I spent the past few days at Informa's LTE MENA 2015 event in Dubai, and the operators and vendors were all focusing on the profitability and future of LTE networks. There were some interesting tracks of conversation that started to tie together technologies and solutions that some may view as unrelated, or even competitive.
The first connection that is becoming a critical success factor for many operators is the marriage (or at least a serious, long term committed relationship) between LTE and WiFi. Operators want to leverage WiFi as an offload solution for mobile devices, and consumers want the same thing (although for different reasons). Operators want this to keep the congestion on their networks to a minimum (while still getting paid), and consumers want to avoid cost and usage caps on LTE (and sometimes increased performance - but WiFi is not always faster than LTE). The issue is that mobile operators still would like to have the customer on their network to maintain visibility and customer control, so many operators are building out WiFi networks, and using new solutions like HotSpot 2.0/Passpoint to leverage the same subscriber profile across both networks. It is clear that WiFi and LTE are complimentary (and not competitive) and the long term success of LTE as networks get congested may be tied to the consumer's ability to get on WiFi when they want to consume a lot of data (like streaming media). Du and Etisalat both spoke of the Smart Cities project that aims to make WiFi service available throughout the city to improve the subscriber experience.
The other topic which generated a lot of discussion was NFV. It is clear that the operators are looking to virtualization to help them scale their infrastructure in a cost effective way as well as deliver service agility. There were a number of sessions (including mine) that talked about how virtualization will help the monetization of LTE infrastructures and give the operators greater flexibility. ATT made a guest appearance talked about their Domain 2.0 initiative and how they had worked through the issues they encountered when they began testing and deploying NFV solutions. The consensus was that NFV made LTE better, and would enable operators to be more agile and compete more effectively with the Over the Top companies that are leveraging their infrastructure for their business models. Once clear requirement was that the move to NFV should not result in compromises for the operator - the performance and functionality of an NFV solution should be equivalent to a hardware-based solution, or the value proposition suffers greatly.
The MENA region is very advanced in their use of mobile networks - penetration is above 100% for mobile devices, and the competition is fierce. Operators that can combine NFV, LTE, and WiFi effectively will be able to offer a more compelling value proposition to consumers financially, but even more importantly deliver a higher quality of experience - which is where the battleground is now.