My trip to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year drew mixed emotions: excitement over the vast changes in the mobile world, followed by frustration at having my laptop bag stolen. The last time I was there, in 2008, Motorola was a phone and infrastructure manufacturer, Nortel Networks was still in business, and Nokia Siemens Networks was barely a year into its merger.

Today, Nortel (and my bag) is but a distant memory, Motorola Mobility is part of Google, and others, like Alcatel Lucent, have battled to stay relevant in an age of cheaper products and services. Nokia Siemens Networks, for instance, is today a more focused, leaner company, recently announcing a return to profitability after quarters of losses. Even the venue has shifted from the old grounds to a newer, larger facility.

The GSM Association (GSMA) projects in a global report that developed economies will save US$400 billion in healthcare costs from mobile health services by 2017, and a reduction in carbon emissions of 27 million tons (the equivalent of planting 1.2 billion trees) via smart metering technology in the same period. 

The GSA also forecasts that 84 countries will launch a total of 234 LTE/4G commercial networks this year and that, by 2017 more people in the developing world will make their first Internet connection via a wireless device, not a wired connection. These connections will be aided by cheaper and faster smartphones, such as the Huawei Ascend P2 and Nokia 520, as well as applications such as video calling.

What It Means

  • In 2017, there will be 3.9 billion mobile subscribers globally, up from 3.2 billion in 2012. A large percentage of these will be from developing economies in Africa and growth markets in Asia, including China, India, and Indonesia. Handset makers and operators need to work together to deliver innovation and cost efficiencies for handset ownership and mobile subscription rates or be sidelined. Nokia, for instance, has drawn lessons on competing efficiently.
  • Global mobile broadband data will reach 11.2 exabytes per month by 2017, up from 0.9 exabytes per month in 2012. Mobile operators not investing heavily in mobile backhaul systems will suffer delivery issues, and will see higher customer churn rates. Vendors such as Tellabs and Ericsson offer software-defined networking (SDN) as solutions, although my colleague Dan Bieler argues that the SDN story cries out for a better usage scenario.
  • Lastly, governments need to assure mobile operators that investing in, and building, LTE networks are not irrational exercises to stuff national coffers. This could see them offering tax breaks and ensuring a level playing field for LTE spectrum auction and allocation.

The year ahead promises an even quicker pace of mobile innovation and disruption. For example, GM and Ford have joined the 4G evolution (see Charles Golvin’s blog post on GM; Thomas Husson shares other views here). I’m excited by the prospect of seeing much of it realized in the near future.