The raw and the cooked – Impressions of MWC 2019, and the state of ‘things’
What is 5G anyway? Ericsson kicked off Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2019 by stating it is deploying 5G networks at pace, faster than anyone else. But these networks – alongside those of its peers, and all the slick handsets (some foldable) on the stands – just bring go-faster LTE. They aren’t going to change much. They aren’t going to change the world as 5G-powered smart-everything promises. They are an extension of what we have. Is this really 5G, and reason to be excited?
No. In the auditoriums, speakers grasped at the future, and they hardly talked about smartphones – and if they did, we switched off. This was a show as much about parallel markets, which later 5G NR variants, specified in Release 16, will serve – critically, via massive machine-type (mMTC) and ultra-reliable low-latency (URLLC) communications.
It felt like a show where the mobile industry, as one, was looking outwards for the first time. And looking up, instead of just picking the lint out of its navel, and patting itself on the back – its hand: male, tanned, crowned with a gold watch? – for connecting the world. From the outside, MWC still looks like a summit for the well-heeled business class. The show floor is gigantic, flashy, unsubtle – and very male. It is no wonder muggers do so well.
But as the industry looked outwards and forwards, it was not just about 5G – and not about 5G at all in its current form. It was about IoT, and a new connectivity ecosystem that brings together many shorter range and lower power technologies, alongside often-private versions of existing consumer-oriented LTE systems.
These will use both licensed and unlicensed spectrum, and MWC 2019, following on the heels of a new 3GPP work item to make cellular based technologies work in the unlicensed 5GHz and 6GHz bands, marked the first time the operator and vendor communities properly discussed together how to coexist with unlicensed spectrum. Make no bones, the mobile industry’s old gentlemen’s club will be changed. The question should be asked whether the secret sauce is in the discipline of network operations or in the know-how of industry.
And as this shakes out, the members of these old families are finding their voices, and sounding like individuals again. Their narratives – and this event’s talking points – had started to come across like mid-town high streets, with chain stores and labradors and frappuccinos; always the same. At MWC 2019 – in the meeting rooms, in conversation with RCR Wireless and Enterprise IoT Insights, at least – each of them sounded different again.
Ericsson and Nokia have different approaches to private LTE, it seems. Nokia, with little to say in its press push, sounded back-stage like a business filled with fight. Ericsson appears conservative, by contrast. Huawei, of course, has other concerns. But it was in defiant mood at MWC 2019, and it looked formidable. It was across from Samsung on the show floor, breathing down its neck. It was on the lanyards. It was on everyone’s lips. It stole the show with an excellent keynote response to its phoney entanglement in a trade war. It sounded defiant.
On the operator side, Vodafone and AT&T came on like brothers-in-arms – proper giants with formidable records in M2M, about ready to address industrial markets. Their strategies seemed good. Others are drawing on their own strengths, and seeking opportunities where they find them — the industrial mapping of Telefonica’s Spanish-language footprint, the security and innovation powers of France based Orange.
This was a good show to imagine their divergent paths ahead. And yet despite the blue-sky vision of 5G/IoT it cooked up, the only real progress it presented was around low-level IoT solutions – smart lighting, parking, garbage, honey bees, and beer taps. Nothing that will change anything, very much. It is a market that is raw, still.