What to expect at MWC: Radios in everything, LTE and a lotta Wi-Fi

Want to know what’s going to happen at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next week? Why not ask the organizers? I got on the phone with GSMA CMO Michael O’Hara and director of technology Dan Warren a few days before the start of the show, and here’s what they told me to expect: connectivity in everything, NFC and, of course, LTE. There’s a good chance, though, that Wi-Fi may become the buzz-worthy topic of the event.

Let’s take them one by one.

I like the plaid, but do these PJs come in 4G?

Yes, we have all heard the myth of the connected refrigerator, but O’Hara promises we’ll see the world’s first pair of connected pajamas, embedded with sensors to monitor a child’s heart rate, breathing and other vitals. In fact, the GSMA’s Connected House exhibit this year will be full of mysterious wireless-embedded items including a singing robot from Korea Telecom and something called a “social media vending machine” from Vodafone (s vod).

The GSMA estimates there will be 24 billion connected devices by 2020, making embedded wireless – or machine-to-machine communications – a $1.2 trillion global industry. They won’t all be pajamas and robots, though. More likely they’ll be tablets and computing devices, TVs and other entertainment products, health and medical devices, and of course, cars.

This year, O’Hara and Warren predicted that the connected car would be a big source of conference chatter. MWC has whole tracks devoted to the topic, and Bill Ford, his namesake company’s executive chairman, will be delivering one of the keynote addresses. This year, the connected car discussion will move beyond the infotainment system and into the drive train. According to Warren, technologies are emerging that will allow cars to communicate with each other and the Internet to help make us better drivers, not just more entertained ones.

In addition, the technology we’ll see out of the newest concept vehicles is sure to impress even the most spec-obsessed gadget lover.

“The things we’re seeing today are what we’ll see in cars five years from now,” Warren said. “It’s not because the technology isn’t available today, but it’s because those are the design timelines of the automakers.” These aren’t cellphones that we change out every year.

Open up that mobile wallet

Near field communications is another sector with growth projections that boggle the mind. The GSMA projects that 1.5 billion handsets with NFC chips will be in the market by 2016, processing some $50 billion in transactions. The wireless industry is about to become a financial powerhouse, O’Hara said.

NFC payments also could become one of their more controversial topics at the show. The GSMA and many of its carrier members are promoting payment solutions that verify user identity via the phone’s SIM card. Meanwhile Google (s goog) is promoting its own NFC solution Wallet, which bypasses the SIM and thus the operator. That conflict has already emerged in miniature in the U.S. as Verizon Wireless (s vz)(s vod) and Google have already banged heads over Wallet on the LTE version of the Galaxy Nexus. Google’s Eric Schmidt is delivering one of the major speeches at Mobile World Congress, so there’s potential for that conflict to escalate.

NFC won’t just be confined to payments. O’Hara said a lot of technologies will emerge at MWC that show how identity fused with ultra-short-range radio can be used in everything from electronic subway passes to concert ticketing. My colleague Ryan Kim has already written about the myriad of other uses for NFC, and we’ll likely see many of those alternatives emerge at MWC. NXP is hosting an NFC lounge where it will demo a motorcycle that can be started with your smartphone, peer-to-peer gaming through the NFC link, and even an app that allows you to summon your waiter and order food from your device while at a restaurant.

LTE is king, but Wi-Fi is getting all the attention

For the last several Congresses, operator after operator has taken the stage to announce their LTE rollout plans. At this year’s Congress many of those networks will finally have been built, making this year the show for the devices.

“It’s fair to say we have a feel for these things, and we’re expecting a slew of LTE announcements at the Congress,” O’Hara said.

But don’t expect LTE in absolutely everything, O’Hara cautioned. Many European operators are behind the LTE deployment, after the U.S. got to an early start, so they’re very much still focused on their HSPA networks. O’Hara said we’re likely to see a plethora of LTE dongles and Wi-Fi hotspots, but there will definitely be some high-end LTE smartphones.

While not every device will have the raw connection speed of LTE, we’ll see plenty of phones that skew toward raw processing power. LG has already revealed it will launch its first quad-core smartphone at MWC, using Nvidia’s (s nvda) Tegra 3 chip. Quad-core will still be a rarity, but dual-core devices are becoming almost the norm. Qualcomm expects that there will be several smartphones unveiled at MWC that utilize its integrated Snapdragon dual core processor and LTE modem, which has the additional “dual” benefits of driving down both cost and battery drain.

The GSMA and Wireless Intelligence now estimates there are 12.28 million LTE subscriptions in the world, though a disproportionate number, 7.69, are still in North America, primarily on Verizon’s network. The Asia-Pacific region comes in second with 3.71 million subs, while Europe is just starting to ramp up with 745,000 total LTE connections. In comparison there are 750 million HSPA connections globally. LTE may have a long way to go, but it’s getting there quickly. Wireless Intelligence says LTE subscribers are being added globally at a rate of 2 million a month.

At MWC we’ll likely see many European operators announce or detail already revealed LTE launch plans, but also expect the U.S. operators to be on hand to talk up their LTE plans, including T-Mobile USA, which just announced an ambitious plan to shut down most of its GSM networks to make room for LTE.

The dark horse candidate for show stealer is Wi-Fi. MWC is a cellular networking event , but so far much of the network technology buzz has been about unlicensed local area network technology and how it can be incorporated into operators’ 3G and 4G services. The jokes are already emerging about how MWC should be renamed the Mobile Wi-Fi Congress. The GSMA’s Warren, however, welcomes the development, saying Wi-Fi isn’t being positioned as a competitive technology to cellular, but rather one that is complimentary to HSPA and LTE.

If you’re attending the Congress you’ll have a lot of company. Last year, MWC attracted 60,000 delegates, and O’Hara said the GSMA’s registration logs show it is well on its way to breaking that record this year. There will be plenty for those delegates to see as well: 1,400 companies and organizations are exhibiting.

The conference outgrew the venerable Fira de Barcelona long ago, forcing exhibitors to spill out into the surrounding courtyards and streets. This year, many exhibitors are dealing with the lack of space by building up, not out, O’Hara said. So that’s one last thing to expect at MWC: we might see the first three-story booth.