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The future of wireless – we’ll get what we pay for

Posted by Richard Parker on 30th June 2015

Last week Wildfire was at the Future of Wireless International Conference, the Cambridge Wireless annual get together that looks at the big trends for the wireless industry from chips through to mobile operators and the businesses who rely on mobile connectivity.

With an impressive mix of speakers across the two days, the event covered all the aspects you’d expect, but with two fairly consistent (if not always stated) themes.

Day One: Wireless is dead, long live wireless

The opening session of the conference focused on the increasingly rapid rate of change of technology and the discontinuities that would change the whole market place. Apparently the average time a company spends in the S&P 500 is now 15 years, down from 67 years in the 1920s – and it gets worse. In 8 years time “more than 3/4 of the S&P 500 will be companies that we have not heard of yet”.

So it is clear then things will change and that the changes we have seen over the last 20 years are not going to be a patch on what will happen in the next 20.

The technologies enabling these changes are reasonably clear and will continue to be pushed along by Moore’s law. The expected application areas are also clearly identified and well known – the Internet of things, the connected car, security and machine intelligence.

What no one knows is how they will change the world. No one predicted Uber and how it would redefine an industry – and in future – many more industries. If you can move people around by connecting the customer directly to the driver, you can probably move things around just as easily.

Speaker David Wood, Chair at London Futurists and Principal at Delta Wisdom, encouraged us to spot the steamrollers that flatten a business model and identified smart glasses, cyber crimes (Moore’s outlaws) and ubiquitous artificial intelligence as three examples we should all look out for.

Day Two: The Future of Wireless? We’ll only get what we pay for

It’s no secret that mobile operator business models are changing and eventually people will have to start paying more. Just look at what happened with 4G in the UK, where consumer interest has been incredibly high but people don’t want to pay any more for it.

One of the other challenges facing operators is that the majority of services that rely on cellular are not operator owned. To prove the point, the GSMA’s CTO presented one stat that suggested by 2020 we’ll see around one billion cellular M2M connections.

The potential gap between current wireless business models and those who need wireless was highlighted in a session from Jaguar Land Rover, who are already rolling out an impressive range of smart-car and app-controlled features on their latest models.

In the UK however, mobile coverage on roads is notoriously poor, so much so that they disable services until they can be sure people won’t be let down by poor connectivity. The view of Connected Car Director Mike Bell was that while 4G is nice enough, the real opportunities for new services will come with 5G, thanks to its much lower latency and improved coverage.

So is 5G the answer then?

The final session addressed this question head on with a debate titled ‘Do we need 5G?’ The debate focused on the current definition of 5G as stated by operator trade associations: “5G is the next generation of mobile carrier incubated radio access network technologies that will be ready for early service adopters by 2020.” 

There were some excellent arguments for 5G, but one key argument against was that the technology-first approach taken by the wireless industry for 4G and 3G won’t work again. This time the discussions need to be lead by the business case and the different ways in which 5G could be used outside of mobile.

There was also the question of investment, something both sides agreed on, and the challenge in securing investment to drive 5G innovation. As summed up nicely by Peter Whale and Bob Driver at the end of the day, ‘We all want innovation, but nobody wants to pay for it.’

It’s unquestionably an exciting time to be in the wireless industry, with long-established business models being shaken up by new trends and market entrants. The presentations on current big data and IoT applications showed that there’s a lot happening already, but when it comes to the future and 5G, we’ll only get what we’re prepared to pay for.

And where is the next Uber?

Image credit: @cambwireless

Richard Parker

Richard is CEO at Wildfire, fulfilling a dual role of overseeing the commercial aspects of running the business and offering strategic input and advice on clients and new business. Richard has 28 years of experience in running international PR campaigns for technology companies.