There is always an air of unreality about Mobile World Congress (MWC), the annual telecom shindig in Barcelona that used to attract more than 100,000 people before COVID-19 struck. Pre-pandemic, it had begun to occupy a parallel universe where telecom is vibrant, 5G has cured society's ills and Internet companies are simultaneously desirable partners and predatory freeloaders. But this year's show was more bizarre than ever.
First, on face masks. Spain has decreed that any mask will do indoors and is removable when its wearer is eating or drinking (a necessary stipulation but one that makes a nonsense of the rule in any hospitality venue). Ordinary masks, however, were not good enough for the GSM Association (GSMA), the event's organizer, and woe betide any visitor who tried to gain entry without the less forgiving FFP2. After several hours, you felt like you were breathing through a damp, folded towel. Try to remove it for a sip of water and you were immediately disciplined by a member of the GSMA Youth, who prowled the halls and walkways on the lookout for any suspicious, unmasked behavior.
Naturally, the first thing anyone did in a meeting room was to rip off the snot-drenched rag and enjoy a few lungfuls of unfiltered air. Sorry, GSMA, if it comes as a shock to learn this practice was widespread, but the mask zealotry needs to go by MWC23 barring the emergence of a new and deadlier variant. Nobody had anything positive to say about it.
As MWC's thousands of male attendees and few dozen women masked up for protection against a coronavirus, the real danger (and news) was about 1,700 miles away, where Russian rockets were being fired into residential buildings. While brownie points must go to the GSMA for quickly scrapping the Russia Pavilion, the invasion of Ukraine soon overshadowed MWC updates about 5G network slicing.
And not just in some bleeding-heart, "MWC-is-so-meaningless" sense. The big telecom news stories of the week had nothing to do with Barcelona. Ericsson and Nokia were among the companies that halted business in Russia. Huawei was among those that did not, further besmirching its name in the West. An about-turn would cripple Russian telcos and make Huawei look independent from China – something it has always claimed to be. Right now, it is about as likely as a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine.
Corporate malpractice that took place 2,800 miles in a different direction also hogged the telecom headlines. While his employees showed off the latest boxes in Barcelona, Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm was on a phone call with analysts and reporters, trying to explain why his company initially kept quiet about the possibility it may have paid Islamic State to use Iraqi roads.
The metaverse and the robot murder dog
Big MWC themes were harder to pin down than they usually are – partly because none bar the metaverse sounded very new. Unsurprisingly, "metaverse" was emblazoned on several stands, proving that where Internet companies go telecom follows. Nobody could explain why the metaverse is a good thing for operators, though. If it happens (debatable), it could throw up a tidal wave of data that soon overwhelms today's networks.
Cue lots more debate about net neutrality, the badly defined principle that operators do not charge content companies for transport or offer preferential treatment to paying Internet firms. "It cannot just be the operators bearing the cost for free for metaverse providers," said Laurent Leboucher, the group chief technology officer of France's Orange.
6G was conspicuous by its absence, probably because the industry does not want to talk up a potentially expensive new generation before it has made serious money from its predecessor. The International Telecommunications Union is due to set a "vision" for 6G at the end of this year, though, and so MWC23 could be very different. In the meantime, attendees got to hear more about slicing (yawn), latency (sigh) and 5G standalone (which some operators are bound to market as the "real 5G" even if customers see no benefit).
More robots were on display than in previous years. They included a barman too painfully slow to be used anywhere except the remotest pub in the world on the quietest night of the year. Several robot dogs also trotted around the halls, terrifying anyone who saw that episode of Black Mirror. Expect them to ensure compliance with FFP2 mask mandates in future.
The industry continued in Barcelona to wrestle with open RAN, a set of interfaces designed to improve interoperability between vendors. As dull as that might sound, operator advocates say it will broaden choice beyond Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia, today's dominant RAN vendors. Telcos used to have a lot more choice, of course, before the arrival of a price-cutting Huawei and a push for global economies of scale spurred consolidation. With open RAN, operators might buy software and hardware separately. But market forces mean they will probably end up with the same limited number of suppliers for each.
The one positive takeaway this year was the return in visitor numbers of MWC, after the damp face mask of a show that took place last year. Just 20,000 people turned up then, mainly from Spain, and the highlights included a Bon Jovi concert and shrine to the public cloud. This year's 61,000 was at the upper end of the GSMA's estimate and a sign that – for all the babble about the metaverse and extended reality – people like nothing more than a get-together in the real world.
- DT targets city rollout of open RAN after Intel progress
- MWC22 Day 3: Mars copters, K-pop and cobots
- Ericsson Iraq crisis worsens as risk of US penalties grows
- The next telco worry is paying for the metaverse
- MWC22: Telecom industry comes back for MWC in Barcelona
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading