CTIA at the Crossroads

This year's CTIA Wireless show provoked more questions than it was able to answer about the future of wireless in the U.S. In that way it reflected the industry itself, and presented a snapshot of cellular at a crossroads.

While the show presented some of the innovations that will define the next 10 years of wireless in the U.S., such as 4G technology, it also indicated that the public is just now using some of the services that that faster cellular networks were supposed to have delivered almost a decade ago -- namely, the ability to access the Web on your phone. Turns out, many users in the U.S. didn't start to do that until their phone had an "i" in front of its name.

700 MHz
What the 700 MHz auction winners would do with their wireless broadband spectrum was the elephant in the room all week. The participants were under strict orders from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) not to talk about their bids or plans. This quiet period elapsed just as the event ended, and spectrum talk filled the air even as many attendees flew home.

The updates weren't a huge surprise: AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Wireless will use the spectrum to deliver 4G services in 2010 and beyond. Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM), meanwhile, will ramp up its mobile TV network. (See AT&T & Verizon to Use 700 MHz for 4G .)

What hasn't been nailed down yet is what "open access" means in terms of the C-band spectrum, the fate of the unsold D-block, and what -- if any -- plans smaller carriers have for moving to 4G when the time comes. These will remain some of the key questions throughout the rest of the year for wireless watchers.

Home base stations are definitely attracting more interest than ever before from U.S. carriers, if CTIA is any indication. Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) has always been gung ho for mini base stations in the home. Now Verizon says it will test the boxes in 2008. (See Verizon Eyes Femtos.)

Long-term questions remain over how to price and manage the gizmos, however. Femtocell vendors at the show suggest that initial end-user costs will hover between $100 and $200. (See Femtocells Face Uncertain Future in US.)

The show wasn't all infrastructure great and small, however. There were some devices on display, but it was nothing like the clamor over gadgets that Unstrung saw at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and Mobile World Congress earlier this year. The biggest absence: no new prototypes from the Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)-backed Android project.

We now know, however, that AT&T is on board with Android. (See AT&T Likes Android.) That turned out be the main event for the mobile Linux operating system at the show.

iPhone and killers
AT&T also repeated its previous hints that a 3G iPhone will arrive in the summer. Despite an early buzz around the Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Korea: SEC) Instinct, nothing really seemed to emerge as a worthy successor to Apple's high-end handset hero at the show.

Meanwhile, how much people will pay for services is engaging the carrier community in the U.S. The largest carriers such as AT&T and Verizon are introducing flat-rate voice plans that graze $100, while low-cost operators like Leap Wireless International Inc. (Nasdaq: LEAP) are pricing plans between $45 and $65. It remains to be seen what the happy medium will be.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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