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Mobile World Congress 2018 roundup

It’s been two weeks after the annual mayhem of Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The hectic pace of the event, coupled with the Siberian blast of cold weather that descended on the city, didn’t detract from what was ultimately an extremely rewarding week. For a show that attracted 107,000 delegates this year, there was simply too much going on at the show to cover everything. This post is a selection of observations or key takeaways from the show but by no means exhaustive.

5G is around the corner and the hype is deafening

Before heading to Barcelona, I had noted in the obligatory “what to expect” post that the noise around 5G would be deafening at the show. Indeed, it was! Whether one took a linear approach to exploring the cavernous halls or zigged and zagged through them, 5G messaging was near ubiquitous, from communication service providers (CSPs) to network infrastructure players to the best of the rest. It all got pretty repetitive, pretty quickly. Connected car demos? Check. Smart home demos? Check. Vertical use case demos? Check. You get the idea…

Despite the hype, there is a palpable sense of 5G momentum due to the ratification of the New Radio (NR) standard. 5G NR networks will be commercial in 2019 in pockets, with 2020 being the year for large scale rollouts. The leading countries continue to be the US, Japan and Korea in terms of setting the early pace but as with most other technology rollouts, the pace and success of 5G will be decided by developments in China. The sheer scale of the market and the associated volumes in China will turbocharge the adoption of 5G. Discussions with major network equipment providers (NEPs) like Ericsson and China Mobile at their booth confirmed that China will see large scale field trials in 2018. 2019 will see small-scale 5G rollouts in major cities but full commercial deployment of 5G NR networks is slated for 2020 onwards.

There is no consensus amongst operators on 5G use cases

One of my objectives for MWC was to get a better handle on the type of use cases that CSPs were evaluating for 5G. The most immediate use case will focus on enhanced mobile broadband across regions. This is essentially an extension of the 4G broadband promise from the previous transition cycle and hardly surprising. However, it was heartening to see more specific use cases (beyond high speeds and connected cars) that were focused on verticals. After several booth tours, I also discovered what I believe to be a curious dichotomy in CSP attitudes to 5G. Asian CSPs appear to be very focused on vertical use cases, while European ones seem much more focused on consumer.

Asian CSPs are striving to be market makers

Asian CSPs like NTT DoCoMo, SKT and China Mobile are striving to become the dominant connectivity platforms in their respective markets and are keenly building ecosystems through a combination of external partnerships and internally incubated projects coming out of their R&D labs. The unique political economy of these markets, with their somewhat cozy and symbiotic relationships between Government and private business, restricts the opportunity for the kind of disruption CSPs have faces in Western markets. Put another way, these large incumbent CSPs are busy trying to position themselves as not only essential providers of connectivity services but market makers in their own right. Asian CSPs are also leveraging the region’s lead and sophistication in robotics as they showcase 5G demos with remotely enabled robots targeted for manufacturing and verticals.

  • DoCoMo had a range of demos from concept connected cars to actual Formula 1, a hip 5G-enabled robot that was dishing out calligraphy against a background of martial Samurai-evoking music, compelling smart stadium demos and a host of use cases spanning agriculture, sake production to more typical manufacturing scenarios.

  • SK Telecom’s booth was dominated by the attractive connected car in the center. Beyond this, they had a strong focus on the smart home though the voice assistant NuGu that was showcased last year seemed to be missing in action. The other interesting demo was an LTE-DMR based communication device focused on helping fire fighters have reliable communications.

  • China Mobile had a massive industrial machine at the center of their booth highlighting their focus on 5G for vertical use cases. A significant initiative in China involves the integration of IOT into the power grid, with smart meters being installed across the entire distribution grid and CMCC offering the connectivity and platform. CMCC also had a significant focus on the smart home, with a plethora of “smart” IoT devices in display. The coolest demo was in conjunction with a company called Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) on a “smart” ultrasound machine that allows doctors to operate ultrasound machines remotely.

Fixed wireless has growing mindshare

CSPs in the US have been talking up fixed wireless access (FWA) for some time and the technology has been touted as one of the key use cases for 5G. At this year’s event, there was more fixed wireless on display at the show and we believe that this will become a key technology to address last mile issues as well as simplifying the economics of rolling out enhanced mobile broadband. Most of the discussion to date, stemming from AT&T’s significant trials, has focused on using fixed wireless to connect homes in underserved or hard to reach areas, mostly in suburban but also rural areas.

However, discussion in recent months had got me thinking of two issues that could potentially hamper rollouts. One, was there a way for the end user to install the CPE in a do-it-yourself (DIY) fashion without the need for the CSP/ISP to send out a technician and incur costs? Two, how would the CPE be charged? Well, demos at the Nokia and Intel booths at MWC showed me one way to address these questions. The demo showed a WiGig based CPE attached on window glass panes with a twin device on the inside of the glass, tethered by ethernet. The outside unit would connect to an access point mounted on utility poles or street lights. The design splits the CPE with an outside unit that is necessary to mitigate line of sight (LOS) and interference issues but would be “wirelessly” charged by the inside unit. The CPE is already small and easy to install which makes the DIY model very plausible.

