Notes from MWC Barcelona 2019

Posted on Friday, March 01, 2019

Sorry, no musical theme this week as I present some random notes on Mobile World Congress. Although we are not supposed to call it that. Like AWS or EMC, it has become a three-letter acronym. It will, however, take a long time for the people of Barcelona to stop calling it “Mo-bile”. Such habits are hard to break.

Huawei

The Economist said that the Huawei issue was “dominating” the Congress and that is a considerable overstatement.

Yes, it was always there, often a topic of conversation. Security was always being brought up but security is a critical issue and one too-often ignored, so it is hard to complain about the attention. The pervasiveness of connectivity in a 5G world merely heightens its importance. (One conference sweaker said that a hospital was hacked through a connected fish-tank thermometer. Comforting thought.)

But it was hard to hear any vendor talk about security without hearing a veiled or not-so-veiled reference to the Chinese vendor.

The only telecom leader that brought it up explicitly was Vodafone CEO, Nick Read, who lamented the loss of competition and said that Europe’s 5G plans would be knocked back two years if Huawei was banned. He may have been thinking about a promise by European communications czar, Mariya Gabriel, to bring the 5G security issue to a “swift resolution”. Read may be concerned that the European Commission’s definition of “swift” is measured on a geological time scale.

Or he may have been concerned that he won’t be able to use the 300 base stations that Huawei is deploying in the Vodafone Spain network, wiping out his ‘first-mover’ advantage.

After all, the only WOW! moment in the Sunday / Monday kickoff presentations by the big three vendors was a very impressive demo of a video call over a 5G smartphone on Vodafone Spain’s 15 base station 5G network in Barcelona. No wonder Vodafone’s CEO was testy.

Huawei’s latest rotating chairman Guo Ping addressed the US issue straight on, saying Huawei had “never built backdoors” (although presumably they have been required to build ‘lawful intercept’ facilities) and questioning the US government’s moral authority to accuse others of spying on communications.

That may not be the most effective strategy for countering the US offensive but at least they cannot be thought guilty merely because they had remained silent.

5G NOW! Maybe

Nokia was up first and it said 5G was surging ahead. Huawei was next and it said “5G is ON!”. Then Ericsson said 5G was “Switching On”.

Too bad the operators are still trying to figure out how to pay for it and wondering if they can.

True, the linked article quotes European operators no doubt still trying to estimate what Germany or the UK might expect to receive in an auction for 5G spectrum given that Italy got over EUR6B. But that is only one of their concerns.

There is broad consensus that no consumer will pay more for 5G’s faster speeds. There is some hope that ‘faster cat videos’ will inspire some to increase their monthly allocation of gigabytes and so pay more. (On a side note, should we be measuring video traffic in giga-cats? Just asking.)

As to 5G timing in emerging markets, people just roll their eyes when asked. Dictators / monarchs may be able to compel companies to invest or may even be able to bankroll it themselves in the name of progress, but investor-driven companies will be wondering why management is suggesting increasing the capital base when, as Telstra CEO Andrew Penn said, returns are in single digits.

Latin America’s only dictator has no money, or what he has, he’s using to keep the generals happy so he won’t be bankrolling 5G out of the essentially bare public treasury. On a somewhat related note, Telefonica put up a system map of the company’s operations showing Central America in the network (but weren’t those properties sold over the past month?) and Venezuela out of the network (hmmm…).

One vendor (who will remain nameless) told me, sotto voce, that expanding 4G coverage in Latin America made more sense as a business and even national objective than going to 5G in the short-term.

Taking care of business

There. I managed to slip in a musical reference, but I’m not going to elaborate. Some will recognize it; some will not.

If greater ARPU is not the answer, then what is? Operators and vendors alike were “workin’ overtime” to find the answer which appears to have three pillars:

  1. Cost savings
  2. Fixed Wireless Access
  3. Enterprise Applications.

5G as a more cost-effective technology got a lot of airplay. Energy costs are becoming so significant that some vendors suggested that ‘rip and replace’ to get modern equipment with lower power consumption could be justified.

I expected Fixed Wireless Access to come up more in vendor and operator discussions, but it was not mentioned very much. The US experience is too new for it to teach us anything it appears. I remain hopeful that some day it will.

But Enterprise 5G applications are all the rage, mostly in Industrial IoT applications because they tend to require high bandwidth, low latency or both. Autonomous driving is similar in its demand for 5G and, again, there were autonomous trucks or drone applications in the Enterprise market.

I admit I may have been exposed to more Enterprise opportunities because my research interest this year was Private LTE / 5G as I have discussed in several recent blogs. But I also tried my thesis that 5G would first come to Latin America in IIoT or private networks applications and got positive feedback.

4YFN

For the last few years I have – with some pain – been organizing my schedule to pass by the 4 Years From Now (4YFN) show which is a large ‘supermarket’ for startups. (It does a lot of training and matchmaking for entrepreneurs but I never have time for that.) Being located several kilometers from MWC at the ‘old Fira’ does not make scheduling this very easy.

Just walking up and down the aisles takes about an hour and stopping at the stands obviously extends the necessary time.

Cool or at least interesting ideas:

  • A webpage that turns Excel spreadsheets into IoS or Android apps. A simple way to convert that monthly analysis or sales tool into something that your team or your boss can carry with them.
  • A blockchain-based app for tracking the provenance of artwork. Finally! A non-financial application of blockchain where the technology is 1) essential 2) not just a buzzword.
  • A 3D-printer that prints beefsteaks out of generic vegetable goop. Unfortunately I can neither attest to the flavor nor the appearance because there was no one at the booth when I passed by, but this is the kind of idea that brings Star Trek replicator meals closer (and pushes that funny-colored mush from 2001 further into the past).

Thoughts as the train pulls out of Barcelona

As always on Thursday I wonder why I came and wonder if I will bother next year.

I ate too much. Drank too much. Slept too little. Executing my ‘real job’ either at 11pm or 5am gets to be a physical and mental drain. My feet hurt, my back aches, my shoulders are tight. I do not want to even look at Jamon Iberico for at least a month. I think I developed a wheat allergy. Or maybe I should develop a wheat allergy so I do not eat bread or bread products for the rest of my life. (When did Spain go crazy for donuts?)

I am not returning with the signed contracts or even the high probability prospects that I had hoped would appear.

On the other hand, I met with a large number of people that I have known for years and met a large number of people that I did not know. I laughed a lot. Gossiped a lot. Picked up nuances about national policies and vendor strategies that I could not have obtained by watching the GSMA’s webinars or reading industry newsletters.

Had some very meaningful conversations that may turn into business at a later date. Did important branding work.

In some aspects, the industry has not advanced as much as I thought it might have in the past year. In others, I was surprised but I am not sure if the advance is all that worthwhile. (Do we really need to pay US$2,600 for a phone with a foldable screen? Tim Cook must be ecstatic. It makes the iPhone X look cheap.)

There are still lots of doubts about the 5G business model. But the technology is here. It works. I saw base stations that were physical objects, not PowerPoint, and I saw videos of them being installed. I saw calls being made over 5G phones that were the right form factor. The call was received indoors from an outdoor base station over 100 meters away, not some lab-mockup cabinet in the same room.

We know what 5G is good for. If we can figure out someway to get someone to pay for it, the technology is there.

And around November, I will start the process of planning and budgeting my return to Barcelona.

Next time please, try to avoid a transit strike.

And if the guy who tried to fracture my shoulder blade with his fully-loaded backpack is reading this, on a crowded subway car, your luggage should go at your feet.

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