I hate trade shows. I love Barcelona. I recently found myself once again in this juxtaposition. And thus, I will expound upon “the state of the industry as seen through the eyes of the MWC attendee” and force you to read yet another review of 2017’s Mobile World Congress (MWC).
Scale foretells opportunity
According to Ericsson’s Mobility Report, humankind consumes eight exabytes (8´1018!!) of mobile data every month—so the massive scale of GSMA’s flagship event should not be a surprise. But even we regular attendees of the show are overwhelmed by the 100,000-plus attendee list and the breadth of business represented by the 2,300 exhibitors. And I do mean “breadth.” Even though the industry manufactures between two and three billion mobile phones every year (over 100 every second) the show is hardly dominated by those showing off new mobile devices or infrastructure.
According to Cheetan Sharma, over-the-top (OTT) revenues surpassed access revenues in 2014. This business opportunity in applications and content was immediately obvious in Barcelona with heavy focus on connected cars and gaming. Most of the major automotive companies and their technology supply-chain were front and center, showing 5G applications relating to connected vehicles and automated or semi-autonomous driving.
New and virtualized architectures impress
Virtualized and flexible mobile networks will enable these new applications and new business models. I saw very impressive demonstrations of network slicing enabled by new software architecture combined with scalable high-speed general-purpose processing hardware configurations. From my earliest days in 5G, it was obvious that the biggest part of the 5G revolution will be the new and virtualized network architectures. Even without the hype this was evident at MWC this year.
But there is policy-related tension on this topic. A dramatic departure from the previous US administration’s approach to net neutrality became evident during incoming FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s comments: “The private sector has spent $1.5 trillion since 1996 to deploy broadband infrastructure…We would not have seen such innovation if, during the 1990s, the government had treated broadband like a railroad or a water utility.”
It is not clear how this will become manifest in the US or whether other countries will follow suit; however, the implications are that operators and even their supply chains—those who will make the largest capital investments in 5G technology —could end up on better footing if they can avoid being regulated as utilities.
Analytic software and machine learning step forward
This emphasis on 5G “wireless” solutions based in software is growing in two other areas. There were significant demonstrations of analytic software and machine learning to be applied to the mountains of data generated by IoT. The scope of this ecosystem, made clear in the first paragraphs above, indicates ripe opportunity to leverage all that information for everything from business optimization to entirely new business models. Coupled with this was significant attention to security issues relating to protection of privacy, prevention of threats to system performance and availability, and preemption of misuse of wireless systems.
The (innovation) game is afoot
In a future blog post I will review William Webb’s rather skeptical book, The 5G Myth: When Vision Decoupled From Reality. At the risk of revealing my position, I will close with this: In a panel discussion involving mobile operators and their network suppliers, the CTO of one large operator was asked which one of the network equipment manufacturers would most benefit from 5G technology. He stated that such a company was not on the stage. Rather, it was a startup somewhere on the exhibit floor—one that was innovating and iterating at a pace he had not seen in prior deployment generations.
Virtualized network architectures and OTT business models requiring large technology investments: where will the money come from? You may recall my comments about Pokémon GO. Snap, the maker of an application used primarily by teenagers to share photos, is now public and valued at over $25 billion. Did you see that coming five years ago?
The scope of business models enabled by a faster, more flexible network and empowered by very sophisticated devices means opportunity for the innovative that can leverage the massive scale we see manifest at the world’s biggest show of its kind.
Whether you were in the throng or followed from afar, what stood out to you? Where do you think we will be when MWC 2018 rolls around?