Jarich on MWC Shanghai: 5G sketch artists, flying small cells, super-massive MIMO and more wackiness

Current Analysis Peter Jarich

     Peter Jarich

Earlier this month I stopped by Mobile World Congress Shanghai with a few of my colleagues Ed Gubbins of Current Analysis and Malcolm Rogers of Pyramid Research). Was it as big as the GSMA's Barcelona event in the spring? No. Was the weather more reminiscent of a mid-summer New Orleans -- if someone had pumped in all of LA's smog? Yes. Was it still a solid investment of time? Definitely. 

When an event held in the world's most populous city is open to the public, you might reasonably question the value of official attendance numbers. Yet, even if attendance wasn't up by a claimed 55 percent over last year, the show was valuable for insights it lent into the network demands and priorities of Asian carriers. Think technologies getting deployed into markets like China, Japan, and South Korea. Will all of these technologies make it out of Asia? Maybe not. Will a bunch of them? Sure. Of course, given the size of those markets, it might not even matter if vendors ever sell them more broadly.

While far from an exhaustive list, a few things caught my attention.

5G + Robotics: because robots weren't scary enough already.

-        5G, Naturally. I probably don't need to tell you that for the next few years, you won't be able to escape any major wireless-focused tradeshow without enduring some sort of 5G hoopla. If you're still not completely sure what 5G is, don't worry -- you aren't alone. If you were hoping to get an answer from Mobile World Congress Shanghai, you're out of luck -- the show provided little clarity. Sure, there were some indications like Huawei's 4.5G/5G small cell innovations.  Mostly, however, the show was surrounded by partnerships and collaborations like Ericsson's work with Softbank, Turkcell and METIS-II, Huawei and the 5GPPP, Nokia and DoCoMo, and the formation of the superbly named FASTASTIC-5G group. Of course, if you want to take demos at their face value, it looks like 5G might just be about remotely controlled caricature-drawing robots and somewhat rough sketches of Colonel Sanders.

128 antenna element eNodeB: you try fitting that many antennas into a small package.

-        TDD Because…well, China. As much as the TDD version of LTE is positioned as a global technology, China and Japan have led the way on its commercialization. Go figure, then, that TDD featured prominently in Shanghai.  Does that explain why we say two "TDD+" solution launches (one from Huawei, one from ZTE)? Partly. The addition of high-order MIMO and higher-order modulation schemes makes sense as a means to evolving TDD systems in the run-up to 5G. And the common "+" branding? Blame that on an interest in mirroring China's "Internet Plus" strategy.

-        4.5G on the Horizon. Talking about technology evolutions "in the run-up to 5G" is a not-so-subtle way of side-stepping the pre-5G vs. 4.5G branding battles. Regardless, there was no sidestepping the concept at Mobile World Congress Shanghai. In some cases the concept of "Beyond 4G" technologies was linked to network density, het nets and small cell deployments; nearly every network vendor present showed off some set of small cell assets, including many vendors you don't often see outside of Asia. In other cases, the not-quite-5G story was linked to Massive MIMO and 3D beamforming set-ups; think ZTE's 128-antenna base station. Is it a coincidence that beamforming tends to play nicer with TDD operations? Sure, tell yourself that.

-        The Depressing Truth about Virtualization. Like any self-respecting trade show, Mobile World Congress Shanghai included a conference program touching on a laundry list of industry topics. I was lucky enough to moderate one of the sessions: a panel focused on network virtualization. With representatives from the vendor community (ZTE, F5), the operator community (China Unicom), and an industry organization (TM Forum), we enjoyed a wide array of opinions on the topics of SDN and NFV.  More interesting, however, was where there was general agreement; the infancy of virtualization in the telco network. This manifested itself as a discussion of trial and Proof of Concept activities (vs. commercialization) along with technology promises and expectations (vs. real world experiences). Does any of that sound characteristic of a mature market? Of course not. While we might take for granted the inevitability of NFV, the reality is that it's still a new technology -- still waiting to be proven.

Small Cells + Drones: it's how the robots will communicate when the apocalypse kicks off.

-        Drones – AKA, Flying LTE. Back in March, the good folks at CTIA started talking up InterDrone (the International Drone Conference and Expo) as a strategic partner for Super Mobility Week. There will be drone classes, sessions, panels and keynotes. There will be a film festival. There will even be shuttles running between the two events! And the link between drones and telecom? Well, Nokia's work with Du in the UAE points to drones as part of network optimization solutions, tower inspections, and radio planning. BaiCells -- a small vendor, in a small booth, at the edge of MWC Shanghai's last hall -- took the connection one step further. It came to the show with a drone-mounted small cell.  Given the inherently limited flying time of a drone, the use cases for a flying LTE base station (beyond tactical applications and packing people into your booth) are likely limited. But, for small cell pioneers who argued that innovative deployment models would emerge as the market matured, it's a pretty cool story.

Peter Jarich is the VP of Consumer and Infrastructure at Current Analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.