European operators reject notion that they’re trailing U.S., Asian carriers in 5G race

BARCELONA, Spain -- A handful of executives from top European carriers pushed against the perception that they might be late to the 5G party, reiterating their belief in the importance of developing universal global standard the next generation technology during the Mobile World Congress, here.

"What is important is that we have one standard at the end of the day," said Alain Maloberti, SVP of Orange Lab Networks.

Maloberti was speaking on the sidelines of MWC during a press conference for the Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance, which said that it is on track to develop a standard for 5G network technology by 2020. The group launched last year with the goal of creating a single standard that operators could use for 5G.

When questioned about reported statements from Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg that U.S. and Asian carriers are taking the lead in the development of 5G, a top executive from Deutsche Telekom pointed out that "it's the opinion of one single person."

Bruno Jacobfeuerborn, chairman of the NGMN Alliance and CTO of Deutsche Telekom, explained that a wide range of carriers are working inside the NGMN to create the standard for 5G.

"For me, it doesn't matter," he added, explaining that the important thing about 5G is that it meet users' needs.

Sandro Dionisi, director of global advisory services for Telecom Italia, added. "We want to do things in the correct way," noting that the wireless industry needs a single 5G standard so that operators can leverage each other's work and be thrifty in their spending on new network technology.

The race to 5G has dominated discussions here at the MWC show. Nokia, Ericsson and others vendors are demonstrating trials of 5G network technology running at speeds as high as 25 Gbps. In addition, a wide range of carriers are pledging to test and implement the technology in the years ahead.

Specifically, Verizon in the U.S. has said it may deploy 5G as early as 2017. Separately, Korean mobile operator KT said it's aiming to launch a live service for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games being hosted in the Korean city of Pyeongchang, and Japan's NTT DoCoMo is gearing up to showcase the technology at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

For more:
- see this NGMN release

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Xiaomi introduces Mi 5 but still no word on U.S. expansion

BARCELONA, Spain -- Xiaomi unveiled its flagship Mi 5 at the Mobile World Congress, here, showcasing yet another impressive-looking smartphone at an affordable price, but providing little insight into when it might expand its business to the U.S.

At the company's first European press conference, Xiaomi unveiled a 5.15-inch smartphone powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 processor, and offering 4 GB of RAM and as much as 128 GB of storage. Like other Xiaomi smartphones, it wraps Android (this time it's Marshmallow, or version 6.0) in the latest version of its own MIUI interface. Other features include a 16-megapixel camera, a home button with a fingerprint sensor, and a 3,000mAh battery.

Perhaps most impressive, though, is the Mi 5's price tag: the entry-level 32 GB version will cost roughly $262, and the high-end 128 GB model will be available at $354. The devices will go on sale March 1 in China.

Hugo Barra, the company's VP of international, said the Mi 5 is "coming soon" to India and other markets where Xiaomi already sells phones. However, he declined to say which other regions the Mi 5 might be sold in, and when it might come to markets such as the U.S. and Europe.

Xiaomi enjoyed a meteoric rise in 2013 thanks to the exploding smartphone market in its domestic Chinese market, and it saw a funding round that valued the company at $45 billion. The 70 million smartphones it sold last year were well short of the 100 million founder Lei Jun once predicted, but it was the fifth-largest smartphone manufacturer in the fourth quarter of 2015, according to Gartner, claiming 4.5 percent of the worldwide market. It was also the top-selling smartphone vendor in China last year, The Wall Street Journal recently reported.

Smartphone sales are in China are slowing, however, as the country evolves from an emerging mobile market to a mature one. Xiaomi has long expressed an interest in expanding to the U.S., but has yet to enter the market. A little-known MVNO earlier this month began offering Xiaomi smartphones, but those devices were quickly pulled back after the manufacturer said it hadn't authorized those sales.

Many analysts believe that Xiaomi is hindered by a lack of patents and that any entry to the U.S. would swiftly be met with lawsuits from Apple, Samsung and other heavyweights. The company appears to be working to address that problem and reportedly recently acquired 15 issued patents and four patent applications from Broadcom.

However, Barra's silence about when U.S. users might be able to get their hands on Xiaomi's phones indicates the company still has much work to do on the patent front.

For more:
- see this CNBC piece
- read this Verge story

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Walmart Family Mobile adds plan with 10 GB of LTE data, offers ‘Data Saver’ that mimics Binge On

Walmart Family Mobile, which offers service on T-Mobile US' (NYSE:TMUS) network, introduced a plan that includes unlimited talk, text and data for $49.88 a month. The first 10 GB of monthly data are delivered on the LTE network; after that customers' speeds are slowed.

The MVNO's plans include Data Saver, an offering similar to T-Mobile's Binge On that provides DVD-quality video streaming at 480p to reduce data consumption. Like Binge On, Data Saver can be turned on or off at will.

