There are plenty of topics to talk about at this year's MWC Barcelona show, from network APIs to network-based security. However, AI dominated discussions, and the threat of automated redundancy spread.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

February 28, 2024

5 Min Read
In the film Terminator 2, Linda Hamilton's character must prepare for an apocalypse she knows is coming.
In the film Terminator 2, Linda Hamilton's character must prepare for an apocalypse she knows is coming.(Source: AJ Pics/Alamy Stock Photo)

MWC24 – BARCELONA – There's plenty of noise, crowds and announcements here at the global wireless industry's annual confab, MWC Barcelona. There's plenty of discussion about hot topics like AI, network APIs and private wireless. There are plenty of tapas, plenty of lengthy dinners and plenty of early morning coffees and late-night beers.

But there's an undercurrent at this show of quiet desperation.

Everyone here knows that 5G isn't living up to the sky-high expectations laid out at previous MWC shows. They know that, as a result, big vendors and network operators are engaging in a rising tide of layoffs amid a spending slowdown that has shown few signs of abating. And – deep down – they know that all the hype around AI is primarily (exclusively?) focused on automation.

Meaning, the vast majority of AI discussions here at MWC will ultimately involve eliminating jobs, not creating them.

Attendees here know that. For some, this will be their last MWC.

Consolidation, mergers, downsizing, "strategic reviews" and rising competition are coming for many executives in the space. Those near retirement are calculating whether they can bow out early. Younger players are discreetly evaluating other industries where their skills might apply.

Yes, attendance at this year's MWC seems up significantly from the show's pandemic years. But the industry as a whole appears to be shrinking.

Yeah, but...

This doesn't mean MWC is a bleak, post-apocalyptic wasteland. Application programming interfaces (APIs) into operator networks promise to create new revenue streams. For example, TikTok said it would work with Telefónica to implement a password recovery scheme based on the GSMA's Open Gateway effort. That's one of potentially thousands of companies that might pay for API access into the world's wireless networks.

But the revenues from such API calls typically are measured in fractions of a cent. Whether that will ultimately amount to much remains to be seen.

Network APIs aren't the industry's only new gambit. For example, many in the space continue to chase the private wireless networking opportunity. But there, too, reality is beginning to crash into hopes created by early hype.

Citing figures from Harbor Research, Nokia initially predicted the overall private wireless opportunity could span up to 14 million sites worldwide, double the 7 million macro basestations devoted to public wireless networks. Now, though, the analysts with Analysys Mason expect spending on private wireless networks globally to increase to $9 billion in 2028 – or less than 5% of the equivalent spend on public network infrastructure.

Another effort: Fixed wireless – widely viewed as the first major new service to spring from 5G technology – continues to spread across the globe. But operators worry that even 5G won't be able to keep pace with users' rising demands for data.

Finally, AT&T and Deutsche Telekom both offered a look at another new revenue stratagem: network-level security monitoring, available to enterprises. According to AT&T officials, the company's Dynamic Defense stems from the operator's shift to a white box routing platform that allows it to install monitoring software inside its network. It's unclear whether such offerings will pose a major threat to existing security providers like Palo Alto or Fortinet.

Enter the AI

But none of these topics – from network APIs to network-based security – served as the central focus of this year's MWC. As expected, AI dominated this year's show.

"At the moment it's so overhyped," said Scott Petty, Vodafone's CTO, of AI in general. Petty was speaking on a MWC panel about – what else? – AI.

Whether AI ever enters Gartner's famous "trough of disillusionment" remains to be seen. But many speakers at MWC argued the technology will have serious implications for just about every company in the space.

It's already found its way into telecom customer care centers. Verizon, AT&T and others have been boasting of their use of AI chatbots to help frustrated customers and ease employees' "cognitive load."

But that's just the start. Some are already speculating on whether the technology can run an entire wireless network. So long, field team.

Layoffs are now a common theme across the global wireless industry. As Light Reading has previously reported, Ericsson and Nokia are cutting up to 22,500 jobs between them. Separately, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon cut about 8% of their combined workforce last year.

That trend is mirrored by the Big Tech sector. For example, Engadget's Big Tech layoff tracker lists thousands of job cuts across the sector in just the first few months of 2024. Even Engadget staff aren't safe from the ax.

So what to make of all this? MWC attendees and their colleagues around the world will need to continue plodding forward. They'll have to continue developing new technologies that could ultimately make someone else's job – or their own job – redundant. A desperate proposition indeed.

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About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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