CES is all about consumer electronics, so why do service providers go to the Las Vegas event? The answer is an easy one. More and more of the electronics consumers buy are connected to the networks that service providers manage, and to the applications those networks enable. Buy a new phone, and you’re dependent on one of the mobile carriers to make it work. Buy a Roku, or virtual reality headset or connected TV, and you've got your wireline ISP to thank (or blame) for the entertainment experience.
Attending CES is partly about visibility for service providers, but it's even more about learning what innovations are on the horizon and making deals to bring those innovations profitably to market. Here's what service providers are focused on for CES 2017.
WiFi at home
A recent study by Sandvine found that the average North American household now has more than seven connected devices active every day, and it's because of that demand on the home network that technologists have steered their energies toward improving home WiFi connections. Internet service providers are particularly keen on bettering WiFi performance because they're the ones that get the call when a user is unhappy. Estimates suggest that more than half of customer service calls are WiFi-related. (See Assia Lands WiFi Tech On Hitron CPE.)
I'm expecting some big WiFi announcements at CES, and perhaps even more importantly, plenty of back-room meetings as service providers decide how to cement their home WiFi plans for 2017. Top vendors will certainly be on site, including AirTies , which has already signed up Frontier Communications Corp. (NYSE: FTR) and Midcontinent Communications (Midco) as service provider customers for its mesh networking technology, and Celeno Communications , which recently closed a new $38 million funding round. (See Frontier Calls In WiFi Fix With AirTies Mesh and Winning at WiFi – Celeno Closes $38M Round.)
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Retail darling Eero will also be in Vegas with its mesh networking solution, and even Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) is listed in the CES exhibitor directory, albeit without a booth or suite number attached to its name. (See also Google Plans Home WiFi Takeover.)
Service providers would be foolish not to consider their WiFi options with so many vendors on hand, and by CES 2018, it will almost certainly be too late to start comparison shopping.
IoT security and interoperability
The Internet of Things was big at CES 2016, but in 2017 the conversation looks like it will shift to focus more on issues of scale, including how to secure emerging machine-to-machine networks and how to make it easier to run a variety of devices and applications on top of these M2M platforms.
From an exhibitor perspective, the smart home category will play a big role in the IoT presence at CES. There's an entire smart home marketplace, and for the first time, Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) will have a public exhibit space at the show to highlight its Xfinity Home solutions. Comcast is particularly concerned with making it easy to connect smart home devices and on expanding the list of retail products that are certified to work securely with the Xfinity system.
Beyond the smart home, however, there are also numerous panel sessions scheduled at CES on broader topics like how to handle big data from IoT deployments and how to address IoT demands across different sectors from smart cars to smart energy and more.
Even companies like Ingenu and Sigfox , which just announced major milestones in their deployments of low-powered, IoT networks in US cities, will be at CES 2017. They don't have gadgets to sell, but they do have business to do with device makers and other network providers to ensure their deployments continue to grow and provide safe and profitable connectivity for innovative new applications. (See also Sigfox in the City: 100+ Markets up in the US.)
Video, video, video
Video is always a highlight at CES, and once again in 2017, that video category will expand beyond traditional lean-back viewing to more interactive augmented reality and virtual reality services.
In the more traditional video domain, connected-TV devices at CES will collide with a variety of service models for delivering video. We may see the new AirTV in Las Vegas that was designed to combine over-the-air broadcast channels with over-the-top video applications. And TiVo Inc. (Nasdaq: TIVO) will certainly be on site to promote its TiVo platform as a way for service providers to bridge the gap between QAM-based television and new IP video services. (See AirTV Promises Best of OTA & OTT and What's Next for Rovi & TiVo?)
There will also be lots, and lots and lots of connected TVs at CES 2017, because if there's one thing that drives booth traffic, it's big-screen displays. Many of these will also be 4K and HDR-enabled; technologies which promise new challenges for operators trying to deliver video on their networks.
On the AR and VR front, I expect there will still be a grab bag of demos and gizmos at the upcoming CES, but the sheer variety of products and technologies means the show will be a good opportunity for service providers to do their research on how applications are evolving and what business models they might consider in the future. Could Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) decide one day to offer a premium VR entertainment package with subscription content and a VR headset? It's certainly possible. (Verizon already resells Google's Daydream View headset.)
And there's no better place for a network operator to peruse its options and meet with potential partners than at CES in Las Vegas.
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading