Reflections from the First Mobile World Congress Americas

BY MIKA SKARP

The very first Mobile World Congress Americas conference just wrapped up and I was happy to have had the opportunity to attend. After a cold, rainy summer in Finland this year, just about any event in sunny San Francisco in September would be a pleasure. With its maiden voyage making landfall at the iconic Moscone center, and a certain fruit-monikered company from Cupertino launching its latest device just days before (timing?), MWCA17 certainly didn’t disappoint.  That said, the bar has been set rather high. After 10 years as an attendee, exhibitor and speaker at the flagship show in Barcelona it’s hard not to make comparisons.

On the mere question of scale, Barcelona wins hands down, despite being a somewhat strange place from which to lead the mobile industry’s charge (in comparison to say, Silicon Valley). With attendance records topping 100,000, the big show has come to feel like a small city. But in tiny San Francisco, with its population of just 750,000, MWCA’s 20,000 attendees felt proportional, and certainly no less crowded. Add to that the dearth of eateries and toilet facilities, and the spotty to non-existent WiFi, and it felt all too familiar. But amid all the traffic, buzz and great expectations, what new news hath MWCA’s debut wrought?

From a rather odd and gimmicky physical cloud, where attendees could find out where their tweets are stored, to the equally gimmicky and somewhat incomprehensible AI-powered robot, “Pepper” from Sprint and Softbank Robotics America, there was plenty of headline fodder. But in the area of real content, I did find a few promising new technology opportunities. Take the FCC’s 3.5 GHz Citizen’s Broadband Radio Service or CBRS; the US standard version of the global standard MultiFire. With all of the talk about shared spectrum this becomes the bellwether for the truly open, public option for LTE access in the US. Co-ordinated, shared and only partially licensed, CBRS was originally proposed back in 2012, and adopted in 2015 to provide broadband access to array of different applications spanning military and defence, consumer, business and industrial customers. With all four major US carriers on board, and interest from the likes of Google, Nokia, Intel and Qualcomm, there’s certainly enough heavyweight momentum behind it. No doubt the idea of combining the low, to no-cost of WiFi, with the reliability and accessibility of LTE spectrum is compelling. With the daily revolutions in IoT and M2M, and tech giants like these leveraging it, CBRS has the potential to be a game changer for innovative 5G-style products and services and new growth opportunities.

Another cool technology on display at MWCA17 was the healthtech breakthrough called "Aira", being presented in conjunction with AT&T.  Aira is a service for blind, sight impaired and sighted persons that allows a mobile-enabled video camera to be installed on eyeglasses to provide profile-based, real-time guidance via voice. Easily paired with any smart phone as well as Google glass and other devices, Aira opens the door to a completely new field of innovation for multiple use cases that may require live, hands free guidance via wireless networks. Of course network slicing would be a natural fit for this technology, as assured performance including low, to zero latency, and high-capacity upstreaming would be necessary.

And speaking of Network Slicing, though mentioned in multiple speeches, there was nothing on display. I was reminded once again at the imbalance of focus on new radio equipment and spectrum concerns over making real and impactful demonstrations of this critical technology. Though 5G is still some years away, the industry as whole needs to jump on the horse and start showing how Network Slicing will be used in use cases like Aira and countless scores of other everyday applications. Certainly Cloudstreet will be demonstrating this in Barcelona this coming spring. Stay tuned.