Mobile World Congress 2013 will feature glitzy new hardware and exciting apps. But what I really want to see is technology to keep the wireless data network humming.
En route to CES last month, I wrote about a handful of technologies I planned to check out at the show. To name a few: gesture control, wireless power and audio quality enhancements. My goal was to get a better feel for which of those emerging features for mobile devices were ready for prime time.
I'm packing now for Mobile World Congress. I'll be lugging a bigger bag to Barcelona than I dragged to Las Vegas for CES. And inside is a bigger laundry list of technologies I plan to examine while I'm there. I'll be taking another look at all the new mobile device features I studied at CES, as well as a couple of new ones -- like augmented reality. But my number one priority at MWC won't be any of the cool new features for smartphones, tablets and PCs. Rather, it will be the alternatives for expanding wireless data capacity.
So why is a guy who makes a living analyzing mobile client technology trends paying such close attention to carrier deployment issues? It's simple, really. Most of the eye-popping new technologies depend on the flow of data to function. So if the carriers can't keep up, then prices for wireless data plans will climb, or service will degrade. Or both. And the worse it gets, the less we'll depend on the new features.
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Take a moment to think about what sort of hunting-and-gathering tasks you take on when you're armed with nothing more than your smartphone. And also make note of what you don't bother to tackle. Now, compare that to what you would do -- and wouldn't do -- with your smartphone a year ago. Your answer is constantly changing, because the decision is driven by how compelling the information is to you and how easy it is to obtain at the time.
We've been giving our smartphones an ever-larger share of the load as new hardware becomes more capable, as creative new apps tap new information and as wireless networks grow more capable of delivering the content. It's all part of why smartphone users' data demands are doubling every year.
Combine that with the fact that subscribers with feature phones -- which consume far less data -- are migrating to smartphones, and we've got a recipe for an explosion in capacity demand. In a white paper written after Mobile World Congress last year, I show that in 2016 data demand will mushroom to nearly 30 times what it is today.
Everyone sees LTE as the next big thing, but the fact is that LTE won't be able to stop the data crunch from worsening. According to Ofcom, which monitors wireless networks in the U.K., spectrum efficiency gains from LTE deployment are only expected to triple effective capacity by 2016.
So 30x more demand and just 3x more supply. The math makes things painfully clear. The industry needs to get creative if it hopes to keep the trajectory for new devices and new apps going strong. At Mobile World Congress, I'll be meeting with companies offering options for solving the capacity crunch. Most of the alternatives center on WiFi offload and small-cell deployments. Both seem to have their champions, so we'll see.
When I return, I'll tell you what I have learned about augmented reality and all the other cool new technologies -- and whether there will be enough capacity for us to enjoy them.
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