While Mobile World Congress’s return went better than many expected, the show was more focussed on network infrastructure than new phone launches. By Neil Tyler.

The general consensus appears to be that this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) was a success, with over 60,000 people in attendance. Although that figure was well down on pre-Covid numbers, for many of those at the show it delivered a more pleasant experience offering attendees a chance to re-engage and meet colleagues for the first time in two years.

Talking to people who were at the show there didn’t seem to be any dominant technological theme this year. While 5G continued to play a critical role there was also interest, although to a lesser extent, in the metaverse and the public cloud.

Commenting on the show Joe Barry, VP Wireless Communications, Analog Devices said, “It was tremendous to be back and be able to meet the broader ecosystem for the first time in two years, there was a very positive mood. Despite the pandemic the progress the industry has made was obvious, especially with the rapid innovation we’re seeing with 5G.”

Gilles Garcia, Sr Director Business Lead Communications, AMD was equally effusive, “This year’s MWC was so much better than many of us had expected. From AMD’s perspective it was the best show we’ve attended in the past seven or so years. The quality of visitors was much improved, with people looking for more detailed discussions, new opportunities, and wanting to talk about how they can progress 5G deployments and systems.

“We had back-to-back meetings which simply highlighted the fact that people had been missing face-to-face contact and live demonstrations. You can do so much more in a one-hour presentation that a four-hour zoom meeting!”

Garcia said that while AMD had no major announcements having doubted that this year’s MWC would be the right place to make them, that was likely to change going forward.

“Having experienced the show this year we believe that it remains a good show for future ‘big’ announcements. We have already signed up for next year.”

Garcia noted that there were far fewer announcements around consumer devices and the lack of news meant that, for this year at least, discussions and the focus of MWC was more on network infrastructure. For Garcia, “It certainly took centre-stage at this year’s show. Will it in 2023, I’m not so sure.”

Garcia added that MWC saw little in the way of 6G announcements, “Discussions around 6G were certainly quieter than we expected, which was a surprise” But according to Garcia discussions around OpenRAN were more wide-ranging and there were plenty of real-world demonstrations on the show floor.

“People were talking about it much more than for some time – it feels real! And it certainly will have an important role in the development of 5G where the discussion is very much focussed on sustainable investment.”

It’s interesting to note that while talk is about ‘sustainable’ investment the fact is that the massive network expansion that is being planned will mean that companies will use more energy even with more energy efficient equipment.

Talking of 5G, at the opening of the event the Director General of the GSMA Mats Granryd highlighted the fact that by the end of 2021 over 180 5G networks had been launched in over 70 countries and that in 2021 mobile traffic had grown by a solid 40%.

According to Granryd, while the industry has 5.3 billion customers, there are still 3.7 billion unconnected people with 450 million living in areas without mobile coverage. He also noted that the industry is looking to invest over $600 billion by 2025 and that 85 percent of that investment will be in 5G.

Many of the discussions around 5G were about new business models and how the industry would look to monetise it, and while some commentators noted that the development of the 5G ecosystem would see operators taking a central role in its development, as well as a key management role, others suggested that it would be more practical for the likes of Google, Apple and AWS to simply add 5G on top of their existing ecosystems.

A lack of new phones

While MWC has traditionally been the showcase for new mobile devices, it appeared that this year the industry and the show had changed its focus. Companies like Samsung and Apple now have their own events to showcase the latest technological developments, while LG and HTC have stopped making phones and Huawei has been impacted by sanctions.

People are certainly upgrading their devices less often and like so many other industries, supply chain issues have continued to impact the mobile phone industry, so this year’s show was less about phones and more about B2B, networks and carriers.

In fact, the most excitement generated at the show seemed to come from the launch of new laptops from the likes of Samsung – the Galaxy Book 2 Pro – and Lenovo’s ThinkPad X13s. The ThinkPad X13 is a new device for Lenovo and features the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 chip - Snapdragon’s latest PC system-on-a-chip (SoC).

Huawei, whose products are still available outside the US also unveiled the MateBook E, its first attempt at a Surface Pro–like 2-in-1 device.

TCL expanded its tablet range with the NXTPAPER MAX 10, TAB 10 HD 4G, and TAB 10s 5G which offered a paper-like canvas to accommodate drawing and note-taking along with a slim bezel FHD+ display for displaying movies and TV content.

