Awards, like technologies, need to move with the times

By Caroline Gabriel, Research Director, Rethink Technology Research

Awards season is upon us again, not just in Hollywood but in the wireless world too. The red carpets may be less expensive in wireless, but in both industries, public recognition is important, perhaps especially to the smaller players fighting to stand out from the crowd.

The awards themselves also have to battle to stand out. Every conference and organization seems to have its own gongs to hand out, so to attract high quality entrants, and therefore gain broad credibility, is critical. The Small Cell Forum’s annual awards scheme, now in its seventh year, has progressed from newcomer to part of the establishment and is now very well respected. But to ensure its trophies are still coveted, the Forum has to avoid the seven-year itch and keep the categories fresh and relevant.

This year will see some changes to the awards on offer, and these are more than cosmetic. They reflect an industry segment which has evolved and grown up since the inaugural prizes were offered – when the Small Cell Forum was still the Femto Forum, and the technology was new and exciting but as-yet unproven.

In those days, awards were all about innovation – as befitted a new platform – as well as the efforts in standards and early trials which were essential to push a new concept into the mainstream. Now that large numbers of residential small cells are in commercial use, and there are large-scale enterprise and urban deployments emerging, there are different achievements which need recognition.

Innovation will always be vital to keep a technology relevant and valuable, but in a maturing sector, it is just as important to identify the operator strategies, and products, which deliver commercial success. In recent years, a wider range of access points, and of surrounding technologies and services, has been embraced – integrated WiFi, backhaul, low power radio heads are just three examples.

But most importantly, this year’s awards have a heavier focus on commercial deployment and business cases than before, to reflect a technology which has become ‘real’. And while new inventions will always be important, there will also be space to reward technologies and services that have been around for a while, and whose staying power may have been important to this market too.

The most visible change to the structure of the awards is to create four categories of ‘excellence in commercial deployment’, aligned to the Forum’s four key target markets for small cells – home, enterprise, urban and rural. This demonstrates how a grown-up industry needs to show off not just its shiny cleverness, but also its relevance to real-world market needs, from indoor coverage for increasingly mobile workers, to reliable signals to oil rigs or sheep farmers.

Amid all this change, some factors always remain the same. There will still be special awards, in the gift of the judges or the chair, which can recognize that high-impact development that doesn’t quite fit into any of the categories. And one award which has been constant throughout the years is the one for social impact – a much-needed reminder that if new technology does not deliver real change for people, it will soon stop delivering revenues too.

I’m honoured to be chairing the panel of judges again this year, and know the group of industry analysts – veterans of these awards and new faces – will be as rigorous and enthusiastic as always in the tough task of selecting this year’s winners.