“Intelligent connectivity” was this year’s theme for Mobile World Congress (MWC), the preeminent event focused on mobile communications held last week in Barcelona. Once relegated to cellular devices, infrastructure and mobile services, over the past thirty-two years the show has expanded to include much more. From my perspective, the notion of intelligence from the GSMA organizing body wasn’t simply lip-service. Many announcements from the close to 2500 corporate participants focused on the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to make mobile networks smarter and more efficient. I also noted a convergence of enterprise networking with the operator and service provider space at MWC. I spent a full four days at the event and met with a number of companies, speaking with sales, marketing, and technical leadership. I would like to share my insights and learnings.
Will the real 5G please stand up?
It’s a good bet that you’ve heard of 5G, but are you confused? In the United States, carriers haven’t done a great job of educating the market. AT&T has been marketing its “5G Evolution,” which is not 5G but rather a densification of its current 4G LTE networks in preparation to deploy 5G and related services. To make matters more ambiguous, AT&T reset handsets to read “5GE” in some of its initial markets earmarked for the next-generation technology. Verizon launched a fixed 5G pre-standard service for home broadband in four markets late last year, based on what is referred to as Technical Forum (TF). Now that New Radio (NR) solutions are certified, Verizon is beginning to transition its infrastructure but it’s still a lot to sort out. And don’t get me started on the carrier CEO (who will remain nameless) who called fixed 5G “fake.” Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) is simply a different topology that will compliment mobile over time.
With all of that behind us, MWC marked in my mind the arrival of “real” 5G from a standards perspective. Ericsson , Samsung, Huawei , Nokia and other providers are now deploying infrastructure globally via a combination of hardware and software. Qualcomm , regarded as the leader in mobile device enablement, didn’t disappoint at the show. It was front and center in many of the initial 5G-enabled smartphones and devices that should become available in the coming months.
Hail smart connectivity, the wicked dumb pipe is dead!
5G, AI, and a growing convergence of LAN, WAN, and WWAN promise to bring intelligence to connectivity. At the show, companies such as Cisco Systems, Dell EMC , HPE/Aruba, Huawei , and Lenovo made a number of announcements related to edge-enabled solutions, price disruptive telco-grade multi-purpose infrastructure based on open standard hardware and software, and new operator and service provider monetization opportunities in the form of SD-WAN and other related services. Many of these companies also announced enhancements to their Wi-Fi portfolios at MWC, with the recent alpha to numerical nomenclature transition to Wi-Fi 6 that improves latency, throughput, and coverage. Contrary to claims by some carriers, I don’t believe 5G will kill or replace Wi-Fi; rather, they will be “better together,” to quote an HPE Aruba executive I spoke with before the event. Use case, economics, and customer requirements should drive a blend of connectivity.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now making its way into the service provider and operator domain and from my perspective, it’s a key component in delivering closed-loop automation. It’s no secret that connected devices and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors are expected to proliferate over the coming years, and mobile networks will have to scale to support these devices while also managing security. I liken automation as the next “goldrush” to support mobility services. I’ve written about this in the past, highlighting companies big and small, from Cisco and Huawei, to start-up Anuta Networks. If interested, you can find that article here.
On the enterprise side, companies are still somewhat hesitant to automate and prefer an “easy button” that provides a level of control. However, on the carrier side, the value of more fully automated remediation lies in its ability to deliver Service Level Agreements (SLAs) and mitigate subscriber churn. I spent time with Huawei at the show and was impressed with how it is bringing AI and automation together to demonstrate smart city use cases in a single pane of glass or console. The company’s biggest hurdle in driving adoption will be proving to the world that it is not embedding spyware backdoors into its infrastructure and devices. Building a cybersecurity center in Brussels to foster global collaboration is a great first step, as well as its recent Wall Street Journal advertisement inviting western media to visit its headquarters and manufacturing in Shenzhen, China. I believe inviting independent audits of its supply chain and manufacturing would be another logical consideration to allay spyware fears.
In my mind, it’s time to move beyond the 5G “shiny object” hype stage and examine the use cases that will drive digital transformation, new services for both consumers and enterprises, and subsequent monetization opportunities for operators who have made huge investments in the next generation mobile communications infrastructure. This crystallized for me in one of my final meetings at MWC. I was contacted by LMT, one of three mobile operators in the country of Latvia, for a taped segment on 5G and its potential impact. Boasting a population of just 2 million, the country is located to the east of the Baltic Sea and has a challenging topography of hills and over 15,000 rivers, lakes, and bogs. Traditional wireline infrastructure is simply not feasible, and as a result, connectivity services have been limited in the past. 5G should be transformative for the country, bringing low latency and consistently higher data throughput for consumer broadband, television streaming services, AgTech improvements, and more. This, in turn, will serve as a catalyst for economic expansion for the country. In my mind, that’s a pretty compelling use case that demonstrates the power of technology and its ability to change lives.