New horizons for the wireless industry

Among the lessons we can learn about where the wireless industry will head come from an understanding the past success.  At its roots, the wireless industry has grown due to technological progress in the design and manufacture of semiconductor-based equipment and mobile devices.  That opened up waiting markets for people to make phone calls into the existing landline phone network. Almost every “blockbuster” application since has been an extension of what occurred first on wired Internet communications. These required up-front agreement on standards, access to spectrum and capital that are highly organized and lengthy endeavors. In many cases, particularly in the early stage of each new generation of wireless, the use cases beyond voice and simple text messaging have been a process of trial and error. Of concern to mobile operators is whether they would become ‘fat pipe’ access providers detached from the revenue-generating services, content, and applications that ran OTT, Over the Top.

In recent years, more applications have developed in which the use of mobile devices have become essential to the functionality and user experience: mobile money, social chat, and some gaming apps are centered on use while people are in social settings rather than in front of a computer screen.

The 5G environment will also occur mostly as an extension of what has come before. During the early stages, harnessing 5G’s lower latency and higher speeds will be isolated. The new 5G environment must first proliferate to reach a substantial percentage of consumers before it becomes the platform for new applications to gain market traction. As with 4G, there is no date specified for this to occur, however, from that experience it may be around 2021-22 for this to happen. Our forecasts for 5G development in the USA takes two different tracks: under the scenario in which T-Mobile and Sprint do no merger, the deployment of mobile 5G will take longer to reach a large strata of the U.S.population. If the merger is allowed by the US government, by 2023 we project that over 50% of US subscribers will have 5G enabled smartphones that can deliver a marked improvement in applications performance, i.e. ‘5G apps’.

Mobile operators most difficult task?  

The task of building networks and devices that adhere to the standards and the building of managed networks is a highly disciplined and lengthy process. The task of developing new applications is “capturing light in a bottle”; part methodical process and part the serendipity of being in the right place at the right time with an inspired and highly motivated team of developers and entrepreneurs.

It has been estimated that over 70% of operator-sponsored applications either failed and were abandoned or were merged with others or gained limited adoption. Many remaining operator-developed applications are retained to become more a nuisance than a benefit to ongoing operations. Each of the major US operators and many in other countries have applications with low user ratings, some of which have not been upgraded for several months and have questionable compatibility with the current OS. This issue is certainly not unique to mobile operators.  In fact, it is indicative of the application development environment: large numbers of applications appear, some gain leadership that tends to soak up market share quickly. However, some categories, such as security applications, continue to draw new participants even while the feature sets and user interface are almost identical.  What defines applications that have staying power and where mobile operators have an advantage? And why do some applications where operators have an edge, such as customer service applications, garner low user ratings and are not extended to leverage the connection to the user and account tie-in to gain traction in other categories?

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