One month on from this year’s Mobile World Congress, just about all the comments and analyses have been written, and the main question remaining, as always, is ‘was it worth it?’. Do all the millions and millions of dollars spent, as well as several weeks of distraction from normal business, actually change the fortunes of a vendor or operator, or influence the course of the industry as a whole in the year ahead?
We now have the comparator of two years without a recognizable MWC, of course, as well as a pared-down event in 2022.
Many observers speculated large stakeholders would realize that they could function perfectly well without the cost and disruption of the Barcelona show and support something smaller and more focused in future. Alternatively, they might even remain in the online world, relying on increasingly sophisticated immersive technologies to replace the real-world experience.
In fact, as MWC 2023 showed, the appetite for real-world contact, demonstration and wheeler-dealing remains powerful. The worst nightmares of MWC’s organizer, the GSMA, did not come true. So with the event firmly back on the calendar, will it have any quantifiable impact on the industry in 2023?
This is a time of pressure on the mobile sector. The mobile industry stood up well to the pandemic crisis, without the help of its largest event. Most of its challenges, especially in 2020, were related to changes in behavior, such as the inevitable shift from mobile to fixed broadband during periods of working from home. However, general macro-economic stagnation, partly as a result of Covid, is starting to weigh on operators and their suppliers, along with the US-China geopolitics and the cost of energy.
In particular, this has led to a slowdown or deferral of many large operator projects, something that has affected high-profile ventures such as 5G Standalone, virtualized RAN and Open RAN. Orange is one operator that has said the pandemic crisis was a reason to slow down some 5G roll-outs to a “more realistic” pace, while Verizon and AT&T have both partly blamed the poor economy for their slower-than-expected deployments of the 5G core.
Stakeholders will certainly have wanted more from MWC than a joyful reunion with clients and contacts. They will be hoping that the time and dollars spent will accelerate the pace of some key developments. For vendors, this is essential to improve revenue streams and kickstart growth. For operators, the hope is that MWC discussions will have helped reset some vendors’ expectations in terms of network costs, and led to simpler and more deployable platforms.
We see five areas where the launches and discussions at MWC are likely to help drive real progress in 2023.
After all, real deals get done at MWC. Behind the stands and all the buzz on the show floors, negotiations take place in the private rooms and grand restaurants. And in the Ministerial Programme, the world’s regulators and policy makers gather to hear the ideas and lobbying of an industry that has become central to many governments, because of the hope that 5G will deliver digitalization and Industry 4.0 on a scale that can transform national economies.
So the first of the five areas where we predict more rapid progress than in 2022 – with MWC as one of the catalysts – is spectrum policy. The MWC negotiations, especially in the Ministerial Programme, are always particularly impactful in a year when the World Radio Conference (WRC) will be held. This event establishes global and regional spectrum allocations, within which national regulators can then decide on specific band-plans and rules.
A key focus of WRC-2023 will be the expansion of high-frequency spectrum for 5G, as well as further clarification of how mobile and satellite industries will coexist in key bands. So far, millimeter wave spectrum has been a 5G sideline outside the USA, but there was a stronger focus in Barcelona than before on making it more usable, from technologies (from Qualcomm and others) to extend its realistic range, to a host of applications that take advantage of its high hotspot capacity. Examples from Docomo, NEC and other Japanese companies were particularly interesting on these counts, since all the Japanese MNOs use mmWave spectrum.
Behind-the-scenes conversations will have helped intensify a trend that has been gathering pace anyway, to license spectrum more flexibly and inclusively. With even France reversing its previous hostility to awarding enterprise spectrum, there should be a flood of allocations and network projects for key industries this year, especially in Europe, and there were certainly plenty of demonstrations at MWC of applications designed to take advantage. The big enterprise suppliers built on their private 5G launches of 2022, most notably with HPE’s acquisition of private core vendor Athonet. There was also evidence of a visibly growing industrial 5G devices and apps ecosystem.
The other four areas where we spied real progress, rather than just high-level discussion or hype, will also be related to the expansion of 5G to enterprise. These are 5G Standalone, virtualized and Open RAN, metaverse applications, and open APIs. All of these are technologies that have been greatly hyped over the past few years, but so far have delivered very little in firm commercial terms. Of course, one event, however large, will not change their fortunes, but hundreds of product launches, demonstrations and practical ideas that gained airtime in Barcelona, will cumulatively make these new platforms more deployable and less risky. At least they were tangible examples of R&D efforts to date, even if evidence that payback will be achieved is patchy, especially for the metaverse.
