Light radios, heavy hitting smartphones: What can Latin America take from MWC 2011?

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Mobile World Congress (MWC) is over for another year and was packed full of news: handset launches, new partnerships and an entire room dedicated to applications caught the media's eyes. While many of the news items were at a macro, global level, BNamericas looks at some of the takeaways for Latin America.

Nokia's announcement just before the conference that it would sideline Symbian and adopt Windows Phone 7 definitively set the stage for conversation over the four days.

This is significant for Latin America, given Nokia's traditional strength in low-end handsets; it has the lion’s share in this largely prepaid market. At the same time, Microsoft is also hugely successful in Latin America with Hotmail and Messenger. The company claims 156mn active Messenger accounts, or 68.1% penetration of internet users in the region, and 150mn active Hotmail users for an 87% reach.

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So the potential, and I emphasize potential, of Windows Phone 7 growing in the region is massive given Microsoft's ecosystem and Nokia's world-class distribution network.

But here's the rub: MWC 2011 was not about Nokia and Microsoft, it was all about Android. Probably one of the most visited stands was that of Google, exhibiting for the first time in MWC. And it did it in style. The lasting image of MWC 2011 will be a stand with giant green mushroom like Martians, little green men walking around the exhibition floor handing out green men badges and all booths of handset manufacturers that run their devices over the Android platform with little green men images. Google's invasion of the handset world is truly underway.

In a keynote, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said he believes the rollout of LTE networks and new cloud-based services will mark the start of a new era for mobile innovation and not surprisingly, he positioned Android at the forefront of this change.

The big device announcements at the show all concerned Android. HTC, Huawei, ZTE, Samsung, Alcatel and Motorola all announced new and updated smartphones and tablets based on Android. LG's show-stealing "3D smartphone," the Optimus 3D, is - guess what - based on Android. HTC launched a "Facebook phone," also Android.

While Android's presence has been minimal in Latin America to date compared with the US, it has been tipped by market observers to go big this year.

The relevance of Latin American operators in the global telecommunications market was definitively evidenced by the fact that chief executives of the region's two largest operators, América Móvil and Telefónica, both figured at the star-studded operator keynote, standing shoulder to shoulder with the CEOs of China Mobile; AT&T and Vodafone.

While the presentations of China Mobile, AT&T and Vodafone focused on issues perhaps indicative of more mature markets calling for greater openness of platforms, collaboration and lighter regulation, the presentations of Daniel Hajj of América Móvil and Cesar Alierta of Telefónica were more sobering, concentrating on the immediate issues at hand.

Hajj laid out Latin America's incredibly fast growth in mobile penetration in the last decade. However, he pointed out that while many operators in developed markets may be preoccupied with LTE plans, Latin America's immediate priority is to accelerate the migration of subscribers to basic mobile data services that will have an important impact on social and economic development.

In predicting that as many as 400mn Latin Americans could have a smartphone in the next five years, Hajj threw down the gauntlet for manufacturers, infrastructure providers and operators alike.

Alierta said he was optimistic for growth in the global ICT sector over the next three years, boosted mainly by Latin America and Asia-Pacific, but warned that operators will have to invest if they are to ride the wave.

He said that to meet the demand forecast for mobile traffic, telcos would have to multiply by 10 the current number of mobile nodes and strengthen their networks.

Alierta also alluded to the contiguous benefits of telecommunications on areas like healthcare, finance, management, education and entertainment. The boom has only just started, and the spread of easier-to-use devices, new applications and services will open up enormous opportunities, he said.

Probably one of the most significant announcements in recent times for Latin American telecoms also came just days before the conference opened - Alcatel-Lucent’s upcoming LightRadio "cube" antenna technology.

The technology could spell a paradigm shift that would help address some of the principal challenges faced by Latin American mobile operators - space, energy consumption and operational costs - Alcatel-Lucent's president for Latin America, Osvaldo di Campli, told BNamericas at MWC.

By reducing the components of an antenna into a small cube, operators can add more cubes in Lego fashion as capacity dictates and therefore avoid Nimby-related ("not in my back yard") conflicts often seen in communities in Latin America where operators have to install new base stations.

The third and final significant theme I would take from MWC - and which was not really new, but reinforced through keynotes and press conferences - was that operators have to move beyond being just a "dumb pipe" and start offering services to participate in the value chain. This is a global phenomenon, but Telefónica went to extraordinary lengths to show what it is planning in that regard.

At its stand, Telefónica showcased new applications the operator is keen to introduce over the next few years, including eDNI, which enables users to scan and store digital copies of ID cards and bank cards on SIM cards so they can carry out electronic payments using their phone. Other innovations include 3D avatars that can be built by taking photos with a phone, and a conference call technology that brings the benefits of telepresence to residential and SME users.

Telefónica had a stream of announcements regarding the value-added services chain, including: the launch of a mobile social networking solution, an agreement to preinstall eBay's mobile app on most of its smartphones and feature phones, and plans to launch a new application recommendation and management technology solution from Qualcomm in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil.

Dubbed Frigo, that technology is designed to allow customers to access applications from a range of operating systems, including Android, Windows Mobile, Java and Symbian, and from a variety of devices, including tablets, mobile phones and TV set-top boxes. That announcement fit with one of the other themes of the conference – the call for openness and interoperability.

América Móvil also announced an agreement with Ericsson to deploy a mobile advertising solution.

These are some of the issues that most grabbed my attention, but it's a mere snapshot of news from a conference that has become the one "must-attend" event on the mobile telecoms calendar worldwide. More to follow over the coming weeks. Watch this space.