Welcome to Connectivity World Congress…?

Posted on March 5, 2015

Someone visiting this show for the first time, with no preconceived ideas, might well find themselves wondering why it’s still called “Mobile World Congress”. Such a variety of industries, applications and activities are on display here in Barcelona that the overarching theme is open to interpretation.

MWC has had several identity changes as it has evolved over the years. Back in the 90’s it was known as GSM World Congress, reflecting a strict technology alignment. With the arrival of UMTS it became 3GSM World Congress in 2001. And six years later, as mobile operators worldwide signalled their intent to converge on a single cellular standard for 4G, it was given the name we still use.

These changes follow a narrative of expansion and inclusivity. UMTS brought with it brand new operators with no 2G legacy, hence the subtle but important addition of that ‘3’. The end of a far more significant industry era was reflected in the next change, as the sometimes bitterly opposed GSM and CDMA camps laid down their arms on the common ground of LTE. With each new technology came more options and more operators.

In 2015 it feels like the time is right for another change. Clearly this is no longer an event that deals exclusively in “mobile”, and the gathering momentum behind quad-play means mobile-only operators are actually dwindling in number. What’s more, the lifespan of previous rebrands suggests another is due.

“Connectivity World Congress” might be worth considering. It maintains a link to the event’s roots, while continuing to address the broader mix of underlying technologies that can be harnessed to give smartphone users the connectivity they seek. Specifically it would create the right environment for the meaningful integration of Wi-Fi into the connectivity service that mobile operators provide.

Despite its enormous popularity with end users, and despite the enormous public and private connectivity resource that it represents, there are still many within the traditional operator community who believe Wi-Fi is—and should remain—entirely separate from cellular.

Ironically, this view perpetuates rather than neutralizes the threat that Wi-Fi represents to the established operator community. The emergence of Wi-Fi First and Wi-Fi-only plays from disruptive start-ups and larger cable operators—as well as the arrival of Google’s integrated cellular and Wi-Fi offer—will add a new dimension of choice for end users who want connectivity rather than one or other technology that underlies it. And their emergence has been greatly assisted by traditional mobile operators’ reluctance to embrace the fantastic wireless resource on which these disruptive new services are being built.

Mobile operators need to look and learn. At Devicescape we believe the most important trend of 2015 will be a shift in thinking away from isolated technologies and towards what we’re calling a Connectivity First approach. Some operators may continue offering services at the fringes of the industry, using only one technology or another. But the majority will soon realize that, as long as the quality of the connectivity experience is a good one, the end user will be pleased, however it’s delivered.

The logical extension of this is that end users will begin to choose their connectivity provider—which may not necessarily be a Network Operator—based on the total connectivity package to which that provider gives them access. Like for like comparisons of cellular coverage are going to lose their currency fast as end users realise services are available that deploy a range of technologies to ensure the best connectivity experience in the moment.

Remember, smartphone users spend 90 per cent of their time indoors, where Wi-Fi connectivity is increasingly available in an abundance that cellular simply cannot match. That is not a criticism of cellular, it’s simply an observation that these two technologies have evolved to do what they are best at. Cellular is the clear winner for mobility, for outdoor connectivity and clearly delivers some indoor connectivity. But Wi-Fi rules the in-building roost; which is why successful mobile operators will be the ones that dispense with technology-aligned thinking and offer Connectivity First.

One could even argue that, in the shape of T-Mobile USA, the industry already has its prototype Connectivity First operator. CEO John Legere’s observation last year around the launch of Wi-Fi Un-leashed that it doesn’t matter how he gives his users five bars of service, so long as he gives them those five bars, felt like a breakthrough moment.

His point was made in response to the observation that an emphasis on Wi-Fi belied a weakness in his cellular network. We can speculate about that, but the more important question is: So what if it did? The fact is, there are weaknesses in every cellular network, mostly indoors where people need connectivity most. So what’s the best thing to do in response? Do what Legere did, and address those weaknesses in the most efficient way you can to maintain the quality and relevance of the service. Because relevance is everything.

At the beginning of this article I was talking about the evolution of this illustrious event. I’m told that, one of its original purposes was to facilitate the establishment of international roaming agreements between operators so that their customers could have the same experience moving from one network to another.

A lot has changed since then, the show’s name included, but this challenge of continuity remains. Mobile operators need to take control of the entire connectivity service, and that means an extension of the same cellular service experience to all forms of Wi-Fi. It means a managed service that delivers quality, convenience, and security. It means giving users what they need, where they need it, when they need it.

It is our firm belief at Devicescape that, this time next year, T-Mobile USA will be by no means the only mobile operator taking a Connectivity First approach. Whether or not we’ll be greeting one another at the inaugural Connectivity World Congress, is perhaps another matter.