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In full disclosure, I understand that the “18 for 2018” exercise is somewhat trite and, ultimately, unsustainable; don’t expect to see me back here doing this again next year—much less 2025. But as we all begin packing for the annual trek to Barcelona (mentally or in the real world), I think it’s a worthwhile exercise.
This year, more than ever, it feels like the themes and technologies that will dominate Mobile World Congress are already known. 5G will be everywhere. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be everywhere. IoT will be everywhere. Together, the combo of IoT, AI and 5G will likely suck the air out of the show. That’s a shame. While they’re undeniably important topics, they’re not the only ones that matter, and the shadow they cast will likely obscure everything else that matters. While there’s no way to look beyond them (aspects of each are embedded far and wide, as you’ll see below), it does the entire industry a disservice to ignore what else is going on.
5G & IoT. You know that title where I suggested I wouldn’t be talking about 5G or IoT? The one just a few lines above. It wasn’t completely honest. The reality is, there’s no way to ignore the role 5G, IoT or AI will play in the industry and MWC messaging. At the same time, I do think there are a few aspects of 5G and IoT, in particular, that may not be front and center but still worth paying attention to. I’ll keep it short so that you don’t feel too cheated.
- R16 on the Horizon. The full 5G value prop includes features enabled going forward in R16—things like massive IoT and critical communications. To prove they’ll be ready to support those features, vendors won’t hesitate to show them off in demos.
- LTE-M / NB-IoT Harmony. It should be clear by now that LTE-M and NB-IoT support different types of use cases, delivering a holistic set of capabilities when deployed in tandem. It should be even clearer post-MWC.
- Let’s All Forget Korea. I didn’t make it to the Olympics this year; I’ve missed the largest public 5G demonstration. But I don’t think I’ll hear much about it in Barcelona if only based on the limited carrier and vendor involvement and reliance on pre-standard technology.
- mmWave Rethink. Every year, we see the boundaries of what can be done with mmWave spectrum expanded in terms of coverage, mobility and capacity. This year won’t be any different.
4G Evolutions. With every new generation of network technology, we have that awkward stage where operators need to begin investing in tomorrow’s network while keeping today’s networks humming along and evolving. That’s where we are with 4G and 5G today.
- LTE on Steroids. Remember when the ability of LTE to deliver 1 Gbps was a revelation? Welcome to 2018, grandpa. In order to deliver a solid fallback experience from 5G, there’s no going back on the constant evolution of LTE speeds.
- Will the real 5G Please Stand Up? With LTE delivering Gigabit speeds and beyond, it’s easy to conflate its capabilities with 5G. The same goes for NB-IoT’s ability to support massive machine communications. And as some operators market early 5G services leveraging these technologies, others will take the opportunity to use MWC to push back.
- Enterprise LTE. Digital industries have been called out as the real opportunity for 5G. But while waiting on 5G commercialization (and support for enterprise-friendly 5G use cases) the application of LTE to vertical industries will get played up.
Service Transformation. MWC isn’t just about vendors showing up to show off their latest gear and technology innovation. Despite rumors to the contrary, service providers can be innovative as well, and MWC provides an important stage to highlight that with new launches, keynotes and everything in between.
- Consumer IoT Redux. Based on an easier-to-quantify return on investment, industrial IoT has dominated the market’s attention. Initiatives like Vodafone’s “V for Vodafone” highlighted that carriers haven’t given up on the consumer IoT opportunity and MWC 2018 should provide more proof points.
- Smart Speaker Aspirations. Telcos have already developed third party applications for smart speakers like Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo. In a drive to keep up with smart home demands they’ll come to MWC to talk up (and launch) their own offers—what my colleague Emma Mohr-McClune refers to as “Alexa Wannabes.”
- Addressing Consumer Privacy Sensitivities. Regardless of how carriers might like to leverage customer data, people are increasingly sensitive to how their data is used. Expect demos of carrier digital services prioritizing freedom of choice over default data privacy.
Network Transformation. As much as MWC isn’t just about vendor messaging, it’s still largely about vendor messaging. As networks evolve and technologies emerge, there’s always lots to talk about.
- Addressing Network Security Sensitivities. Security isn’t just a concern for consumers. It’s a concern for the network ops folks too. Vendors know that and should be using MWC as the stage to prove that they’re ready to deliver end-to-end services which keep networks safe.
- Li-Fi Gets Turned On. It feels like we’ve been talking about Li-Fi forever. To be fair, we’ve only been talking about it since 2011, when the term for wireless visible light communications was introduced at a Ted Talk (where else?). CES demos suggest we’re getting closer to prime time for the technology and MWC should tell us how far it’s come.
- Cloud Native Everything. If you were overwhelmed (annoyed?) by the way “virtualized” got applied to nearly every new MWC telecom network product launch over the past few years, you’re in luck. NFV has given way to “cloud native” as a new focus for network transformation and this year’s MWC should see proof points of how vendors are supporting cloud native architectures and products.
- Open Source Everything. Facebook made big news two years ago when it launched its Telecom Infrastructure Project (TIP) aiming to “disaggregate the traditional network deployment approach.” Whether embodied in TIP, ONAP or Open Source MANO, MWC has been (and should continue to be) a showcase for how the telecom industry is embracing open source.
- Site Solutions. 5G as a technology is meaningless if we cannot get networks actually deployed. In particular, site access in support of densification is a nearly universal concern (though bigger in some markets). Vendors will be eager to prove they can help with in terms of compact network solutions and gear that can leverage existing site real estate.
- Public Cloud for Telco. Vendors who once argued against put telco network functions in the public cloud were on the wrong side of history. Consider that MWC is where disparate corners of the telecom ecosystem come together and that public cloud players like Amazon, Microsoft and Google are generally attention grabbing. The conclusion? We’ll see how telco use of the public cloud in their network strategies is progressing.
- Services Eat the World. It was once said that “software is eating the world.” With networks being increasingly driven by software and software being delivered as a service, MWC will see the logical conclusion of services coming to the fore.
Demo Transformation: Drones and Holograms. Consider this a category of one—but still an important part of the MWC experience. Exotic sports cars have been the traditional “go to” for getting people into your booth whether at MWC, CES or almost any show in an industry dominated by men. They’re no longer novel. Passenger-capable drones are, so expect to see a bunch. Oh, and where extreme 5G throughput (maybe aggregated with top-end WiFi) can provide the bandwidth capable of delivering holographic content, expect to see that too.
This is far from an exhaustive list of the MWC themes worth paying attention to. Digging deeper into 5G, AI or IoT, the list could, quite literally, go on and on and on. Hopefully, however, it’s a reminder that the headline news won’t tell the entire story of what matters—and that I might be able to come up with 19 things to flag next year.
Peter Jarich is the chief analyst (Global Telecom and IT) for GlobalData. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.