For those of us who write about the wireless industry, 2011 was a busy, and sometimes annoying, year. We got to read hundreds of pages of court documents and FCC pleadings for the AT&T acquisition of T-Mobile, which fortunately never happened.
We got to see 4G Long-Term Evolution (LTE) technology finally get rolling, at least with Verizon Wireless. And of course we got to see LightSquared claim, with an apparently straight face, that it’s perfectly OK for them to destroy the entire GPS industry just so they could sell LTE to carriers. But will 2012 be any better? Of course not.
1. AT& T will deploy 4G LTE countrywide
AT&T will field 4G LTE on a national basis, proving that it was lying about needing T-Mobile all along. In fact, AT&T has already started lighting up a few cities with LTE, and now that it’s closed the spectrum deal with Qualcomm, the pace should increase. The truth is that T-Mobile had nothing to offer AT&T’s LTE plans. The whole thing was a sham so they could take out their low-price competition.
2. T-Mobile will find new partners to expand business
T-Mobile USA will find a new partner to help it grow its business. While it will get some spectrum that it badly needs from AT&T’s breakup deal with Deutsche Telekom, it probably won’t see any of the breakup fees DT expects to get from AT&T. DT has so many intractable legal problems that it needs all the money it can get its hands on. Will DT sell T-Mobile USA? Probably not, unless some buyer with tons of money and no potential antitrust conflicts comes along. After all, T-Mobile USA is DT’s most profitable foreign operation. Who will that new partner be? Maybe Dish Network, and maybe there will be a marketing arrangement with AT&T.
3. No roaming on competing carriers’ LTE networks
LTE will remain proprietary, despite the lack of any technical justification. The carriers currently fielding LTE could give their devices the ability to roam on each other’s network, but they won’t. It’s all about marketing and who can claim the best 4G service, despite the fact that they’re all basically the same.
4. LightSquared wireless data service is doomed
LightSquared will not be allowed to launch its GPS-killing data service. Opposition from the military will ensure it won’t happen and the suggestions from LightSquared that the Pentagon could keep GPS interference to a minimum with just a simple upgrade will fall on deaf ears in a time of Pentagon budget cutbacks. Besides, this would mean having to retrofit every one of those GPS-guided smart bombs, cruise missiles, drones and other devices. Unless the military weapons people can be absolutely certain that GPS interference won’t cause a drone to launch a Hellfire missile into a school instead of a group of terrorists, it’s not going to happen. Furthermore, the civilian GPS industry will lobby relentlessly against the LightSquared plan, which will encourage Congress to keep a close eye on the issue.
Apple 7-Inch Tablet in the Offing?
5. Nokia Windows Phone 7 handsets will catch on-overseas
Nokia and Windows Phone 7 will start to blossom, but in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East-where people need smartphones, where Nokia has a huge installed base and where nobody can afford an iPhone. Sales will pick up in the U.S., too, but not like sales overseas. Around the end of 2012, Microsoft will start throwing serious marketing money at WP7 wherever there are signs of sales momentum. Despite rumors, Microsoft will not buy Nokia.
6. Look for a 7-inch Apple tablet early in the year
Apple will release a 7-inch (or thereabouts) version of the iPad. Now that Amazon is selling a million 7-inch tablets a week, it’s clear that the market exists. While Steve Jobs ridiculed 7-inch tablets before he died, he’s not around anymore, and Apple executives are smart enough to know a hot market when they see one. Besides, a 7-inch tablet is the perfect size for a lot of tasks for which an iPad is just too big. The announcement will be early in the year when the iPad 3 is released, and the new 7-inch version might not be called an iPad.
7. Amazon will add 3G or 4G connectivity to Kindle Fire
Amazon will introduce 3G (or maybe 4G) capabilities for the Kindle Fire once it starts to look like the market for WiFi-only devices is becoming saturated. However, it won’t be an all-you-can-eat plan like the one that the original Kindles came with. The Kindle Fire is far too capable of running data-intensive applications, such as movie watching, for an unlimited data plan to work. So guess what? It’ll be the same type of plans that the iPad has and probably with the same carriers.
8. Prices for 7-inch tablets will hover around $225
Competition from the Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble Nook as well as the hefty 2011 sales of the Hewlett-Packard TouchPad and the BlackBerry PlayBook once their prices were slashed will make $225 the market sweet spot for 7-inch tablets. While Samsung and others will try to keep high-end 7-inch tablet prices close to where they are now, their days are numbered. In fact, Apple’s new 7-inch tablet will sell for less than the current iPad because of the competitive price pressure.
9. Using a smartphone will get more costly
As the popularity of 4G wireless grows, the price will go up, data caps will get lower and using a smart phone will get more expensive. WiFi calling, pioneered by T-Mobile, may start to show up with other carriers, most likely Sprint, where it would help keep backhaul costs under control.
10. Guerilla WiFi phone access to fight rising 4G costs
The “Occupy” movement will inspire an “Occupy Wireless” concept in which people will take it on themselves to help fight the growing prices of 4G access by opening up their WiFi access points using unregulated guest access, thus offering free wireless service to anyone within range. Some will do this just by changing the settings on their routers, while others will find ways to install rooftop antennas that support 802.11n over a wide area. ISPs will try to fight it, but their efforts will fail. The big wireless companies will ignore this until it becomes clear that a lot of people are using this free WiFi instead of 4G. T-Mobile may see growth in their WiFi-calling equipped phones in areas where this practice is common.