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8 Thoughts from MWC14

1. It’s awfully big and expensive – can you justify it?

Our first conclusion is that the jamboree is just too big and bloated these days. To be sure, there’s a lot of interesting things happening and it’s great that so many figureheads treat it as a vital element of the calendar, but it’s also clear that it’s increasingly difficult to navigate and increasingly difficult to stand out.

The primary reason for attending as a vendor (and in blowing a huge part of your marketing budget) is to meet actual and potential customers. This is becoming harder and harder and the investment required is growing dramatically. Some of our customers achieved this successfully but only by making MWC the main focus of their annual marketing budgets, leaving little room for other expenditure through the year.

Of course, the mega companies don’t much care about this but smaller companies need to think about alternative ways to meet customers. There are plenty of smaller, more focused events and they may well represent a better investment of time, resources and funds than the annual tapas fest that MWC has become. We certainly believe that you should think twice before committing so much to a single event.

2. You’ll probably learn more detail elsewhere…

Secondly, if you want to know more about a specific topic, say for example, SDN or NFV, which have been the subjects of much attention in the past few days, then there are probably better places to learn in more detail, but probably nowhere else where the chatter, grapevine and daily bombardment of news reflects quite so many opinions in such a short space of time. There’s a bit of a chain reaction these days – topics move in and out of focus and can quickly snowball.

In that respect, MWC is a bit of a Hobson’s choice. Either you go, and benefit from these nuggets while putting up with the noise and inconvenience, or you don’t. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for the vendors – on the contrary, to us, that argues for the exhibition side to be diminished and the role of the conference and forum itself to be enhanced.

3. But the conference itself deserves more attention

The exhibition is almost a sideshow, existing alongside but increasingly disconnected from the insightful analysis, comments and proceedings of the adjacent conference.

And this is the thing we particularly like about MWC and what we see as its enduring value. In a single event, there can be key industry leaders from all sides – the CEO of Telenor, the CEO of Facebook, alongside regulators, analysts, CEO of TEMs and so on. Thus, Mr Zuckerberg can make some remarks about the role of Facebook in the ecosystem and an impassioned plea for free internet access (to howls of derision from most) while the CEO of a Tier 1 MNO can respond with a thoughtful riposte in the same place. For industry commentators, this is gold dust and provides copy for thousands of column inches. Perhaps ironically, it was through OTT social media as well as traditional media that much of the debate was played out.

4. Facebook in call for DPI shock

Which brings us to Mr Zuckerberg’s comments themselves. There’s been a good deal of comment about his remarks, but one thing that stood out for us was the de facto appeal for DPI that lies at their heart. If Facebook traffic is to be zero rated (very little chance, in our opinion – why would you?), then it follows that it has to be recognised by the network. The only reliable way of doing this is via DPI, a topic of some controversy, but which none-the-less seems to be a key part of Facebook’s plans.

Regardless of whether he gets his way, and we rather suspect he won’t, it’s interesting how he has chosen to advocate something the means to achieve which was, until recently, anathema to many on the net side of the industry. We’ve commented before on how DPI can be used fruitfully by operators and it’s nice that Facebook agrees. It’s high time DPI became acceptable once again. Like and share if you agree.

5. Save your news unless you’re sure it will be heard

Of course, with MWC being so important to the industry at large, everyone worth their salt seems to scramble to make important (to them) announcements to coincide with the event. There is a deluge of news and it’s very hard to sort out what matters from the noise. In fact, there’s so much noise that we wonder whether it would be smarter not to make major announcements during this period – after all if you are a relatively unknown player, then it’s awfully difficult to get the 1500+ journalists to pay attention, jaded as they are with their round of parties. Unless you are sure of getting the attention, perhaps it’s best to save them up or risk being overshadowed by the fallout from announcements on whatever is in vogue at the time, such as WhatsApp.