The new plan also includes content from Vudu, Walmart's on-demand video service, for users who pay their bills on times. Consumers with active lines in good standing for at least 16 consecutive days get one free movie rental code per month in the form of a $7 credit that must be used within 30 days.

The new plan is in addition to Walmart Family Mobile's two existing plans. It offers unlimited talk, text and 1 GB of LTE data for $30 a month, and unlimited talk, text and 5 GB of LTE data for $40 a month. Data speeds on each of the plans are reduced to 2G once the caps are reached.

Walmart Family Mobile launched in 2010 in an effort by the retailer to address the perception among consumers that prepaid services don't offer the best handsets or networks. The service is meant to complement the variety of prepaid services Walmart offers.

For more:
- see this Walmart page
- read this PrepaidPhoneNews.com report

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T-Mobile spends $14.8M for 2 ads during Super Bowl, scores 100M social impressions, iSpot finds

T-Mobile (NYSE: T) was the top wireless advertiser during the Super Bowl, according to iSpot.tv, leveraging celebrities Drake and Steve Harvey to generate an estimated 100 million social impressions.

The nation's third-largest mobile operator was the third-most effective overall advertiser during the big game, claiming 11 percent of all advertisers' "earned digital response" from 7.9 million views on game day alone. T-Mobile's "Drop the Balls" commercial featuring a play on Harvey's noted Miss Universe gaff generated 4.3 million online views on Sunday, second among all advertisers only to a Budweiser ad. And T-Mobile's Drake spot "Restricted Bling" drove 570,000 social actions.

T-Mobile spent nearly $14.8 million to air four spots during the game, generating 6.8 million Facebook views, more than 8 million overall online views and 131 million TV impressions. No other carrier was among the top 60 advertisers.

No smartphone vendors were listed as top advertisers either, although Fitbit spent $4.9 million to air a single commercial.

Interestingly, Verizon was largely silent during this year's game but was the biggest-spending advertiser from any industry during the 2015-2016 NFL season. The largest U.S. mobile carrier spent more than $133 million on TV commercials during NFL games during the season, topping Ford ($106 million) and Toyota ($94 million). Samsung Mobile spent $94.5 million during the NFL year, ranking eighth among advertisers.

Wireless service providers spent $265.6 million on TV ads during NFL games this season, third only to auto makers and fast food chains. Mobile device vendors spent $175.3 million, ranking eighth among vertical markets.

For more:
- see this iSpot.tv page

Special Report:  The top 10 advertisers in wireless in 2015: From AT&T to Straight Talk

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Charter unlikely to participate in incentive auction of 600 MHz spectrum

The FCC's upcoming incentive auction for 600 MHz spectrum has gotten a bit less interesting in the past week.

Charter Communications is the latest cable company to take a lukewarm view of the auction, saying it's unlikely to participate. Like some other wireline service providers, Charter had been seen as a potential dark horse to leverage the spectrum sale to elbow its way into the mobile market.

In a Seeking Alpha transcript of the company's quarterly earnings call, Charter CEO Tom Rutledge cited the company's pending acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, saying uncertainty about the eventual outcome of the deal would likely preclude its involvement in the auction. Those deals may not close until June, and regulators may demand concessions before granting approval.

"Well, with regard to the auction, we're not in exactly the same place as Comcast because we have this pending transaction," Rutledge said, pointing to Comcast's confirmation that it may bid during the auction. "And at this point, we can't be assured of what our footprint is. And so, it's difficult for us to participate in the auction without regulatory clarity."

Comcast said earlier this week that "is taking a paddle" in the auction but is only considering acquiring spectrum that can give it more "strategic flexibility" rather than aggressively pursuing a wireless service.

Like Comcast, Bright House and Time Warner have MVNO deals in place with Verizon, but none of the three has actually launched wireless services commercially. Some onlookers have speculated that Charter would participate in the auction as part of a long-term strategy to launch a mobile business leveraging the MVNO agreements and newly purchased spectrum, but Rutledge's statements all but doused those ideas.

"For instance, even in the Time Warner assets and Bright House assets, we know there's an MVNO, but we haven't actually seen it. And so, we have a lot of unknowns in terms of our ability to participate. We've considered participating by potentially filing the application. But if the timeline is as projected, we're not going to really be able to do it, given our regulatory status."

While FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said he expects the auction to be a "spectrum extravaganza," some are beginning to doubt the event will generate the $45 billion to $85 billion analysts had previously estimated. Tight carrier budgets are likely to constrain bidding from existing players in the space, as Bloomberg recently reported, and it's unclear how much attention the auction will draw from outsiders hoping to move into mobile. But recent comments from Charter and Comcast aren't good news for those hoping for bidding wars and sky-high revenues at auction.

For more:
- see this Seeking Alpha transcript

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