Decade of remarkable change for wireless industry, IWCE
LAS VEGAS — Today's conference sessions will mark the end of yet another International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) — the 10th IWCE that I've attended. While the name of the show remains the same, both the show and the wireless industry it serves have undergone amazing transformations during this period.
Having covered several telecom shows for a trade magazine called Telephony, my most vivid recollection from my first IWCE in 2004 was the sense of being both underwhelmed and overwhelmed.
I was underwhelmed by the show floor itself — there were only a couple of companies that had booths that resembled the size and sophistication of those that were commonplace at telecom show. In conference sessions, speakers were getting excited about data rates of 9.6 kb/s and 19.2 kb/s over LMR networks — throughput rates that had long been surpassed in the commercial telecom world.
Much more pronounced was the sense of being overwhelmed. Having started covering the industry just three months before, I recognized only a couple of company names on the show floor, and I really had little understanding of what they did. This was painfully evident during conference sessions, where speakers seemed to be speaking a different language than I was accustomed to hearing.
Clearly, I had a lot to learn.
In addition to being unfamiliar with LMR fundamentals, I was surprised by the attitude toward Internet Protocol (IP). In the telecom world at the time, both users and vendors were embracing Internet Protocol (IP), but many IWCE speakers dismissed IP as being too unreliable for mission-critical and business-critical functions.
Today, IP is the foundation of communications and is being leveraged in mission-critical and business-critical applications. In fact, LTE — the 4G wireless technology being deployed in the nationwide broadband network for first responders being built by FirstNet — is based on end-to-end IP architecture. Instead of getting excited about data rates of 19.2 kb/s, the public-safety industry is trying to decide whether cell-edge thoughputs of 256 MB/s will be enough to meet their needs.
And this technical transformation is just one of the changes evident at this week's IWCE. Compared to a decade ago, the show floor is barely recognizable. Larger booths are commonplace, and the names of the companies participating are very different — some businesses failed, some are new players in the market, and others are fundamentally the same company with a new name (we're no exception: Urgent Communications was called Mobile Radio Technology in 2004).
In short, it's a very exciting time in the industry. But it's also a time of tremendous uncertainty, which was evident in a number of conversations I've had with users, vendor and consultants this week.
No one expects LMR to be supplanted as the primary mission-critical voice technology any time soon. However, the future path is not as clear as the furious work to meet the FCC mandates for 800 MHz rebanding and VHF/UHF narrowbanding is completed.
Meanwhile, technology is evolving much more rapidly than ever before. As one IWCE speaker noted, it was only a few years ago that some people questioned whether LTE was real or how long it would take to be deployed; by the end of this year, Verizon is expected to cover 90% of the U.S. population with LTE. And the projected explosion of machine-to-machine communications promises to be remarkable.
And no one knows exactly what impact the FirstNet initiative will have, both on public safety and potentially in a number of other sectors that are potential partners/users of the much-anticipated network.
It seems clear that there are endless possibilities in this industry, particularly for those who are able to adapt quickly to the ever-changing technical and market landscape. But a lot of folks are uncertain about what role they will be playing during the next few years.
What hasn't changed in the past decade is that there are a lot of really good people at all levels of this industry — bright, talented people dedicated to playing their roles well to make mission-critical and business-critical communications work as well as their end users need. Regardless what role they play, people with these characteristics are always valuable assets and hopefully will be given an opportunity to continue contributing to the industry in the future, which generally promises to have a bright outlook.
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