In other news, Facebook made a splash in the FWA arena, with a deal announced to combine their Terragraph technology with Nokia’s wireless passive optical network (WPON), with trials slated for 2018. Facebook also announced a partnership with Intel and RADWIN to develop a mesh solution that would be Terragraph-certified and available to enterprises and residential end users.

CSPs continue to face disruption as enterprises plan their IoT and private networks

CSPs still have a work to do when it comes to the central question around what their role will be as enterprises embrace new technologies like IoT. The consumer use case for IoT is more straightforward, with CSPs already experimenting with e-SIMs and enabling use cases. On the enterprise side, CSPs essentially run the risk of being pure connectivity providers. That is, they will not be able to “move up the stack”. As enterprises deploy IoT devices, they will definitely need connectivity but the intelligence that will be gleaned from the network will not be the sole preserve of the CSP anymore. Despite a lot of messaging around vertical use cases and a plethora of demos, there is little evidence yet that CSPs will be able to reinvent themselves as partners for industry. Willing partners, yes. Able partners? That’s to be determined. Vertical industries need solutions, not just new technology or connectivity.

On the other hand, CSPs can play a key role for those enterprises that need reliable national and international roaming for their IoT assets. Ultimately, CSPs are unlikely to control the full stack in IoT deployments and as such, they need to decide what model they want to adopt for enabling IoT — LPWA, hybrid LPWA plus mobile (LTE-M) or through a third-party provider like Nokia’s WING.

Another potential source of disruption for telcos will come from private networks deployed by enterprises. Private LTE was a trend at MWC this year, in line with our expectations. We came across several examples of vendors enabling private LTE, from Nokia to Huawei and others. Nokia was showcasing its new MulteFire small cell and presented a cool demo with a faux container ship to indicate how the small cell compared to WiFi.

The MulteFire Alliance held an event where several members presented on the progress with MulteFire, including Huawei showcasing a significant deployment of private LTE at Yangshan Port in China. The key question is what will the role of the CSP be in these scenarios? With the use of unlicensed spectrum with technologies like MulteFire or even shared spectrum as with the upcoming CBRS band in the US, enterprises could likely bypass the CSP altogether. Of course, this is the case with LTE. With 5G, CSPs can offer network slicing, with all of its QoS and SLA guarantees. That said, CSPs need to tell a better story around why enterprises should work with them in this emerging area.

Internet for All is re-emerging as a theme as the Next Billion segment comes into focus

At its most basic interpretation, the term Next Billion can be used to describe new users accessing available infrastructure and services. In a nutshell, access to “public” resources and large-scale networks. With so many additional “users” beginning to demand access to the available infrastructure, the current frameworks and models will simply not keep pace. There needs to be new thinking and approaches. In the telecoms world, the next billion has been traditionally used in the context of bridging first the connectivity and more recently, the digital divide. MWC 2018 was the first time I have seen evidence that the Next Billion segment will gain increasing attention from CSPs and vendors.

To date, there have been at best tentative efforts on the part of CSPs to address the Next Billion segment, with most early initiatives focused on providing affordable smartphones or zero-rated content. The most controversial of these initiatives came in the form of Facebook’s Free Basics initiative in India, an initiative that floundered in the face of regulatory and popular opinion and was eventually shut down.

Telefonica’s “Internet para todos” or “Internet for All” is the first comprehensive initiative from a telco to address the Next Billion segment. The intriguing subtext of this initiative is the close partnership with Facebook, not a traditional network infrastructure player like Nokia or Ericsson. Telefonica has partnered with Facebook to deploy solutions initially in Peru to address the Next Billion segment with OpenCellular and other Facebook technologies. Based on the success of their efforts in Peru, Telefonica will now extend this initiative across all its Latin American properties, to try to target the 100 million plus who still don’t have reliable mobile Internet access. The most intriguing feature of this initiative is that Telefonica is leveraging openRAN technologies to address the challenges of deploying access networks, high altitude platforms (HAPs) like Google’s Project Loon to provide access or transport in remote areas as well as a new business model focused on local entrepreneurship to drive the deployment of towers in local communities. Telefonica has essentially built a new ecosystem that reimagines the economics that have previously hindered the deployment of traditional cellular infrastructure to remote areas.

CSP-led efforts to drive open networks are gaining steam, posing strategic questions for NEPs

CSPs are also making clear progress in their efforts to “open” up their networks. Vodafone was another CSP at MWC to showcase solutions based on openRAN technologies. The CSP displayed a remote radio head (RRH) developed by BaiCells, as well as a new “base station” developed by Lime Microsystems.

Several other large CSPs including AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, NTT DoCoMo and Orange jointly announced the launch of the ORAN Alliance. This new alliance is the result of the merger of two organizations, the C-RAN Alliance and xRAN Forum, with the objective of making the RAN more open and create reference designs with open interfaces for virtualized network elements.

These telco-led efforts are beginning to gain traction, however belatedly. Yes, the ORAN Alliance is only the latest industry grouping but the point is that these efforts combine the promise of affordable network equipment with scalable and energy efficient technology. Combined with open interfaces and developer ecosystems, the existing market for the incumbent NEPs is poised for disruption.

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