Mobile World Congress 2019 Roundup

Mobile World Congress 2019 Roundup

Every technology transition brings in the sense of excitement for what could be next. In multi-dimensional shift that touches every layer of the stack, every company in the ecosystem, and every country in the global economy, MWC provides a platform to understand and feel the movements of the tectonic plates. Chetan Sharma Consulting participated in a number of sessions and panels throughout the show. We also had formal and informal discussions with several key executives in the industry and of course, we did our usual rounds of the show floor. This note presents the summary of our observations from the show.

Connected Intelligence and 4th Wave: Regular readers know that we have been exploring our thesis of Connected Intelligence (CI) and 4th Wave for the past seven years. This year, MWC’s underlying theme was “Intelligent Connectivity” which is a subset of the CI framework that discusses the broader technology cycle. Huawei has completely coopted the framework and now it is their tagline. I guess the notion of the Connected Intelligence cycle is becoming more mainstream now. Mobile services are what is driving the ecosystem and the global economy. 4th wave was a discussion topic for many operators. Music to our ears. The role of 4th wave will be even more critical in the evolution of 5G ecosystem.

5G, 5G, 5G: As expected, the overarching theme of the show was “5G is here and open for business.” The star of the show was Qualcomm which managed do some incredible ecosystem jujitsu to help launch several 5G devices. Samsung got the press started by launching the device a week earlier. LG, Xiaomi, Oppo, ZTE, Huawei, Motorola, etc. followed. If you have been involved in the supply chain of the handset design and launch, one can appreciate what an impressive feat this was. While we can debate 5G value proposition, timelines, and roadmaps, the fact that a number of such handsets came to the market in a rapid fashion even before the networks is one heck of an engineering feat.

5G Forecasts: There are strong expectations as to what 5G will do to the ecosystem with GSMA forecasting 15% of the global connections being 5G by 2025. Furthermore, it is expected that $2.2 trillion in global economy will be contributed by 5G.

Keynotes: KT’s CEO Chang-Gyu Hwang probably gave the best keynote address talking about the solutions roadmap for the industry.

5G Handsets: Perhaps the most impressive 5G handset from the price/performance point of view was from Xiaomi which launched a power packed 5G handset for only $650 when its competitors are generally above $1000 in price point. As usual, there was speculation about 5G iPhone launch which is when the market might catch fire. In the meantime, Android OEMs will do their darnest to create some space for Apple to follow.

Will China provide 5G growth acceleration? China was clearly late to the 4G party and is still at least 2 years behind in coverage compared to US/Korea/Japan. However, with 5G, it wants to take an early and dominant role. Xiaomi is already out with a cheap(er) 5G device, many in China are expecting $100 5G devices which might change the growth trajectory of 5G adoption in the country and elsewhere.

5G Remote Surgery: When 5G initial concepts started to float around, remote surgery figured prominently to much ridicule in the industry. Well, MWC had a live 5G demo (over Vodafone network) of a surgery done by gastrointestinal surgeon Dr. Antonio de Lacy, performed with the full consent of the patient. Low latency, high bandwidth, and network slicing played a role in make E2E world’s first human surgery work. A milestone for sure but I didn’t see any lines of attendees trying to cash in on the offer a free surgery while they were in Barcelona.

Foldable Handsets: Foldable handsets have been part of human imagination since the early days. I was so fascinated by the notion early on that I talked about it in my first book back in 2000. It took longer than expected but the next phase of smartphone design has started that is likely to include foldable and rollable displays. Press is too focused on the price which of course will be high for the first-generation devices but with time, in2-3 years, we are likely to see price points of current generation of devices. Combine that with the 5G cycle and we are looking at some dramatic data growth on cellular networks. One day we might look at the single screen smartphones like we view featurephones today.

5G Business Case: While there is general enthusiasm about the new network cycle, there is a genuine concern in many quarters about deploying the CAPEX before the business case is solidified. The usual suspects – Japan, Korea, China, and US are pretty optimistic while Europeans are looking at the network cycle with more caution. European regulators were also being blamed for the Nordics and some Middle-East operators have also joined the race to be the first. Rest of the world is taking a wait and see approach.

HoloLens in the Enterprise: Microsoft chose MWC to dazzle with its HoloLens 2 release. Smartly, they are going after the enterprise market with the $3500 device. There are number of enterprise use cases and demo lines indicated strong interest.

Greenfield Operators: Last year, Jio impressed the attendees with its extremely rapid pace of deployment and subscriber acquisition. This year, it was Rakuten, the Japanese greenfield operator who is building the cloud-native network in record time. In fact, this probably the best time to consider a green-field opportunity as one can build the nationwide network at much lower cost and transform the local competitive market. The burden of legacy pulls the operators down in considering new initiatives and they have a hard time straddling the complex ecosystem.

Flexible Displays: Extending the theme of flexible displays, Nubia had a smartwatch/phone with a flexible screen. Clunky, yes! But an indication of things to come.

Antenna Stripes: One of the most intriguing technology was from Ericsson with an antenna strip that can be put anywhere, and it can work with your macro/micro network to extend coverage. The world of possibilities could be extended. The technology is still in R&D and it might be 5 years before we could see the commercialization, but it opens lots of new possibilities.

