Energy efficiency and environmentalism are expected to be major themes at this year's show, but swaths of the industry look dirtier than ever.

Iain Morris, International Editor

February 20, 2023

6 Min Read
MWC is not the best look for an industry that says it's going green

Nobody would have been happier than GSMA people when the "new normal" of lockdown life ended, ultimately proving to be just a weird interruption. The old boys' club of the mobile industry generates most of its income from Mobile World Congress (MWC) Barcelona and satellite events. Its cancellation in 2020 was a disaster.

The following year, when the event was an online affair (at best) for most regular attendees, wasn't a massive improvement. Just 20,000 people rocked up in Barcelona that year, and only 5,000 of them were from outside Spain. At its zenith in 2019, MWC Barcelona had waved 109,000 through its turnstiles.

Figure 1: MWC attracted about 61,000 people last year, according to GSMA figures. (Source: Light Reading) MWC attracted about 61,000 people last year, according to GSMA figures.
(Source: Light Reading)

This relatively brief COVID-19 phase was great for showcasing the importance of telecom infrastructure. Without connectivity, we would all have been doomed, we were regularly told (a likelier scenario is that we would just have decided to "live with" coronavirus sooner, producing nastier short-term consequences). In any case, the "new normal" beloved by major investors in Internet stocks – the only people who did well out of it – would make for a greener and more pleasant land. As skies emptied of planes and roads were allowed rest and recuperation, dolphins were photographed swimming in Italian waters they usually avoid.

But we've quickly reverted to icecap-melting flights and spittle exchanges during heated barroom debates. This year is expected to attract 80,000 people after last year's event hauled in 61,000. That's impressive considering 20 of the world's biggest telcos cut 60,000 jobs last year. The new normal has swiftly been trashed, and most ordinary people won't be sad to see it go. What hasn't vanished is the environmentalist virtue signaling.

The guff about green

Green is expected to be a major theme this year, promoted by executives who will just have flown hundreds or thousands of miles to do what could be done online or via an old-fashioned phone call. For an industry with a dodgy track record on the environment (more on that later), the optics are hardly ideal. It's like having a fair-play-in-football campaign led by notorious biter Luis Suarez.

Diversity will also be on the agenda, as it regularly is, and yet MWC still makes women and young people look like endangered species. The only real diversity in evidence is as many different types of besuited middle-aged men as you could possibly imagine. At least, in this case, travel does not add to the perceived problem. MWC's thronged walkways merely highlight it.

For sure, no Zoom call can possibly substitute for a pressing-the-flesh encounter with its moments of spontaneous laughter over tapas on La Rambla. But these are grown men and women (mainly men) selling network products, not family members who live on opposite sides of the world and who rarely meet up. They can probably cope without seeing one another in person.

If proof were needed you can do serious business without MWC, have a look at COVID year zero, when Ericsson had very healthy results despite the show's cancellation. Sales were up 5% on a like-for-like basis and net profit surged tenfold. Turns out you need even more network equipment when travel is off. Who knew?

Figure 2: MWC attendance over the years (Source: GSMA) (Source: GSMA)

I get it, I really do. Barcelona is a lovely place to hang out, especially for vacation-deprived Americans in carbon-copy cities and Chinese only recently allowed outside their homes because a few coronavirus particles might still have been floating by. "Digital symposiums" can't replace a night of Estrella-fueled male bonding on Placa Reial. It's probably not too hard to persuade lackeys to go.

But what motivates the corporate chiefs? FOMO, probably. If Nokia goes but Ericsson doesn't, people think something's wrong with Ericsson. Smaller vendors believe it's important to be seen there, even though you need the Hubble telescope to make them out among the Jupiter-sized stands built by the Tier 1 sponsors. None of this would matter so much if MWC meant getting all the business travel over and done with there and then. But it doesn't. Some company bosses spend more time in the air than migrating swallows.

Soaring emissions

Amid the trumpeting of "net zero" commitments, swaths of the industry are at their dirtiest. China Mobile, possibly the world's worst offender, saw carbon emissions soar 111% between 2018 and 2021, according to research by Omdia (a Light Reading sister company). India's Bharti Airtel was responsible for a 76% increase over the same period. Ericsson was in London recently crowing about all the midband 5G equipment India will install this year – great for connectivity, perhaps not so good for the climate.

Western operators do better, and many appear to have reduced their emissions, according to Omdia's research. But that's partly because they rely heavily on a controversial market-based methodology when reporting their Scope 2 emissions – those stemming mainly from the electricity they buy. This system means they can report massive cuts simply by acquiring cheap renewable energy certificates that make no real-world difference. Even when this methodology is linked to more acceptable power purchase agreements, the alternative location-based methodology – which uses data from the electric grid – shows much higher emissions.

Does this make me a hypocrite as a long-term attendee? Possibly. In my defense, I'll say I'm one of the lackeys, not a corporate decision maker, and I've never claimed to be Greta Thunberg. I don't glue myself to oil paintings in public galleries or protest the opening of coal mines. I was recently burning wood in Slovakia to stay warm after an epic logging session in the Tatra Mountains (OK, I didn't do any of the actual logging). And I think many of this industry's dim-and-distant net-zero promises are not worth the web pages they're written on. This year, of course I'll be going.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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