With such a broad range of speakers and exhibitors, it’s challenging to fully identify key themes that are driving the industry. However, there are a number of topics of note:
- Network virtualisation
- Data and personalisation
From a technology perspective, the days of networks running on custom hardware are coming to an end. Virtualisation allows scalable solutions to be developed and scaled efficiently, taking advantage of performance gains made within commercial off the shelf (COTS) computing equipment.
This makes it more straightforward to launch new services and lowers the investment bar for niche providers. In the long term, this should lead to a greater level of service innovation within the mobile sector.
One key area of interest in virtualisation is CloudRAN, where base station functionality is pulled back into the network from the individual base station, bringing economies of scale and the ability to move capacity around between base stations, depending on usage at particular times of day. Early CloudRAN concepts have relied on very high speed data links between the core network and the base station but recent developments are aimed at allowing standard Ethernet broadband to connect base stations.
At the same time as solutions to pull capability from the base station back into the network, we are also seeing functionality being pushed further to the edge of the network, through local service caching. At first glance, it appears counter intuitive to have solutions pulling in opposing directions but this actually suggests that the current, legacy architecture is a compromise that is not optimised for either deployment model.
In urban areas with good connectivity and variable traffic peaks, CloudRAN makes a huge amount of sense but networks in rural areas often suffer from insufficient backhaul capacity, meaning that local caching can improve the user experience in those locations. Over the next few years, we are likely to finally see the move from a “one size fits all” approach to mobile infrastructure to more optimised and tailored solutions.
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There has been lots of talk around 5G and there are some interesting demonstrations at the show, with very high speed microwave data links being shown. Despite the hype, these demos show the immaturity of the technology and the journey the industry needs to take.
Current focus is very much on the radio network and interesting new techniques to bring a massive increase in bandwidth. However, a radio technology alone does not deliver a full mobile service. Microwave systems will always offer very high capacity over very small areas, meaning that the industry needs to also ensure it delivers sufficient capability to offer a reliable, repeatable service over a wide range of network technologies.
The fact that we still have to manually select a Wi-Fi network and enter a manual password when we arrive at Mobile World Congress shows that the user experience is not yet fully addressed. The Wi-Fi delivers great performance but I found myself using 4G a lot of the time as I didn’t need to mess around manually configuring the connection.
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Data and personalisation
The final key theme of interest is around personalisation of data. With the growth in wearables, home automation and high volumes of data that can describe and monitor our behaviour, the IT problem of managing that vast volume of data in an efficient and secure manner becomes increasingly important. We are able to generate vast amounts of data and the fact that companies such as Fitbit, Garmin and GoPro are all in attendance highlights the ways that personal data can be generated.
One probable output from all this data is the maturing of mobile advertising. It is an area that has been studied and experimented with for a long time but seems to be finally coming of age. The mobile phone has the ability to accurately describe us through information such as location, browsing history and lifestyle patterns. This can allow advertisements to be very tightly targeted at specific users, which could be seen as intrusive, but can also allow us to reduce the number of irrelevant adverts we have to endure.
The big question that still has to be fully addressed is how disparate sources of information can be aggregated to the benefit of individuals and corporations, maintaining security and privacy whilst delivering benefit to all stakeholders. Although this is not a problem unique to the mobile industry, the capabilities enabled by the powerful, handheld computers that handsets have become will drive these developments.