Mobile World Congress 2018: This year’s key themes

Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2018 saw slightly reduced visitor numbers compared with 2017’s event (about 107,000), but the same levels of hyper-activity and downright hype. 5G was perhaps less of a theme than it was last year, even though there were real standards and use cases to discuss this time, and even the first live consumer demonstrations at the Korean Winter Olympics.

The relatively decline of 5G hype reflected a maturing of the industry’s viewpoint as deployments come closer – that the next generation networks will not be just about a radio upgrade or a new iPhone, but will need to entail a complete transformation of architectures and business models to justify the investment.

So, MWC is far less cellular and mobile than it used to be when it first moved to its new Barcelona home.  There were many discussions and exhibitors focused on wireline technologies, for backhaul, fronthaul and converged access; a strong showing from the WiFi and non-3GPP low power WAN community; and many themes were dominated by vendors and stakeholders from the IT and cloud industries, as operators look to decompose their ecosystems, along with their networks, in a bid to rewrite the economics of cellular.

This general backdrop, interwoven with topics like virtualization, edge compute and distributed/mobile cloud, made some of the keynotes from the MWC stalwarts – particularly some of the big European operators – seem like something from another era. The CEOs of Vodafone, Telefonica and Telia were all calling for less regulation and more exclusive spectrum at affordable prices – just as they have been since the start of 3G, and apparently oblivious to some of the innovations on the show floor, focused on the new way of doing things in 5G, from shared spectrum to network slicing.

There were plenty of hyped-up topics, with telco artificial intelligence (AI), mobile virtual reality (VR), smart cities and even ‘6G’ visions all taking their turn in the spotlight. For those looking for the key themes that will affect commercial decisions by service providers – traditional and new – in the next few years, Wireless Watch has selected its customary round-up of the most significant themes. We include commentary and highlight about most of these below, though some – notably vRAN/slicing, edge compute and the new vendor ecosystem – will be the topic of more in-depth analysis in the near future, since there were so many interesting and often complex developments on show.

  • Vendors start to put flesh on their 5G roadmaps
  • China Mobile will be first to Standalone 5G NR, while US MNOs tussle
  • NB-IoT and MulteFire will assure LTE’s long life, as will 5G-class latency
  • Ostrich MNOs ignore the fact that 5G must use spectrum very differently
  • Intel and Huawei bite at Qualcomm’s heels in 5G smartphone chips
  • vRAN, edge and slicing demonstrations abound, but Orange remains sceptical
  • MNOs start to weigh the reduction in costs and jobs which AI could bring
  • WiFi Alliance plugs Vantage, keeps its technology relevant in 5G
  • New vendors, large and small, move into the new RAN ecosystem (see Comment section)