Seven mobile trends to look for in 2017

An anti-regulation, pro-dealmaking US president could make for an interesting year for wireless and broadband companies.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
6 min read

Faster networks, more "free data" and a dismantling of net neutrality rules could be in the works for 2017.

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Get ready for a wild 2017 when it comes to the world of wireless.

From the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States to ever-growing hype around 5G wireless technology, the signs of change are unmistakable. It could mean anything from a shift in who provides your service to how exactly your connections get made.

Trump may be an unpredictable president-elect, but that won't keep us from trying to peer into our crystal ball. Here's a list of the top 7 predictions for mobile in 2017:

1. Zero rating is a thing

Thanks to Trump's victory, you're likely to see more services that are zero-rated, meaning the wireless data for a specific service doesn't count against your cap. AT&T's new DirecTV Now service is one example, with AT&T customers streaming as much video as they want despite their data limits. Verizon has done the same with its Go90 video service. T-Mobile has BingeOn, but argues that it's different because it offers the no-data perk to outside video services like Netflix and YouTube, not just its own.

Comcast is also expected to launch a streaming TV service next year that will be available to anyone over the internet. This could be zero-rated on the home broadband side, as well as on the wireless service.

While customers are happy to take the "free" data, critics warn that such practices stifle competition. (If you're happy with DirecTV Now, why would you try anyone else?) That could ultimately lead to higher prices for consumers and fewer innovative services.

The outgoing Federal Communications Commission chairman, Tom Wheeler, has been skeptical of zero-rating offers. Earlier this month, the agency went so far as to accuse AT&T of violating its net neutrality rules by offering the zero-rated DirecTV Now product. But with Trump FCC appointees in charge, net neutrality is likely to be dismantled and zero-rating will likely face little to no resistance. This could mean more creative forms of the practice in 2017.

2. Merger mania

The company that delivers you wireless service may not carry the same name by the time 2017 is over. While merger proposals received a chilly reception under President Obama, that's likely to change during a Trump presidency.

Who's likely to pair up with whom? Although the current FCC threw cold water on Softbank's hopes to merge Sprint with T-Mobile, that idea may be back on the table again. There's renewed interest in this combo after SoftBank earlier this month said it plans to invest $50 billion in the US, aiming to create 50,000 jobs.

Other possibilities include a deal involving satellite TV provider Dish Network, which has wireless spectrum it needs to use, according to UBS analyst John Hodulik. T-Mobile, Verizon and Comcast are all potential partners.

Verizon and Comcast could also try to merge. Verizon could use Comcast's access to video content, and Comcast, which is introducing a wireless service later this year based on its Wi-Fi network, could benefit from Verizon's expertise. The two companies are already partnering on Comcast's wireless service, which will also resell Verizon service.

But this deal -- even for deal-friendly Republicans -- may be too big to accept. In this case, there are other options like Comcast hooking up with T-Mobile or Verizon with cable operator Charter Communications.

3. Long-distance drones

Imagine your pizza being delivered by a drone. Companies like Alphabet's Google are already experimenting with using drones to deliver products. Amazon just delivered its first package via drone earlier this month. But the short-range Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals used today to control recreational drones won't cut it for longer distances. Instead, these companies need wireless control via cellular networks.

Industry heavyweights are stepping up. Equipment and component companies like Ericsson and Qualcomm have been experimenting with long-range drone control. Qualcomm and AT&T have begun testing the technology in San Diego.

Verizon in October announced its Airborne LTE Operations (ALO) initiative, which, among other things, envisions using drones to help first responders in disaster recovery efforts and encourages developers to create ALO-enabled apps.

While these companies will likely make some progress in 2017, don't expect pizza delivery to go nationwide just yet. What's really needed for this technology to take off are 5G wireless networks, which will reduce the lag time on the network, ensuring these unmanned aircraft can respond instantly to commands.

4. 5G...close but not yet

Speaking of 5G, watch for 2017 to be the year of "testing" for the technology. AT&T and Verizon have already lined up trials of their 5G networks for 2017, and Sprint and T-Mobile are also gearing up for 5G testing. Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam announced this month that the company will launch precommercial field trials in the first quarter of 2017. AT&T has one test customer, Intel, in Austin, Texas.

But before you get too excited, keep in mind that Verizon and AT&T envision the initial deployments of 5G not for mobility, but as a wireless replacement for your physical home broadband line.

5. Video throttling will be the norm

Can you tell the difference if your video streams at DVD- or HD-quality resolution on your mobile device? You may not have much choice about it soon. T-Mobile and Sprint have already downgraded the quality of some video to conserve data. AT&T said it will also add this feature starting next year. It won't be long before Verizon joins them.

For now, each of these programs is optional. But once the threat of net neutrality goes away, throttling could become the norm. On the bright side, this more efficient use of the network could help consumers get a better deal on data. Lower-quality video is what's allowing T-Mobile and Sprint to continue offering unlimited data.

For wireless customers on plans with data caps, it can help ensure you don't bust through your data cap watching a season's worth of "Game of Thrones."

6. Wi-Fi-first to hit the mainstream

So-called Wi-Fi-first networks, like Google's Project Fi and Republic Wireless, could become more mainstream in 2017 thanks to the debut of a Wi-Fi-first network from cable giant Comcast. These networks use a combination of cellular coverage and local Wi-Fi networks to provide inexpensive wireless internet connectivity. When Wi-Fi isn't available, they use cellular networks to provide service.

Project Fi and Republic Wireless added support for more devices in 2015, which has helped grow the potential audience for these services.

People will get interested in a big way come mid-2017 when Comcast gets involved, pairing its 15 million Wi-Fi hotspots with Verizon's 4G network. The big unanswered question is how Comcast will price its new service. Will it be enticing enough to drop traditional cellular service?

7. Fiber's not dead

Google's announcement in October that it was pausing Google Fiber deployments crushed the super high-speed broadband dreams of many who hoped Google would come to their city next. But the decision to pull the plug is not the end of fiber or high-speed internet access. Google Fiber has helped spur rivals like Comcast and AT&T to increase speeds on their broadband service. And AT&T has been rapidly expanding its fiber network, which will continue into 2017.

Fiber is still a key part of the wireless industry's ambitions to build 5G service. The big difference in 2017 and beyond is that Google, AT&T and others will be looking to wireless to provide high-speed broadband for that "last mile" directly into the home instead of fiber.