MWC19 Pre-Show Q&A with Mobile Industry Insider, Allen Proithis

Allen Proithis has spent most of his career building organizations in the mobile industry using a strong combination of strategic and tactical marketing. For the past few years, he led the rollout of the first nationwide low-powered, wide area wireless network (LPWAN) as the President – North America for Sigfox. Allen also created an IoT joint venture with Sony and InterDigital ($155M+) and then led it as Chairman. He closed a $15M A round to define and launch the first spin-out in InterDigital’s history, developed and executed the strategy and go-to-market for a new global HP channel program ($400+ million) to sell connected home and consumer electronics through major telecommunications companies, and led the launch of HP’s first global mobile applications store and ecosystem in support of HP’s first Android Netbook, the Compaq Airlife 100.

In the past, our pre-MWC Q&As were done with former CMO, Michael O’Hara, however, because of his unexpected departure from GSMA, we’ve decided to switch gears, instead opting to solicit the expertise of a mobile industry insider for unbiased insight on the show.

We tapped Allen for his insight into Mobile World Congress because both InterDigital and HP are GSMA members and he has personally experienced the organization’s incredible impact on the mobile industry. As an industry spokesperson for Sigfox, he drove the marketing activities to make them one of the top mobile brands in North America, while working with mobile operators around the world. Allen has attended every Mobile World Congress since its inception in Barcelona, so it will be interesting to hear his thoughts on the upcoming show.

What’s the biggest buzz you’ve heard about MWC19 so far?

There’s a renewed emphasis on applications, especially for IoT.

I think the other big question is what’s going to happen with Huawei? There’s a big difference of opinion between the US and a lot of other parts of the world about Huawei as a vendor, and I think you’re going to see some of that difference of opinion illustrated at the show. Some people will be very enthusiastic supporters and probably try to defend them at the show because of the economics of Huawei making it affordable for those companies to get what they need for their networks, and I think there will be other people who aren’t Huawei trying to take advantage of the situation at the show. It’s going to be an interesting dynamic to watch play out. 

The theme of Mobile World Congress Barcelona 2019 is ‘Intelligent Connectivity,’ what does that mean to the mobile industry?

When I hear intelligent connectivity, I think of intelligence being distributed between the edge and the cloud, optimizing the way data is processed and valued. It’s really a complimentary thought to edge intelligence and how cloud is eating the world and how with connectivity increasing with intelligence is able to help facilitate, again, the processing and the decisions and evaluation of data, wherever it makes the most sense, whether it’s on the end device, whether it’s at a gateway or hub, whether it’s in the cloud, quite often it will be some combination of all these things, depending on the specific use case.

Are there any big announcements you expect to come out of MWC19?

If I knew about them, I’d be under NDA, right ;-)?

I think it’s the usual venue to announce big partnerships and I think you’ll see some non-traditional partnership announcements between very traditional telecom suppliers and non-traditional companies because traditional players in the telecom ecosystem are deep enablers for data to get back to the people who monetize data.

What do you predict will be the hottest topics at the show?

Ten years ago, phones were the reason you went to MWC. Today, while they are important, they’re just an item of interest in the bigger picture…

5G will reign supreme

5G will continue to get incredible hype. It’s very typical that we see a very strong level of promotion for every new air interface generation. What’s unusual about 5G is that it’s not going to hit scale until 2022 according to the experts. It’s not that it’s not going to be very important because it will be, but it’s that even though there are trials, and there’s going to be devices coming out very soon now, the hype level is probably the highest that I’ve ever seen in advance of any air technology like this.

I think 5G is going to be amazing, but like any new technology, it’s going to be a real struggle to figure out what are the right use cases for it. For instance, there’ll be some phones coming out late this year with 5G built in, but frankly, what is it doing for you that you can’t do today? The things we’ll have to figure out as an industry are things that take advantage of 5G characteristics like massive broadband and low latency. I think with any technology it just takes a little work to figure out exactly how it fits.

That’s another good thing about events like MWC, which allow you to talk to people and find out what they are seeing with 5G experimentation. We really don’t know what’s the best and highest application of it yet. We probably won’t have a good sense of it for another year or two based on experiments out in the wild.

There’s no question 5G is a massive advantage to the operators because of the spectral efficiency, it’s hundreds of times more efficient, and we know there are some user benefits as well, but it’s going to take some work to figure it out on a detailed level.

