Industry Voices — Lowenstein: Reflections on the ‘Wireless Decade’ and a look forward

Mark Lowenstein

Industry analysts spend most of their time looking forward, but as we near the end of 2019, I think it’s important to take a moment and reflect on what could fairly be coined the ‘Wireless Decade’. Wireless/mobile was not only among the top stories in tech during the 2010s, but it was probably among the top five business stories of the past 10 years. Major tech players outside the traditional mobile ecosystem would either not exist, or would be a shell of what they are today, without smartphones and broadband wireless networks. Think Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Uber.

Even though Blackberry ruled much of the early- and mid- Aughts, and the first iPhone launched in June 2007, it was really not until circa 2010 that the modern-day mobile world really took off. It was a coalition of forces: increasingly capable phones, with faster processors, larger and more beautiful displays, and great cameras; an ‘app ecosystem’ that featured a viable business model (different than the ‘carrier deck’ centric 2000s); and, most importantly, real broadband wireless networks that enabled true mobility. Those who might be nonplussed at the early performance of 5G networks should remember that average LTE download speeds in 2019 are 50-100x faster than when LTE was first launched 10 years ago.    

It’s also interesting to reflect how mobile was such a dominant facet of the tech-scape for a time, much like AI is today. For several years, it was ‘mobile this’ and ‘mobile that’. If you put ‘mobile-enabled’ on the slide deck, the company’s valuation increased several-fold. 

And mobile has truly powered a new wave of businesses. Perhaps the two sectors most enabled by mobile are social networking and the on-demand economy, where all manner of services from transportation to food delivery to dog walking can be beckoned from your portable pocket computer. Consider that you can’t order an Uber from a PC. 

One irony, and a curious asterisk for the business history books, is that although mobile helped power some of the most profitable companies of this or any decade (Facebook, Google, Apple), the wireless industry itself had its struggles. Juxtaposed against continually mushrooming data traffic, operator revenues are stagnant, as are smartphone sales. Nokia and Ericsson, which managed to get us 5G ahead of the original schedule, are suffering from the triple whammy of Huawei, operator efforts to control costs, and a new wave of competitors enabled by the cloudification and commoditization of seemingly all but the RAN.

The 2010s were largely a story of consolidation. Across nearly all major sectors of the mobile ecosystem — service providers, network equipment, devices, OSS/BSS — some 2-3 companies own the lion’s share of the market (and/or profits). So it’s perhaps a fitting coda to this story that some of the industry’s best and brightest are spending the waning days of the 2010s in a courtroom trying to prove the unviability of a fourth national provider in the world’s second largest wireless market. 

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The decade also saw significant transformation of the wireless business model. Gone are contracts and subsidies, for the most part. With unlimited plans now prevalent, the pricing framework now largely resembles that of home broadband. The caps and throttling that remain the hallmark ‘asterisk’ of unlimited plans are a relic of the still high relative-to-broadband cost of delivering a gigabyte of wireless data. That delta will erode steadily next decade with the progression of 5G.  

When reviewing the Wireless Decade, it would be remiss to not tip a hat to T-Mobile, which set the agenda for the industry in so many ways. Their ‘Un-Carrier’ campaign was to the 2010s what Verizon’s famous ‘can you hear me now’ mantra was to the 2000s, and then some. T-Mobile’s story ranks up there in the business turnaround hall of fame, alongside Apple and Microsoft. 

And what of the 2020s? I think we enter it with a sense of both optimism and some worry. 5G is going to be a big deal, but it’s going to take time to gestate. The enhanced mobile broadband pillar of 5G will not be the driver, at least from a revenue standpoint. The big promise of 5G is in the enterprise and its potential to transform industry sectors such as manufacturing, logistics, and transportation. 

But as we enter the 5G era, there’s a lot of uncertainty about who will take advantage of it and how. It’s a fair retort that nobody predicted Uber or Snap in 2010 either, but we did have a pretty good idea that if you could put true mobile broadband onto a smartphone that it was gonna be big. The types of companies, the use cases, and the business framework are going to be very, very different in the 5G era compared to the 4G era. It’s going to require a longer term view and a more disciplined perspective. Most of the exciting stuff we’re thinking about won’t even be a commercial possibility for three to four years, best case scenario. And 5G will be very much intertwined with other developments in tech, such as AI and mobile edge computing. 

So before all the year-end ‘Predictions’ pieces about how 2020 is going to be the year of 5G launches, let’s take a step back and appreciate that in the annals of business history, the 2010s were very much ‘The Wireless Decade.’

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is managing director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.