The focus, as we have analyzed in previous editions, was on pragmatism, ease of roll-out, cost and energy efficiency – not on grand visions, even for the metaverse (despite plenty of whizzy virtual reality demoes). Testing and pre-integration processes for multivendor systems, core-as-a-service, the spread of no-code to mobile apps – all these help lower the barriers to deployment of major new systems.
One aspect of this pragmatism that will be essential if new platforms are to be rolled out in hard economic times is a focus on enterprise. New technologies are simpler to deploy first in relatively localized networks that do not have the massive traffic burdens that public 5G RANs bear. And there is clear pent-up demand in some industrial quarters, whereas the business case for supporting more consumer traffic remains weak.
5G Standalone, which was meant to be the big revenue driver for the large vendors in 2022, has disappointed so far, and most operators are clear that they will only roll it out at scale when they have clear enterprise use cases to support. If they can identify a business case for ultra-low latency connectivity, slicing, or the other capabilities SA can support, then they will accelerate their adoption. The cloud-native core platforms are mature now, so the barriers lie with understanding demand and ROI, and the huge gathering of stakeholders in Barcelona will have helped grow this understanding.
Open RAN is also a much-hyped platform that will be more easily tested in enterprise environments. The challenges that new vendors face in macro networks were highlighted at MWC by one of the biggest topics of conversation, the Dish Network roll-out. The corollary was intensified focus on less risky environments for smaller suppliers, with many demoes and deals related to open small cells, as well as efforts by Rakuten Symphony and Telecom Infra Project, among others, to address the complexity barriers that face Open RAN.
Then there are the applications. The ‘metaverse’ is in some ways an old concept, but it has received huge doses of money, innovation and hype, probably in about equal measure, over the past couple of years, and all these were visible in Barcelona. Most of the really interesting apps and demoes related to industrial metaverse – as with 5G SA, this is where use cases that will genuinely affect financial performance can be identified, and monetized more easily than in the consumer world. One of the real impacts of a huge show is to assemble large numbers of developers and demoes, which can catch the eye of investors and operators more easily than in a fragmented online environment.
We expect a flurry of innovation related to industrial metaverse in 2023, because this will be firmly tied to deployment of 5G SA and to the broadening of affordable connectivity via new spectrum and open platforms. If new and monetizable industrial experiences make significant progress in 2023, partly as a result of deals done in Barcelona, there will be a much-improved case for 5G SA as well as for private 5G networks.
One of the main challenges for mobile operators and network vendors is to adapt to the diversity of the enterprise world.
This is why open systems are so important, to mask fragmentation and enable operators to support enterprises’ very different requirements, while still building large-scale common platforms. While much of the open debate continues to focus on virtualized RAN, an even more important enabler is an open API platform. Here, tangible progress was highlighted and accelerated in Barcelona, partly because the GSMA itself is a prime mover behind open mobile network APIs.
Building on its Open API program, the GSMA announced its Open Gateway Initiative, with the initial support of 21 operators including Orange, Telefónica and Vodafone. These three staged a demo across their respective live 5G networks in Spain, to show off support for the GSMA’s first eight APIs within this framework. These allow developers simple access to network capabilities such as quality of service on-demand (Quds), authentication, billing, device verification and edge routing. A developer can incorporate these crucial functions in an app in the same way for any supporting operator’s network.
Importantly, the three European giants also announced a project with Ericsson to harmonize the framework APIs with those of Vonage, which Ericsson owns. Vonage acted as an aggregator for the Spanish demo and its support removes the risk that Ericsson would set up its own alternative API platform as a way to increase its control over the 5G platform.
After all, operators’ track record of making open APIs work in the commercial world is very poor. However, cooperation with API heavyweights like Vonage and TMforum will help with deployability and scale, as will the move to document all the APIs in the CAMARA open source project.
José María Álvarez-Pallete López, chairman of the board of the GSMA and CEO of Telefónica, said in a statement: “Telcos have come a long way in developing a global platform to connect everyone and everything. And now, by federating open network APIs and applying the roaming concept of interoperability, mobile operators and cloud services will be truly integrated to enable a new world of opportunity. Collaboration amongst telecom operators and cloud providers is crucial in this new digital ecosystem.”
The revival of MWC seems to indicate that, even in the age of metaverse, collaboration is still facilitated better through face-to-face meetings. Most of the big developments of 2023, from spectrum allocations to open networks, rely on collaboration between many organizations in different industries and technologies. With that in mind, MWC’s impact, in kickstarting or intensifying conversations, will be significant.