If you get YouTube to load a second faster on your phone is that going to change your life? And by the way with every jump in generation of tech your battery is worse in the first year until they optimize the power. So good luck with that!

Also, because 5G is using higher spectrum frequencies, it tends to perform poorly in buildings unless you have a small base station in the building because the signal does not penetrate as well. That’s the tradeoff of the physics – the higher you go up in the spectrum, the more bandwidth you can carry more easily, but it just bounces off glass and walls.

A growing interest in CBRS

The other thing I hope we hear about more about is CBRS. It’s such a simple solution. It combines the Wi-Fi deployment approach with standards in a way that completely compliments existing cellular technology. Other non-US markets are starting to talk about it, but I think it’s a fantastic way to solve the in-building coverage problem because the great majority of network capacity is outdoors, but 80 or 85% of data consumption is indoors. CBRS breaks down some of those barriers.

So that’s why I love CBRS. You can spend just a couple hundred dollars, and all of a sudden you have coverage inside and your same devices work inside your campus or your office as it does outside.

I see massive interest in CBRS in the US, particularly from non-traditional telco operators like cable companies. Their dream has always been to participate in wireless, and companies like Cox experimented with buying spectrum, but there was such a barrier to entry they couldn’t do it. But with CBRS, there’s almost no barrier to entry. In fact, you could argue given their Wi-Fi footprint, they already have backhaul, electric and people going to the pole, so they’re probably better equipped to do CBRS than any other entity in the country.

Other companies like GE talked about putting this in every campus, and I think FedEx has publicly spoken about this as well. It’s an excellent choice for companies that have lots of physical locations because again, you can provide a much better experience, you can control the quality of service within your environment and then when you walk out of the building, you’re on the public network.

I hope we hear about CBRS, but I didn’t put it on the top of my list, because it is still a very US specific spectrum policy that is enabling the service, but, in 2019 I think CBRS could have a more significant impact on our industry than both 5G and NB-IoT.

Blockchain is on the outs

I think what will not be as big as expected is blockchain because last year was an extreme bear market for crypto, and people have trouble separating the concept of blockchain as an enabling technology and crypto as an application. According to data from DeadCoins and Coinopsy, approximately 1000 cryptocurrency-related projects failed in 2018 and are now dead! So, because of the struggles of crypto, I think you’ll see less talk about blockchain this year.

LPWAN is back

I think the other thing you will see a lot more this year is LPWAN. Originally the LPWAN term was created for unlicensed technologies like LoRa. Now the term is also being applied pretty aggressively to NB-IoT and even LTE-M. I think you’ll see a huge emphasis on that now that the NB-IoT network rollouts are starting to pick up some really good steam.

IoT will top application discussions

I think IoT is going to be the biggest application discussion on top of connectivity at the show. MWC stopped being about phones years ago. Sure, we all like to see them, but it’s really about the applications enabled by connectivity, of which IoT is still in the early stages. It’ll meet or exceed all the big goals people set out for it, but like every new technology, it just takes a while to get there.

Why should exhibitors invest in this show?

For mobile industry players, Mobile World Congress is a combination of the World Cup, Super Bowl and New Year’s Eve all revved up together. I’ve never seen an event with a collection of such senior people from so many key companies in the space. It provides the opportunity to have a lot of really significant meetings and allows you to deeply understand the latest trends and where the investments are going. You can get more done in a few days at Mobile World Congress than you could at any other show.

What aspect of MWC19 are you most looking forward to?

In addition to seeing old friends again, I think there’s no better way to take the temperature of the industry and blast through the marketing buzz, getting to the reality what’s going on behind the scene than to attend Mobile World Congress.

With so many companies vying for your attention on the show floor, how do you determine the hype from the real deal?

I used to have a satire meter where I’d count how many different pet tracker apps I could find at the show.  That showed me the level of seriousness of tracking applications. Not to say there’s not a market there because there is, but it helps you see what’s a temporary trend of the year versus what things are going to sustain themselves. After about two or three years of non-stop pet tracker companies, suddenly it got down to a handful of more serious solution providers.

Any final thoughts on the future of MWC Barcelona?

Mobile World Congress is a huge show. If you look at what this show was just ten years ago, it has gone from being a more intimate industry insider show to a broader show, which reflects how the industry has become broad over the years and so, I think in terms of attention, it’ll remain steady.

The challenge that could slow the growth of the show is that there are just so many alternatives today, it’s facing more competition than ever before with other events, but when it comes to all things mobile, it’ll hold its place in the industry.

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