I spent a day last week at CTIA Wireless in New Orleans, having some productive discussions with a range of companies. While this show certainly seems to have steadily become much more consumer-oriented, there were still a number of interesting announcements and exhibits from the infrastructure side of the business.


The overriding theme of the show seemed to be the growth in LTE deployments, subscribers and devices. At the time of last year’s show in Orlando, most of the 4G devices available in the US were based on either HSPA+ or WiMAX and the first LTE smartphone had just been introduced. One year later, multiple LTE smartphones are available while Sprint and Verizon are rapidly deploying LTE coverage in the US.


A lot of interest at the show, in fact, was generated by the on-going debate between Sprint and Verizon about the performance of their respective networks. During a keynote address, Verizon’s CEO Dan Mead suggested that Verizon’s network would deliver higher performance thanks to its use of 20MHz of spectrum, whereas Sprint’s is restricted to 10MHz. Sprint’s Bob Azzi subsequently stated during a media briefing that, while their narrower band would cause a difference in peak speed, the overall subscriber experience would be “very good”, implying no discernible impact to overall performance. Sprint also discussed plans to use Clearwire’s TD-LTE service to supplement the capacity of its network and then move to LTE-Advanced in the future.


Small cells were also a hot topic at the show. While the small cell concept is perceived as the optimum approach for operators to deal with booming mobile data demand, there are now signs that it may be hard to derive the expected benefits from them in some cases. In theory, small cells make more efficient use of existing frequencies and cover areas, such as indoor spaces, that are hard to reach with macro cells. However, there are significant challenges in locating and configuring the necessary radios: since standards are still in flux, there may be hidden costs behind the relatively low prices and carriers will likely end up competing over choice locations. To prevent interference, macro cells and small cells need to be coordinated and, while the Small Cell Forum has advocated common, open standards for this, there is a risk that vendor-specific protocols will be the de facto scenario. Other issues are more practical, such as the concern that even though the small cells cost much less than macro equipment, each still needs to have a fast backhaul connection, which is usually wired. Small cells mean more cells in a given area, implying more wires and bandwidth charges for the mobile carrier.


Given 6WIND’s focus on delivering solutions for Software Defined Networking (SDN), I was pleased to have a long chat with a couple of executives in Nokia-Siemens Networks’ booth about their Liquid Net initiative. From a branding perspective, the name is an ideal summary of the concept whereby network resources “flow” to where they are most needed, minimizing unused resources and maximizing overall resource utilization. The “Liquid Radio” solution applies Cloud RAN principles to baseband pooling of traffic from active antennas, while the “Liquid Core” virtualizes core network applications to maximize the hardware efficiency and flexibility of the core network.


I didn’t get to spend as much time at the show as I would have liked, so I’d be very pleased to hear your views. What were the key trends that you observed? What product announcements were most interesting?