Every year, during these first three months, we get to see the outcome of two huge annual cell-phone conferences. Mobile World Congress, which is the largest, took place February 15-18 in Barcelona. International CTIA Wireless 2010 should be the biggest cellular event in the U.S., and it’s scheduled this year for March 25-27 in Las Vegas. I missed MWC this year but will be at CTIA later this month.

Big Deals in Barcelona

About 49,000 attendees showed up at MWC this year. This is up from last year’s 47,000 but less than the 55,000 or so of previous years. The downturn is still affecting turnout despite the better than average showing of the cellular industry during 2009. The real indicator, however, is that the number of vendors was down significantly, from about 1300 this year compared to 1800 last year. In any case, MWC is still one of the largest conferences in the world. It brings together all the major players like the carriers, operators, equipment manufacturers, software companies, Internet companies, media and entertainment companies, and government groups.

The show’s range of topics covered is enormous but a few stand out. For example, I thought that the emphasis was on mobile operating systems (OSs) this year. During the show, Microsoft introduced Windows Mobile 7 with its new user interface. The Zune media player and Xbox features also should help it stand out. Meanwhile, Google’s Android OS seemed to be on almost every handset vendor’s products at the show.

The other big announcement was the new OS from Intel and Nokia, which merged their Mobilin and Maemo software to form MeeGo, targeting smart phones as well as notebooks, tablets, and other mobile devices. Also, Nokia reinforced its recent announcement that its Symbian OS is now fully open source. It seems to me that there are too many OSs, but with more than 1 billion devices sold each year, maybe that’s okay.

Current issues also were discussed at MWC. Long-Term Evolution (LTE) remains hot. Expect the initial rollouts of this 4G technology this year. Verizon has committed to setting up 25 to 30 LTE networks in major markets in 2010. While it isn’t the first company to deploy LTE, Verizon seems to be taking an aggressive stance to be a major LTE player. It indicated that data speeds should average 5 to 12 Mbits/s downlink and 2 to 5 Mbits/s uplink. Most of the initial data devices will probably be dongles and data cards with handsets to follow. We can expect to see other LTE rollouts across the world with handsets to come later in the year.

There also were lots of new handsets, with too many to cover here. Of significance is Samsung’s Wave with its own new OS called bada (Fig. 1). LG expects to be the first to offer a Windows Mobile 7 phone. HTC, the Chinese handset company, won the Best Mobile Handset award at the show for its HTC Hero (Fig. 2).

All the usual topics got their share of discussion. The data bottleneck created by Apple’s iPhone and other smart phones will continue and could get worse. AT&T is addressing the problem with its announced $18 million to $19 million in 3G upgrades during the year. The company will continue with its HSPA strategy with LTE to come next year and beyond.

Smart phones are straining the networks. Carriers are anxious to take advantage of the extra data services income, but they have to commit to huge capital investments that hurt profits. Part of that new investment is improved backhaul, which is also part of the bottleneck. Slowly, carriers are adding fiber backhaul where they can for its best in class capacity. But microwave backhaul is also expanding to replace all those T1 lines that have carried the load so far.

Femtocells, also discussed at MWC, could potentially assist in the data overload problem. They have been in field trials for years, but we are now beginning to see them in selected areas. Femtos are a niche, but they could relieve the data pressure on the carriers. PicoChip, the leading femto chip maker, introduced a new processor for femtos. Continuous Computing introduced new femto-related software and systems as well.

Other heavily discussed topics included location-based technology and machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, which are especially hot. Along with 25 mobile vendors, GSMA got together to define specifications for M2M devices as a way to spur sales and adoption. Apps got some attention also in the form of something called App Planet, an event that attempted to get all the various app players together to boost development and sales. There wasn’t much on mobile TV this year, but there were some sessions on green basestations, an ongoing hot topic.

What Happens In Vegas

As for CTIA, look for a crowd of about 40,000 in Las Vegas. About 1000 vendors are expected. This is CTIA’s 25th anniversary, so it should be a milestone event. Keynoters will include Ralph de la Vega, president of AT&T; Julius Genachowski, Federal Communications Commission chairman; Dan Hesse, CEO of Sprint Nextel; William Morrow, CEO of Clearwire; and a half-dozen other big wheels in the wireless industry, all hosted by Steve Largent, president of CTIA.

The floor highlights will include Apps World and the Emerging Technology Zone. In addition to a dozen country pavilions, there will be the usual key technology pavilions, including M2M, backhaul, RF/microwave, testing, and the Tower Summit.

Educational sessions will include Opportunities for Monetizing Mobile, Next-Gen Networks and Devices, Applications Driving Mobile Innovation and Partnerships, and State and Federal Public Policy. Also, look for sessions on smart energy, cloud computing, mobile advertising, retail solutions, mobile consumer electronics devices, social networking, and M2M/embedded. There will be something for everyone.

If you can’t justify the expensive jaunt to Barcelona for MWC, CTIA in Las Vegas is about as good. I hope to see you there.

International CTIA Wireless 2010

Mobile World Congress