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MWC 2017: 4G still has plenty of mileage, say mobile analysts

5G is likely to be a hot topic at this year’s Mobile World Congress, which kicks off at the end of February, but operators should be paying more attention to getting more out of their 4G networks

Ahead of Mobile World Congress (MWC), which begins in Barcelona on 27 February 2017, attention is turning to 5G networking, but according to analysts at CCS Insight, enhancements to 4G mobile networks still hold a lot of promise.

The first 5G networks are expected to be deployed in 2020, and widespread testing is likely to take place in Russia, South Korea and even the UK as early as next year.

At a pre-MWC event in London, CCS’s Ben Wood said most mobile network operators (MNOs) would struggle to find a solid business case to support 5G deployment before 2020, and suggested that gigabit long-term evolution (LTE) was arguably the headline story when it came to mobile network development.

In the UK, mobile market leader EE has well-advanced plans to test gigabit LTE on its LTE-Advanced (LTE-A) network, which went live in 2014.

EE’s LTE-A network uses carrier aggregation technology – a bonded mix of high and low frequency spectrum – to increase 4G download speeds to up to 150Mbps in ideal conditions, with a theoretical maximum of 300Mbps – more than double regular 4G speeds. Gigabit LTE is likely to more than treble this maximum speed.

At the end of January 2017, mobile chipset specialist Qualcomm Technologies, alongside network suppliers Ericsson and Netgear and Australian MNO Telstra, showed off the potential of gigabit LTE services at a demonstration event in Sydney.

At the event, a Netgear Nighthawk M1 mobile router incorporating Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X16 LTE modem and 802.11ac Wi-Fi achieved download speeds of 930Mbps and upload speeds of 127Mbps on Telstra’s live 4G network.

According to Qualcomm, smartphones incorporating X16 gigabit LTE-capable modems are expected to come to market later this year.

“Gigabit LTE is incredibly disruptive,” said Wood. “I recently used the first commercial deployment of this technology on Telstra’s network in Australia, so I’ve had first-hand experience of what a dramatic change it offers consumers.

“Network operators see gigabit LTE as an opportunity to extend the return on their investments in 4G networks, and this is going to be one of the hottest tech topics in 2017 as leading operators around the world upgrade their networks.”

Smartphone innovation still static

The most eagerly anticipated events at MWC each year are always smartphone launches, with Samsung generally leading the pack. Last year it invoked the power of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to send its event viral.

However, although the launches remain as glitzy as ever, most experts now agree that the technology inside the handset has been stagnating, with much of the innovation around smartphone devices now shifting to the integral services they can provide.

Looking ahead to this year’s crop of launches, CCS’s Wood predicted more of the same as every device maker tries its level best to make its new mobile stand out in what he called the “sea of smartphone sameness”.

Read about MWC 2016

This means that innovation in 2017 – where it exists – will be more on the cosmetic side, said Wood. “We expect the big trend is going to be smaller bezels – it’s going to be all about taking stunning screens right to the edge of devices,” he said. “In addition, we believe dual cameras and biometrics, such as fingerprint and iris recognition, will play big.”

Notable device launches at the 2017 show will include the return of the Nokia brand. The brand’s new licensee, HMD Global, is already ramping up production of traditional feature phones and is expected to unveil a new line of Android devices. CCS analysts reckon the lingering cache of the Nokia name could give it about 5% of the total market by the end of the decade.

Also widely expected are more smartphone virtual reality (VR) headsets compatible with Google’s Daydream system, and 360-degree cameras, which CCS said would be the catalyst for an explosion of “surroundie” pictures and videos. Analysts expect a smartphone with an integrated 360-degree camera may come later this year.

Internet of things

Meanwhile, CCS’s Martin Garner turned his attention to the internet of things (IoT), which has been a feature of MWC for several years. However, Garner underlined the belief that the IoT is still a very nebulous term, in need of more definition.

“Grand statements about embracing IoT are virtually meaningless,” he said. “In Barcelona this year, the major names must put some edges on their ambitions.

“Watch out for developments in machine-to-machine deployments in areas such as retail, healthcare, agriculture, construction, utilities, smart buildings and smart cites. We’ll also see tremendous activity in connected cars, as well as convergence between enterprise mobility management systems and cloud platforms for IoT products.”

CCS predicted that a growing coalition of MNOs would look to smart cities as a headline IoT theme at the 2017 event. Garner described the arena as a natural extension for their business models, but he warned they would need to move quickly to take advantage of the potential, given the ambitions of other players such as Google.

Mobile World Congress opens on Monday 27 February at the Fira Gran Via and Fira Montjuïc convention centres in Barcelona. The event, which is sponsored by the GSMA mobile industry association, will attract more than 100,000 visitors this year.

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