Edge Computing: Intel had some interesting demos that can take 5G, Edge Computing, Computer vision to enable pop-up retail stores at scale. These are Amazon Go like stores but without any humans and completely automated. Intel has a pretty good E2E Edge story. Mobile operators are gearing up to play a role in Edge Cloud. Azure and AWS are viewed as incumbents though their edge strategy is not well-thought-out, they still want to send the data to the mothership vs. doing innovative stuff at the edge. Next 2-3 years will be interesting to prove out the use cases, performance KPIs, and adoption of edge in workflow processes.

US 5G: Sprint had a big coming out party with announcements on its 5G rollout in 1H19 with specific coverage numbers for the 9 cities it is putting its 2.5GHz spectrum to use. The coverage parameters include 1085 square miles with 6.8M pops covered.

5G Race: The narrative of a 5G race continued unabated at the show. We think such a discussion is misplaced without any specific framework on parameters that define the 5G progress. Press loves a horse race and industry bodies use it to influence nation’s spectrum policy. We will have more to say on this subject in the coming days.

AR/Edge Computing: There were a number of VR/AR edge computing use cases with demos but MobiledgeX’s demo with Niantic, Deutsche Telekom, and Samsung probably got the point across the best in a live gameplay on the show floor. The latency of < 15-20 ms enables multiplayer AR games in a localized environment where location has to be shared with multiple players in real-time.

Geopolitical games: The geopolitical tension in the wireless world was front and center from the very beginning of the show. Whether it was public speeches or private discussions, the trade war speculation had as many opinions as the number of attendees at the show. Huawei didn’t shy away from the controversy and the current chairman Guo Ping came out hard against the US government policy and narrative. US government had also sent a big contingent to influence partners and policy. There is a sense that Europeans after initially supporting some sort of a ban might be backing off. Swapping 4G gear is neither trivial or inexpensive and with no resources to fund this exercise, it remains a theoretical exercise. Huawei has the financial muscle to get creative with 5G capex plans that many operators in Europe and Asia will find attractive.

Industrial Policy: We have been of the opinion that countries that lack a concrete Industrial policy will be at a big disadvantage in the Connected Intelligence Era. The next 30-40 years will be defined by how much governments can help shape the ecosystem through policy and investments. The open market approach in the US might be running against its limits in the face of stiff competition from China. Countries that think long-term and retool their education and training sectors will benefit when automation reigns supreme. Countries who don’t are in for a rude awakening.

Open Source Strides: Open source discussions are getting bigger and louder in the industry. The desire to lower cost has inspired operators to back efforts at Linux Foundation, Open Networking Forum, and Telecom Infra Project which are making meaningful contribution to the standards to build RAN and other key modules of the end-to-end infrastructure. The collaboration between the operations, infrastructure providers, and the webscale players is very helpful in managing the costs.

Resuscitating IoT: IoT is going through growing pains. After the initial optimism, the realism of what is needed to insert IoT into enterprise workflows has set in.

Partnerships: Another big underlying theme was that of partnerships and collaboration – between operators, competitors, operators and industrial players, OEMs and webscale players, academia and industry, and so on and so forth. No one company (except perhaps Amazon) can do it all and to make progress, one needs expertise from where it exists.

Best 5G Demo: Perhaps the best demo to demonstrate the power of 5G was from DoCoMo. They had two musicians playing together except one was appearing by hologram over 5G (Ho5G). The video latency was 200ms and the audio latency was approximately 20ms. It was quite impressive and could lead to some interesting music, media, and entertainment scenarios.

5G in Robotics: Cloud Robotics is another use case for 5G where Cloudminds is deploying Robots in China in industrial complexes.

5G Business Models: 5G will pretty much dominate the news for rest of the year with new handsets and networks coming online. The big questions are around business justification, pace of rollout, economic models, enterprise use cases that can scale, KPIs, revenue and business models, spectrum, policy, etc. We are involved heavily in all of these and will discuss when appropriate.

5G Gimmicks: The show won’t be complete without gimmicks. This year was no different. 5G was slapped across everything from 5G rescue missions to 5G surgery to 5G air taxis.

5G Firsts: There were a lot of announcements of firsts with 5G – 5G Shipyard (KT), 5G Stadium (AT&T), 5G Surgery (Vodafone), 5G mid-band (Sprint), Campus Network (DT), etc.

Automotive: V2X is taking over DSRC. BMW and Daimler discussed their Euro 1 billion venture to shape urban mobility.

Satellite Phones: While most of the tech action is on earth, there are startups trying to get space involved in the roadmap as well. UbiquitiLink sent a prototype satellite that works like a cell tower to provide coverage in areas where a cellular signal doesn’t exist.

Mobile Apps: Given that all the attention was on the 5G devices and 5G network announcements, mobile apps and related ecosystem had a dull presence, nothing interesting popped out.

6G: Though spoken in jest, 6G figured in 20% of the conversations.

Best Parties: Siris Capital, Facebook

Best Booths: Ericsson, Huawei


What were your observations?

Your feedback is always welcome


Chetan Sharma