The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was back to its usual strength earlier this month, after a couple of Covid-hit years, providing this sector’s biggest showcase for new gadgets and technologies, in Las Vegas.
Until the smartphone era, this was a huge event, but one that Wireless Watch took only a passing interest in, as most consumer electronics did not feature wireless connectivity, beyond Bluetooth or the occasional WiFi link. But with the iPhone came the age when consumer gadgets increasingly had to be connected at all times and in all places, and when cellular network were carrying a rising tide of ever-more sophisticated devices with associated traffic, that had to be monetized, somehow, by the operators.
In recent years, then, CES has moved to the center of our radar, and the 2023 edition reflected some of the bigger changes that are shaping our landscape. It was notable that, compared to previous recent years, 5G had a relatively low profile. It was not explicitly the subject of major keynotes and launches, though there were plenty of new smartphones and other cellular devices being showcased on the stands. But there was no equivalent to the high-profile keynotes that Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg delivered in 2019, specifically focused on the new services, such as autonomous vehicles and advanced augmented reality (AR) that 5G would enable.
Of course, one reason why there were far fewer mentions of 5G is that it is now inherent in so many actual or envisaged services and user experiences. CEOs are more likely to talk about the self-driving cars themselves than their underlying connectivity, and to set out visions of ‘metaverse’ that will have 5G as an important enabler, but not one that is exciting in its own right.
Also, 5G is in something of a hiatus period in terms of exciting new services (and associated hype). The Non-Standalone coverage networks are scaling up rapidly but deployment of 5G Standalone, with the 5G core that turns the network into ‘true 5G’, remains limited. That delays the introduction of truly new and advanced services and devices for consumers or enterprises, many of which will rely on challenging new deployments – of the 5G core, but also edge compute and virtualized RAN – that will be multiyear projects for most operators.
As Verizon’s SVP of technology and product development, Srini Kalapala, told CES: “In the world of automotive there’s a lot of talk about 5G being able to allow cars to communicate with each other, allow cars and pedestrians to cohabitate in a given environment. But it’s an ecosystem; just having one car and one customer on the road doesn’t work. You’ve got to get everybody on board.”
In fact, automotive evolution was one of the key themes in Las Vegas, even if 5G was rarely namechecked specifically in that context. But plenty of key players in the 5G ecosystem were showing new advances, as service providers and wireless vendors eye the ongoing emergence of the vehicle as a full-blown connected compute device. As we analyse today, Qualcomm announced the latest element of its bid to be pivotal in the connected car ecosystem, with a concept car and cockpit system-on-chip; while Honda and Sony unveiled a prototype autonomous vehicle with huge numbers of sensors, linked by 5G.
Another important theme for Wireless Watch this year, that was on show at CES, is fixed/mobile convergence – not just quad play offerings at the billing and customer relationship levels, or even hand-off between cellular, fixed and WiFi connections, but full intelligent convergence enabled by the new core. That will support many new services, as well as new efficiencies for operators with multiple networks, either their own or partners’. US cableco Cox’s new MVNO-based mobile offering is only a modest step towards the full convergence vision, but it set out interesting ways of leveraging its cable and WiFi assets to increase the efficiency of its 5G economics while differentiating its services and user experiences from those of rival telcos and even other cablecos.
As usual, the cellular-relevant themes of CES will be greatly enlarged upon next month at Mobile World Congress, and many of the discussions around advanced gaming, VR, automotive and home applications, while not new, did point to some significant thought being applied to 5G monetization in 2023.