New gadgets, LTE upstarts and data plans on tap at CTIA Wireless

Wireless industry gathering next week for conference in Florida

What better way to celebrate the arrival of spring than by showing up in Orlando for CTIA Wireless 2011, which runs March 22-24. The buzz is all about LTE, the mythical "4G" network, the continually promised mobile payments explosion, monetizing the heck out of online app stores, and now ... tablets, which manage to bring almost all of these trends, or hopes, together.

On the eve of the U.S. cellular industry's biggest trade show, AT&T triggered a shockwave by announcing it will buy the No. 4 mobile carrier, T-Mobile USA, for $39 billion.

Watch our videos showing the latest from the CTIA floor

The deal, which still faces regulatory approval, is sure to be a major topic at CTIA 2011 this week in Orlando. AT&T executives will face a barrage of questions, scepticism, and criticism. But judging from the fact that the company is already cancelling scheduled meetings with reporters, the company line may simply be to repeat reassuring talking points while stonewalling questions about what the deal really means.

The conference and exhibit, at Orlando's Orange County Convention Center, focuses on wireless and converged communications, wireless broadband, and the mobile Web. It's sponsored by CTIA, an international trade group of wireless carriers, their suppliers, and providers of wireless services and products, both hardware and software.

ANALYSIS: Breaking down carriers' '4G' wireless spin

Announcements are expected to include new mobile devices that run on LTE or WiMAX networks, LTE expansions, new compact base stations (called picocells) to improve wireless coverage and capacity for both 3G and LTE networks.

Samsung is widely expected to unveil a new Galaxy Tab model. Speculation is that it will offer a 8.9-inch screen, fitting between the first one, at 7 inches, and the recently announced 10.2-inch model.

Sprint Nextel appears poised to roll out three high-end, Android-based mobile devices. They are reportedly two smartphones -- the Samsung Nexus S 4G, incorporating a WiMAX radio, and HTC's EVO 3D, adding a 3D screen to the EVO phone -- and a tablet, the HTC EVO View, which is supposed to be the HTC Flyer for CDMA networks.

Earlier this year, Virginia-based LightSquared got a green light from the FCC to launch a nationwide wholesale wireless network, combining LTE and satellite links. The company's chairman and CEO, Sanjiv Ahuja, has a Wednesday keynote at CTIA where many expect him to announce a customer, a major U.S. carrier. Some reports say the customer will be Sprint Nextel.

One wild card event may be the Tuesday, March 22, roundtable featuring the chief executives of the four biggest wireless carriers -- Ralph de la Vega of AT&T, Dan Hesse of Sprint, Philipp Humm of T-Mobile USA, and Dan Mead of Verizon Wireless. The panel will be moderated by the somewhat immoderate CNBC personality Jim Cramer.

One possible revelation from this group is real innovation in cellular data plans, according to FierceWireless. One possible change is more variety in tiered data plans. The Web site quotes Current Analysis analyst Maidy Whitesell: "Expect to see a wider variety of tiered data plans with a higher number of included gigabytes. The most likely high-end data plan would include 10 GB instead of 5 GB (which is most common today). Verizon Wireless already announced a 10 GB plan for LTE."

Another possible change is U.S. carriers adopting the "multi-device subscription" plan introduced last year by Rogers Communications of Canada. FierceWireless points to a December 2010 blog post by ABI Research analyst Mark Beccue: "The utopia in that sense would be one data plan for all of a subscriber's devices -- smartphone, feature phone, laptop dongle, media tablet, perhaps even portable media players and gaming devices."

"The scheme will be a huge success, particularly with high value customers (who tend to have multiple devices already) if the plans are easy to understand and manage," Beccue wrote. "If not, Rogers could risk losing some of their best customers."

Increasingly for wireless carriers in the U.S., the best customers are no longer humans: They're machines. In the past 18 months, all the top wireless carriers have launched or greatly expanded their machine-to-machine (M2M) cellular data services. They're being driven to it, because voice revenues have hit a plateau; there are only so many humans carrying phones.

"Voice has been their mainstay and margins are being impacted by competition," says Stratton Nicolaides, CEO of Numerex, Atlanta, Ga., offering products and services to deploy machine-to-machine wireless applications. "So they turn to data as the next big thing in generating revenue. The ARPU [average revenue per user] on the data side is much lower in M2M compared to consumers, but the numbers of machines are much larger. So it makes a greater margin contribution."

At $10-50 per month, M2M data plans are a fraction of what consumers pay. But the monthly plans encompass thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of consistent, low-bandwidth "subscribers." CTIA could see expanded competition and innovation in M2M strategies for devices and service plans.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.

Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww

E-mail: john_cox@nww.com

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