Three Big Telecom Takeaways From Mobile World Congress Barcelona 2024

By Will Townsend, Patrick Moorhead - March 22, 2024

I attended Mobile World Congress Barcelona 2024, which gave me the opportunity to meet with scores of mobility companies and infrastructure providers from around the world. The event can certainly test one’s mental and physical endurance, juggling multiple meetings while traversing eight exhibition halls at the Fira Gran Via exhibition center.

It would be a nearly impossible feat to capture all the announcements, much like the additive construction of the famous La Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona that is nearing its completion after 140-plus years. With that in mind, my goal is to focus on three areas that my colleague Anshel Sag and I discussed on the MWC Barcelona preview episode of The G2 on 5G Podcast: telco generative AI, open RAN’s evolution and low earth orbit satellite communications. Let’s dive in!

Telco Generative AI

To say that the hype around AI is high would be an understatement. Generative AI’s natural language interface has democratized access and made AI more tangible for the masses. The disruptive potential for its application in telecommunications is immense, from improving mobile network resilience and customer support services, to facilitating service personalization that has the potential to improve profitability for operators.

Possibly the biggest sign that generative AI has landed in telecommunications was Dell Technologies chief executive Michael Dell’s keynote about AI at MWC Barcelona this year. From my perspective, Dell has come a long way in its telecommunications journey, building a strong leadership bench with telco veterans and leaning into its ecosystem DNA and strengths in compute, storage and recently AI. This has allowed it to create high value partnerships, such as the recent announcement with Nokia related to private cellular networking services.

It’s also worth pointing out that Hewlett Packard Enterprises’ surprising announcement of its intention to acquire Juniper Networks for $14 billion will have ripple effects for the application of generative AI in telecommunications. Juniper brings historical service provider strengths given its capabilities in RAN Intelligent Controller, universal routing platforms that are highly software-defined and cloud metro services that leverage the power of network slicing to provide deterministic 5G connectivity support. At MWC Barcelona, I met with Juniper’s chief executive Rami Rahim and executives from HPE’s Aruba Networking and Athonet units. I came away with a new appreciation for the potential that HPE has with eventually infusing Juniper’s Mist AI platform into the overall HPE connectivity stack, one that will be extended into private cellular networking deployments via Aruba’s existing enterprise footprint, as well as benefiting from Athonet’s mobile core capabilities and proven track record.

Open RAN’s Evolution

I was an early doubter of open RAN despite the promise of what could be delivered by industry-standard, disaggregated infrastructure in the radio access network from the perspectives of cost containment and supply chain diversity. Integration is key to its adoption success, as is the need to address performance concerns. From my perspective, both have been satisfied as evidenced by recent ORAN inline accelerator cards featuring silicon from Marvell, Qualcomm and others, as well as recent integration developments.

On the integration front, I continue to be impressed by NTT Docomo and the work it is doing through its OREX platform and its growing ecosystem of partners. I was briefed by executives before MWC Barcelona on its plans to form a joint venture company in April to scale support and adoption beyond the Japanese market. It’s a wise move that embodies the lessons learned from its competitor Rakuten’s pioneering efforts and subsequent stumbles to grow its Symphony platform beyond a handful of mobile network operators. Additionally, NTT announced at the event that AWS has joined its OREX ecosystem and will also deploy NTT’s nationwide 5G ORAN infrastructure in Japan. AWS is no stranger to telecom, and it joins a long list of other NTT OREX partners, including Dell Technologies, HPE, NEC, Nvidia and more.

I also spent time with the Samsung Networks team. The company bet on ORAN early, and as a result has benefited the most to date relative to its traditional incumbent competitors Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia from an adoption perspective. Samsung claims that it has installed more than 38,000 ORAN-compliant sites to date, a statistic that points to ORAN’s commercial success and budding momentum.

In closing, I would be remiss to not acknowledge the elephant in the ORAN room: concerns about the perceived emergence of single-vendor ORAN deployments—something that seems to fly in the face of an “open” ecosystem. Certainly, the historic announcement between AT&T and Ericsson last year seems to be a consolidation to one vendor. However, given the need for ORAN integration that I previously mentioned, in my opinion it’s smart to begin with one vendor and diversify over time anyway, especially in large brownfield deployments such as AT&T’s network. Time will tell, but I believe that supply chain diversity will materialize in ORAN deployments given the need for continuity of supply.

Low Earth Orbit Satellite Communications

Around MWC, I had the opportunity to spend time with two companies that I consider to be the front-runners in LEO satellite connectivity—AST SpaceMobile and Sateliot. I have written about AST SpaceMobile in the past, and at MWC Barcelona chief executive Abel Avellan and I met for the first time following my exclusive tour of the company’s Midland, Texas facilities in 2023. What I find profound is the company’s mission to give AT&T, Rakuten, Vodafone and other mobile network operators the ability to connect subscribers via terrestrial spectrum that are underserved by broadband—and to do so with far fewer satellites than other LEO satellite service providers. Avellan and I also share a passionate belief that access to connectivity should be a fundamental human right, and to that end he was appointed this past February as a commissioner on the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission tasked with ensuring universal connectivity.

Sateliot is based in Barcelona and aims to provide connectivity for narrowband IoT devices and sensors when it launches its first set of commercial LEO satellites in the second half of 2024. I met with chief executive Jaume Sanpera at MWC Barcelona, following our first video chat last year. Sanpera believes that his goal of providing connectivity for a host of use cases that span sustainability, wildlife conservation, agriculture technology and more will be disruptive, as evidenced by a growing number of deals the company has signed with communications service providers and MNOs that broadcast over terrestrial spectrum. I believe that the use cases the company is focused on are compelling; once in production, many more could follow.

Wrapping Up

MWC Barcelona 2024 delivered on many fronts, especially with respect to the potential of generative AI for telecommunications workloads, ORAN’s evolution and the promise of direct-to-cellphone and IoT sensor connectivity created by LEO satellite technology. All three signal an opportunity to supercharge the significant investments made by operators and service providers around the world in next-generation 5G networks. Some pundits believe that 5G has not lived up to its hype. I would argue that as 5G Standalone continues its deployment journey, it will meet its full potential—and maybe even expand what we thought was possible—buoyed by these three telecommunications trends.

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Will Townsend manages the networking and security practices for Moor Insights & Strategy focused on carrier infrastructure providers, carrier services, enterprise networking and security. He brings over 30 years of technology industry experience in a variety of product, marketing, channel, business development and sales roles to his advisory position.
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Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.