and the most obvious example of this is T-Mobile’s free video service, Binge On. T-Mobile modify the video stream in order to reduce the load on their network by reducing bandwidth, then offer it to customers as a bundled but free extra. Going forward, this will create a more complicated carrier / customer relationship, whereby the customer is not paying for all of his or her data but instead there could be a third party involved. We’re not sure how customers and regulators are going to react: these services will act as guideposts for customers. Taking the T-Mobile example above, a customer interested in streaming video on a smartphone may decide to use one service in preference to another, and reduce their monthly data allowance and therefore the cost. This could be construed as restricting customer choice and giving the carrier an element of control. For the customer, many will like the idea of having their month costs reduced but a growing number will want to know why and who is paying for it.
We’ve covered Wi-Fi Hotspot 2.0, or Passpoint, in recent weeks particularly as New York City is converting old public telephone boxes to new Passpoint Wi-Fi routers. Hotspot 2.0 is a technology that could be used to provide free, or at least cheap, access to Wi-Fi where either a cellular data network is unavailable or very expensive (here’s looking at you, international roaming charges). It’s pulled into focus when European delegates travel to America, or American delegates travel to Europe, as the cross-Atlantic roaming rates can be extremely high. Passpoint allows Wi-Fi hotspot operators to build a network and then open it up to roaming traffic from cellular carriers. However, it’s an option that carriers appear happy to largely ignore. Being cynical, those international roaming rates are low hanging fruits and carriers wish to keep control of customers and keep those charges. We’ve seen carriers keen to push into LTE-U technology, which competes with Wi-Fi in radiowave terms, but of course it’s chargeable back to the carrier. Component and smartphone manufacturers are broadly supporting this – after all, they need to sell chips that the carriers (want customers) to buy. Hotspot 2.0 and the implications of the technology has been largely ignored at Mobile World Congress 2016.
In a related topic, let’s discuss Wi-Fi calling. T-Mobile US made Wi-Fi calling available in 2007. The service gave users free, unlimited calling and of course improved coverage, which was very important to T-Mobile some nine years ago. Actually; let me correct this. All carriers benefit from improved coverage, although all over the world each carrier’s marketing team spend considerable time and effort around explaining how their network provides coverage to so many millions of the population. It’s unfortunate that many of us find ourselves in that one area of our city where there is no coverage, right? We have seen carriers offering a free application that allows calling to be handled over a Wi-Fi or data network, often on another device, but for the most part a carrier would much rather sell you a small cell system (and you must also provide the broadband connection) than allow calls and text messages to be handled over a Wi-Fi network. Here’s where Apple drop into the article, as in 2014 they added Wi-Fi calling into iOS 8. Suddenly, Apple invented a technology and to avoid appearing as a dinosaur, the carriers (in some cases) have reluctantly and slowly incorporated this feature into their infrastructure. However, rather than work on this technology, carriers are instead talking about ultrahigh performance 5G networks, or enabling VoLTE.
Another point to bring to the table is the interoperability barrier between different carriers. There are several examples of this – video calling, plus HD voice, VoLTE or indeed VoIP. Carriers love to pretend that they are the only carrier in existence and so do not devote resources to allowing interoperability between themselves and their competitors. Instead, they would much rather you persuade your friends and family to use the same carrier as you. Video calling has been a largely unsupported technology from the carriers and there is a massive app industry allowing video calling across whatever device, carrier and network we are using (such as Google Hangouts, Apple Facetime and Microsoft Skype), there are wider implications: the Internet of Things is going to rely on carriers offering interoperablity. AT&T asked for the industry to agree a video calling standard in 2012. It still hasn’t managed this, four years later; the carriers have the tools and standards at their disposal. Our carriers have a lot of work to do in order to make the Internet of Things work.
Let’s draw a line under these observations and condense it into a single point: our traditional carriers are fighting not to be the dumb pipe that the late Steve Jobs is credited with saying. They want us to think of our smartphone as a carrier device, then perhaps a manufacturers’ device, and finally, as a device. And they want us to only use their services. This is at odds with the Internet of Things and it is likely these growing pains will continue over the next few years.