MWC kicks off, focusing on the long path to IP

By Caroline Gabriel, Rethink Wireless

The mobile industry’s biggest showcase, Mobile World Congress, starts today in Barcelona, and with Nokia shunning the show floor, we will finally discard the myth that this is an event about handsets. In economically brighter times, huge marketing budgets are let loose on cellphone launches and branding, but although there will be new devices on show this year, the real MWC themes will be seen more clearly. The serious visitors will be operators working under enormously challenging business conditions and looking to make real decisions about how to evolve their networks and service models. Infrastructure from RAN to core to backhaul will dominate, and the most significant discussions will center on migrating each part of the network – and the services model – to IP.

The show, under pressure from corporate travel bans and marketing cutbacks, is expected to attract about 47,000 visitors, roughly the same as last year, but significantly down on 2008’s 55,000. These are our top themes:

IP migration: This will be the unifying theme from the backhaul to the femtocell – the nirvana of universal IP using standards like SIP and IMS; and how to get there without breaking the bank or the business model. Kineto is always in the forefront of this balancing act with its gateways, and will be talking about its approach to the problem of voice over LTE, VoLGA – though many will be looking to the OpenVoice group, which promises a simplified approach to running full IMS voice. Offering a step-by-step route to IMS, and simplifying the deployment of this vast platform, will be a theme for the IMS vendors themselves – Cisco always strong in this respect – and also more specialized companies, notably session border control vendor Acme Packet, whose new systems look impressive for providing a less painful road to IMS.

LTE and HSPA+: Telefonica and Nokia Siemens will blanket the event location with an LTE network using prototype terminals, while Ericsson will demonstrate device designs from five suppliers including Samsung. Huawei and ZTE will show commercial modems for LTE; NTT DoCoMo should demonstrate its prototype multimode handset (based on its own chip design, created with three Japanese phonemakers); and NEC will also have a ‘concept device’ which sounds like a small tablet.

And if LTE weren’t far enough away for us, in mass market terms anyway, some vendors will already be looking ahead to LTE-Advanced, the next iteration of the standard – as yet undefined, but aiming for a place in the ITU’s official canon of 4G platforms, which will require 1Gbps stationary performance. Huawei and Qualcomm are among the suppliers promising some insights into how LTE-Advanced might run.

Despite all the LTE buzz, a lot of visitor interest will be in the HSPA(+) roadmap, which will remain the cellular workhorse for years to come, and the WiMAX community will show off its credentials as a technology in a rising number of real world deployments. Ericsson and Huawei have been talking about their demonstrations of HSPA+ pushed to 84Mbps peak downlink, but Nokia Siemens has elbowed its way in with the promise of a demo at 112Mbps peak, using its Flexi Base Station platform and Qualcomm test terminals. It will make this data call using four carriers simultaneously for one data connection. It expects infrastructure with this enhancement to be commercially available by 2011. The four-carrier technology will be standardized in 3GPP Release 10.

Small cells: The most important overall RAN trend is the move to smaller and smaller cells to deliver capacity and targeted availability, so expect this to be the year that indoor femtos become mainstream for 3G operators, and the larger formats for enterprises and outdoor use begin to become real. While the carrier or ‘greater femtocell’ may be a couple of years away for full commercial roll-out, there is heavy focus on the challenges these products are addressing – shrinking the cell size and making the network self-organizing, in order to deploy massive capacity at far lower opex. Kyocera and NEC are both claiming “smallest ever” LTE base stations, with picocells that are designed to infill macro networks.

Android: With Google CEO Eric Schmidt keynoting, and with Nokia and Apple absent from the show floor, this will be the chance to ensure all things Google get a high profile. Most of this will be Android, with plenty of apps and handsets (including the latest from Samsung and LG), but there should also be some news of Chrome OS, amid the general interest in tablet formats.

This may not be a gadget fest like Consumer Electronics Show, but the handsets always catch the headlines and this will certainly be Android’s chance to be in the spotlight, before a rejuvenated Symbian comes along later in the year. More than 50 Android devices are expected to be on show, including phones, netbooks and tablets, and there will be launches from Dell, Hewlett-Packard, HTC, Huawei, LG, Motorola, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Garmin-Asus, ZTE and others.

Application platforms and stores: These will be the key way to differentiate specific devices or operators in 2010, with Google’s ‘browser as OS’ vision still a few years from full realization. In particular, there will be interesting developments from App Planet, a series of specific developer conferences. Notable ones – Vodafone 360 and Motorola developer summits on Monday, Sony Ericsson Creation Day and Google Android Developer Lab on Wednesday, and BlackBerry Developer Day on Tuesday.

Mobile data offload: Easing the burden on the cellular network is the key preoccupation for most cellcos in developed markets and all the options will be on show – Wi-Fi hotzones, femtocells, and offload platforms such as gateways and edge routers. Stoke, Continuous and Tellabs – with the products acquired from Tellabs – are particularly noteworthy in the carrier infrastructure side, while BelAir will be offering the latest on its carrier Wi-Fi offload strategies, with some challenge from Ruckus, coming outside from its traditional video segment.

Processors: The silicon wars are getting interesting, especially with Intel seeking to muscle in the ARM-based players in smartphones, and to claim emerging formats like smartbooks for its own Atom system. With Marvell promising to show off a $99 smartphone platform plus a quad-core Armada apps processor, Intel must sometimes wonder whether it should have held onto XScale (the ARM-based processor business it sold to Marvell to concentrate only on x86). Its doubts will only intensify as NEC also goes quad-core with ARM; Qualcomm adds to its HSPA+ and LTE device roadmap, and shows off LTE-Advanced ; while ARM itself ups the ante in graphics and video.

Handsets: And of course there still will be handsets, even without Nokia – which is widely expected to launch its latest smartphone, X8, in a ‘fringe’ event in Barcelona. Samsung promises its biggest ever showing, in line with its ambitious targets to increase its market share in 2010 and to boost its smartphone sales threefold. Look out for:

LG Mini GD880, with built-in Facebook and Twitter applications and a social networking feed. LG will also show the Arena Max (aka LU9400), with 3.5-inch widescreen and gigahertz Snapdragon processor, and the firm’s second Android handset, the GT540.

Samsung Monte, complete with the latest update to the TouchWiz user interface, which will also appear integrated with the vendor’s own software platform, bada. Like LG Mini, it will be heavily geared to social networking, as well as location services. Samsung should also show the M100S, an Android bighitter with 3.7-inch AMOLED screen, 5-megapixel camera with 720p video recording, Wi-Fi, GPS, DivX support, a 3.5mm headphone jack and mobile TV. It’s expected to run the firm’s new Hummingbird processor, a competitor to Snapdragon.

Google may unveil ‘Nexus Two’, an enterprise focused follow-up to its first own-branded smartphone, which will be made by Motorola and probably bear a strong resemblance to Droid. We might also see a glimpse of the Motorola Devour, its latest Android model, and a low end addition to the family, codenamed La Jolla.

HTC will debut its long awaited Bravo, an Android version of its Snapdragon based Windows Mobile high end. It could also announce the latest WinMo model, Obsession, destined to be the vendor’s first to run WinMo 7, whenever that actually ships. LG could also show a WinMo 7 prototype, the Apollo.

Huawei promises several Android phones, to follow up its cost sensitive Pulse, and a “home use internet device”, expected to be some kind of media hub/tablet, plus two e-readers. ZTE will also unveil further models for its Android line-up.