6. Enjoy the experience of sporadic coverage

As regular visitors to MWC and its earlier GSM incarnation over the last 15 years or so, it’s been interesting to note the attempts by the industry to ensure sufficient mobile coverage is available. Largely, it fails. We had GPRS coverage, EDGE and sometimes 3G, but the Wi-Fi coverage (nice complementary in a sort of hetnet way) was intermittent and far from universal. As the showcase for the industry, coverage really ought to be ubiquitous. And, while we are on the subject of zero-rating data, isn’t it ironic that the mobile operators are pushing us humble visitors who actually work in the industry and build their networks to roam onto Wi-Fi whenever possible?

7. Customer experience has a long way to go

Customer experience is a huge topic and one that has grown from a number of different sources. We helped out with an interview for a customer and it was interesting to note how things have moved on in this space since 2013.

Of course, we’ve focused on the technology aspects of this in the past, discussing the role of big data analysis in delivering a better customer experience (and, incidentally, in delivering better efficiencies and so on for operators). Since then, we’ve had a number of interesting chats on the topic, not least with Carl Lyon of the QoE group. It’s become clear that everything should flow from consideration of the customer – the technology is simply an enabler to this goal.

With that said, we can reflect that, last year, operators were aware of two things. First, that the untapped (aka big) data in their networks existed and that they needed to do something with it. Secondly, that CEM was going to be hugely important. Of course, there has been an acceleration towards LTE and so on which has occupied perhaps more attention, but we also note that this year operators are beginning to act on the two issues and, what’s more, there has been much more discussion on the cultural and organisational changes that must result from an orientation towards delivery of a better customer experience.

2014 is going to be about making customer experiences better and more relevant. It will take a while, but we’re already seeing signs of progress. But, it’s not something that will ever be complete – rather, it’s a total reorientation that will affect how operators behave and act in the future. It’s rather exciting, as we are just touching the tip of the iceberg.

8. Applications are all very well, but we must focus on paying customers

There’s no doubt that consumers love mobile applications, but there is a huge degree of uncertainty regarding the returns that can be generated from any one of these. Users will sometimes pay (to a point); sometimes they won’t – and they may migrate to the next free service as soon as terms and conditions change. However, business users are different. They expect to pay and they expect to receive utility from their applications that is both proportionate and relevant to their businesses.

Increasingly, mobility has been extended to enterprise applications and considerable efforts have been invested in adding mobile capabilities both to existing solutions and to the introduction of new services. Indeed, so much energy has gone into this that it’s sometimes overlooked how fundamental voice is to enterprise needs. It’s a fact (we contend…) that voice remains fundamental to the needs of business users, irrespective of whether they come from the enterprise, are SMEs or SoHo users.

It remains surprising, therefore, why so little attention is paid to the needs of enriching voice services for business users. The very mention of RCS seems to incite heated debate but we’ve been consistent in that we see most utility for such a service from within the business customer base – of course, it needs to be extended via APIs and integrated with other capabilities – but it’s still a much clearer and more certain use case than a strategy predicated on attracting the mass of consumers already tied into Facebook, WhatsApp and the like.

We can’t explain why so much attention is focused on battles that are either hard to win or even already lost. Business users pay money and need richer services. They are poorly served in the mobile market and operators have neither particularly understood their needs nor invested heavily in serving them.

This needs to change – it’s a clear market (in fact, lots of similar and related markets) in which to carve out a niche and can generate more certain returns than competition with more agile competitors. Evidence can be seen of this from the entry of nimble OTT players with an OTT voice focus. Happily, there’s a long way to go and plenty of room for growth.

And that’s what we should be focused on in terms of new service launches and service orientation. Yes, we have to build bigger and faster networks that can deliver the promised speeds, yes we have to delight customers and profit from doing so, but in terms of services, MNOs really ought to forget about FaceApps and instead concentrate on delivering innovative, rich services to customers that actually care about them and are likely to pay.

Thanks Barcelona – see you next year! Well, actually, we’ll be back in April for the IMS World Forum.