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MWC 2017: Who was it for?

MWC 2017 saw over 100,000 visitors and more than 2,000 exhibitors. It also saw a move away from its purely ‘mobile’ roots, with the theme for this year’s event being ‘The Next Element’ – a reflection of the industry’s need to focus on developing successful interconnectivity between emerging technologies and unification around the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart applications.

As a result, the main topics themes we noted were 5G, artificial intelligence and virtual reality, IoT and M2M, LTE diversification, NFV and drones.

IoT – or rather the ‘Internet of Everything’ (IoE) – and smart applications were high on the agenda, with autonomous cars and Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) a common theme throughout the conference. Most vendors are already including IoT and M2M in their messages, however, they must also consider A2P and not just device to server or other devices, which means breaking out to enable machine (application) to human communication is likely to be an interesting topic for the future, particularly with the more stringent SLAs and complex policy decisions that will have to be supported for many new applications.

Indeed, perhaps the biggest challenge for IoE will come from performance management. According to some service assurance specialists we know, this has already emerged as a concern, because many new entrants from outside the traditional mobile industry do not truly understand the performance requirements of real-time networks.

Of course, supporting the new world of IoT is LTE diversification, such as the emergence of LTE-U, which can be considered as an interim step towards 5G. Another interesting area is the growth of specialised radio access technologies to support IoT requirements, such as NB-IoT and unlicensed LoRaWAN. These are adapted to meet the needs of long distance, low power communications and, while not new for this year, it was interesting to see real deployments taking shape.

5G was, as might be expected, key, with standards now getting close under the umbrella of 5GPP. Deployments are expected from 2020, according to the consensus of research published in the (increasingly heavy) Mobile World Daily. However, at RMA we’re pretty certain that 5G will appear sooner as a result of the on-going work by providers to be the first to launch services.

MWC saw a raft of announcements around 5G, including Qualcomm working with Ericsson, Telstra and NTT DoCoMo for interoperability testing, ZTE’s unveiling of the ‘Gigabit’, the world’s first 5G ready mobile phone, and Verizon and AT&T’s plan to pilot 5G later this year, with the former also working with Samsung to bring 5G to the US.

One of the main issues for 5G, we believe, is the lack of clear use cases. Unlike previous generations of mobile technology in which voice, messaging and data drove uptake and services, the drivers for 5G are a little more uncertain. However, MWC saw positive steps in the right direction, with some interesting examples of services tailored to specific vertical industries or applications, such as automated driving, telehealthcare and assisted surgery, and gaming.

The rise of augmented and virtual reality may be another use case for 5G, but in the near future there are concerns about the demand it places on network capabilities, as well as device screen resolution and refresh rates. Meanwhile, the creators of Pokemon Go won a well-deserved award, although we didn’t capture many in the Fira. A missed opportunity, perhaps.

Mobility is expected to be the first platform through which consumers will engage with the technology, so it remains to be seen how existing infrastructure and technologie cope. But once again there are clear use cases for specific applications, including medical, academic and technical applications

Obvious by its absence was the lack of smartphone launches at MWC 2017. Notably, it was the first time since 2013 that Samsung has not launched a new phone at the event. Instead, it will launch its new flagship phone the Galaxy S8 at a private event later in the month.

On the flip side, Nokia reintroduced the renowned Nokia 3310 giving retro-loving consumers a handset that simple features with long battery life, and a 2MP camera.

Perhaps momentum is slowing in the smartphone industry, despite the fact that signficant numbers of users in developing markets have yet to benefit from them. Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Höttges certainly think so, predicting that the smartphone will be superseded by more intuitive form factors, such as augmented reality (AR) glasses, which are designed to stream information from a smartphone and display it on the lenses.

However, the fact is that we are struggling to find much interesting to say about MWC 2017. Perhaps it reflects the identity crisis that the telco industry is currently undergoing, with doubt and uncertainty around the business model transformations that are required to thrive in the new IoT/smart world.

The entry of new players to the ecosystem is the start of a shake up – mobile may be King, but the mobile operators are not the Kingmakers. They are enablers and have to get used to an expanded ecosystem in which innovation in key areas is driven by vertical specialists. The mobile network will evolve, but the role of the operator is moving more to guaranteeing performance and connectivity than in delivering specific applications.

RMA always looks forward to MWC and a chance to catch up with our colleagues and peers, and a chance to retake the pulse of the industry. Despite the crowds, this year’s event seemed flat. Do you agree? Let us know your thoughts by responding to this post.