Mobile Asia Congress wrap-up: focus on mobile data/internet

Last week saw Mobile Asia Congress, one of the continent’s largest dedicated telecom events, take place in Hong Kong.

Although it is an industry-focused rather than consumer lead event, an interesting and useful wrap-up of talking points from the show is available from the GSMA Mobile Briefing website. Key topics discussed include the future/impending adoption of LTE (long-term evolution, aka 4G mobile technology), mobile apps, cloud computing and business models for monetising ‘low-value and high-growth markets’.

In particular I’ve highlighted the article on mobile data in Asia – written by my former colleague Matt Ablott – as it raises some interesting points about how the region will cater to the growing demands of consumers who are making greater use of the mobile web and advanced services.

From the piece:

No presentation at Congress appeared to be complete without a slide featuring a ‘hockey stick’ graph predicting unprecedented growth in mobile data traffic over the next few years. Alcatel-Lucent, for example, forecast a “conservative” 16-fold increase in mobile data traffic to 2015, but warned that it could grow as high as 40 times today’s levels.

For those investing in next-generation networks to support new bandwidth-heavy mobile services, there was a feeling that even widespread deployment of LTE networks would not be sufficient to meet demand.

This was a theme taken up by Tadashi Onodera, president of KDDI, who said the operator was planning to deploy LTE alongside a number of other technologies, including Wi-Fi, WiMAX, eMBMS [the broadcast technology] and its current CDMA-based networks and cable TV assets.

In Asia, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is highly-advanced markets such as Japan and South Korea where the so-called ‘capacity crunch’ problem is most acute. KDDI’s strategy of supporting LTE with other technologies such as Wi-Fi echoes similar comments from rival Japanese operator SoftBank at last year’s Congress.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s SK noted this year that it has developed a concept known as ‘Stealth Wi-Fi’ aimed at integrating Wi-Fi technology into its mobile networks to improve data speeds. By re-using its existing 3G infrastructure with Wi-Fi, SK says it has achieved a 48 percent saving per cell site.

But solutions to the capacity crunch should not just be about adding capacity. Alcatel-Lucent’s Asia president Rajeev Singh-Molares told delegates that mobile data growth would not be “uniform”, with different types of devices and applications making different demands on the network, noting that network intelligence should be deployed to indentify the best ways of handling traffic depending on the device and user.

Although the dreaded capacity crunch loomed large over this year’s event, there was an upside: mobile data services are now generating significant revenue. This was aptly demonstrated by Docomo president Ryuji Yamada, who said that the Japanese operator was on track to generate higher revenues from data than voice within its current fiscal year, and that rising data revenue would see the firm reverse its declining ARPU trend within two years.

Companies and voices that projected greatest at Congress were those from more advanced markets such as Japan and South Korea, where perhaps user expectations and demands are greater than in regions like Southeast Asia or India were mass market mobile data usage is developing from a smaller user base at a rapid rate.

For these ‘less developed’ (or fast-growing) markets, LTE, WiMAX, ‘stealth Wi-Fi’ and other advanced technology that will boost capacity and data speeds can arguably make a greater difference than in Korea or Japan as they can leap-froging existing wired internet technologies: both in terms of performance and accessibility. Given that mobile is frequently touted one of/the primary devices for internet access in Southeast Asia – “to buy a phone is one and half month salary, to buy a laptop might be 8 months salary” – greater speeds will have a profound effect on improving user experience and usage.

However, for certain markets, such as Thailand where there is still no widespread, public 3G (bar ‘trial’ deployments in selected areas), there are more pressing concerns to address before so-called 3.5/4G can be considered.

Given the predictions of data increase – ranging from 16 fold to 40 fold over 3/4 years as referenced in the article – it is clear that mobile data is fast-becoming as significant to operators in the region as it has been in recent times for those in North America and Europe. For users, that is likely to mean more competitive (cheaper) pricing, more flexible plans/tariffs, a greater selection of devices and – of course – an improved user experience…assuming that the ‘capacity crunch’ does not strike first.

In addition to the Mobile Business articles, the daily newspaper from the show is available to download here.