The devices unveiled at MWC 2022 tended to be dominated by anything other than mobile phones, and these new devices looked to address the trend of the past two years whereby people are working and playing more from home.

According to analysts Canalys the PC market had seen its largest growth in a decade over 2021, some 27 percent higher than 2019, and companies like Qualcomm are describing PCs as becoming more of a mobile experience.

In fact, Qualcomm’s Alex Katouzian has suggested that the PC is going to become more powerful and will become more mobile, going forward.

In terms of new applications, and here the metaverse looms large, Analog Devices’ Barry made the point that while a definition of what the metaverse exists, real applications will take time to emerge.

“The industry will address this in two ways, either through technology or by focusing on a particular problem. Change is certainly coming to this space. If you look at current consumer devices we’ve settled on smartphones and their development has tended to be iterative, not transformational. When we look at future disruptive technologies that will be transformable, my sense is that the metaverse is what the industry is focused on and that will require a discussion around both technology and the applications that will drive a business case and, in turn, be valuable to the consumer.”

According to Barry whatever the technological trends, and in the near term he thinks that VR is the obvious one, the telecoms infrastructure will be critical.

“As a company Analog Devices addresses many different vertical sectors but it’s the network and how it evolves over time and how it meets the demand for increased capacity that will be critical when it comes to addressing these key megatrends.

“There will always be a demand for more capacity and we’re already struggling to keep pace. If you look at technology innovation the rate of growth in terms of 5G is significantly ahead of what we saw with either 3G of 4G.”

OpenRAN

OpenRAN and its supporters believe it has a significant role to play in supporting the development of network infrastructure, and its supporters claim that it has been making great strides with many more mobile operators starting to look at opening up their networks to OpenRAN than had been the case with other new technologies.

Proponents argue that OpenRAN will help to accelerate innovation, enabling telecommunications operators to choose the best providers for each component knowing that different components will work together, exchanging data and information, across the network, as well as delivering cost of ownership savings of anything up to 40%. All of this, while encouraging much greater supplier diversity.

OpenRAN represents an opportunity to bring new thinking and innovation to what has always previously been a closed shop, according to its supporters, in which single vendor solutions using proprietary software and processes have been employed to deliver the functionality.

Greater standardisation should help to accelerate development and the GSMA has certainly worked hard to put a focus on OpenRAN, but there are many critics who suggest that OpenRAN is something operators test and talk about but are actually not buying in to.

Those critics suggest that testing agreements with operators are not commercial agreements and for many smaller players there are growing worries that despite the benefits of OpenRAN, orders are not appearing and even if OpenRAN does see the growth its proponents are predicting, it will still only account for under 1 percent of the 5G mobile sites by 2025.

“There are issues with OpenRAN, but we believe that it is beginning to account for a growing part of the market,” said Garcia.

“It’s influencing the market and bringing innovation to different layers in the network, so you can have players in software, radio, etc accelerating rates of innovation but without worrying about full investment and the costs of having to deliver a full end-to-end solution.

“We believe it will encourage innovation across the network, but I will concede that there still needs to be a discussion between operators and vendors as to what the next steps will be and how all of this is pulled together. The dynamic part of the discussion is about addressing innovation and then creating a full ecosystem.”

OpenRAN is seen as helping to lower the barrier to entry for new suppliers and helping to add greater resilience to the extended supply chain. A much more diverse pool of suppliers will provide more choice and help to drive down operating costs.

According to Barry, “At this year’s MWC, OpenRAN was no longer a side conversation and was certainly prominent in terms of discussions around how future networks will evolve – taking in broader aspects of the infrastructure such as software and services. While still in its infancy it is gaining momentum. At Analog Devices we spoke to a lot of companies looking at, or ramping up, their activities in deploying OpenRAN. It will become more important as the industry confronts more technical challenges.”

Globally some 200 5G networks have been launched but all of them have been built with 3GPP RAN, and not OpenRAN and there are compatibility issues with the technologically when you take into account both 2G and 3G-based networks that are likely to remain for some years, especially in markets where it is hard to justify investment in 5G.

Whatever the future holds for OpenRAN, and there are some big questions that still need to be addressed, this year’s MWC once again provided an opportunity for the broader ecosystem to meet up and engage.