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Hyping the metaverse or building the future?


I commented in my previous article with highlights from MWC22 that it might be my last post from Opensky Consulting for a while. I was wrong. This article will be my last post from Opensky Consulting until further notice. The reason is that, from April 2022, I will take on the position as CEO of Roaming Networks AS in Norway, building networks and infrastructure for mobile services, i.e. rolling out 5G networks and looking for further business development in Norway and the Nordics. I will therefore have to stop my consulting activities for Opensky for now. While I now move from a rather strategic technology focus to much more operational activities, please find some “philosophical” considerations around the future and what will actually make it happen.

Having been engaged in the industry and having tracked the industry and technology development for many years, I have seen how the mobile industry has moved from 2G through 3G and 4G (now rolling out 5G) - and also how the ecosystem has developed from national telco monopolies through growing local mobile operator competition to a world more and more dominated by global OTT players / hyperscalers and mobile device vendors. You can find many of my perspectives on the mobile industry development, on 5G, on 6G, on private networks, on IoT, on mobile rollout and infrastructure, on AI and softwarization and much more here. As a general comment, it can be stated that, for every new “G”, the ecosystem has been widened and new players have taken new and strong positions. This emergence of new players in “their” domain has of course been a concern for mobile operators.

Looking forward a little bit, in my last article from MWC, I commented on how the metaverse was (to some extent) a buzzword during the congress – apparently much less than at CES a month earlier – maybe for good reasons? On one side, it seems not really clear at this stage what the metaverse really is. On the other hand, it is another buzzword that everyone is concerned about – and therefore many players want to own it.

So what is the metaverse really? I don’t now – and probably nobody really knows. In my humble perception, it is basically a concept and a vision for a future with mixed reality and digital assets, merging the physical and digital worlds. Some players will think about it as an arena for providing new products (like goggles, glasses, headsets or new methods of user interaction). Others will be looking to provide new platforms, providing Virtual or Augmented Reality, be it for gaming or enhanced interactive user experiences of various kinds. It is also surrounded by many hype-enhancing buzzwords like being an overlay of the internet, providing a 3D internet, an immersive or 360° experience etc – with Non-Fungible Tokens and more. What seems clear to me, however, is that whatever the metaverse will end up being, there will be a fight between a small set of large global players that will try to dominate the area – and I don’t believe mobile operators will be among any of these.

On the topic of mobile operators, what seems clear, however, is that for anything like the metaverse to happen, there is a need for extremely good connectivity and extremely strong (and local) computing power – so it depends heavily on mobile operators for huge bandwidths and low latency – and edge computing will clearly be necessary. In other words, who will actually pay for the metaverse becomes an important question.

If I think back around 15 years from my time working for a mobile operator, I remember we were concerned about the emergence of Over-The-Top VOIP players that cannibalized the good old telephony services for mobile operators. One concern was that, as mobile operators consistently had offered higher bandwidths and better-quality data services to customers without considering any business models to monetize on it (rather the opposite), the MNOs had de-facto also provided connectivity that was good enough for OTT players to offer VOIP services that were competing with the operators’ voice services (practically “for free”).

In later years, there has also been the global debate around Net Neutrality (still ongoing, by the way) where OTT players / hyperscalers are claiming that internet connectivity is a “human right” and should be a commodity, basically free of charge – and with unlimited capacity. Of course, hyperscalers don’t make their money from connectivity, they make it from advertising – so it does not matter to them. We have also seen Mark Zuckerberg talking about “internet for all” (which, in principle, is a noble ambition) – but what is really meant is “Facebook for all”. By the way, Facebook is an app – not the internet.

So why backtracking like this? It is the same old story. Someone has to pay for the metaverse – and the majority of the cost will be in the network. Whether it is product providers for goggles or any new types of devices that aim to make a lot of money from the metaverse - or platform providers for any kind of a mixed physical and digital experience solution, it all comes down to the network operators to make it happen. The ecosystem battle we have seen over the last decades is therefore very likely to continue stronger than ever – and it will not only be between operators and hyperscalers – but also between hyperscalers. Maybe the operators should do a better job this time in the ecosystem battle?

Having been a business and technology strategist for many years, I will be very interested to see how the metaverse story will move on going forward. I do believe, however, that it will take another five or more years before we see how it will actually play out. In some shape or form, I am sure there will be a metaverse (or several of them) – even without considering the splinternet. Let us see what happens …

Although I will be very interested to follow this development, I am quite happy that I will be going back to basics of building what actually will make it happen – building mobile networks – and I don’t plan on wearing goggles as a habit any time soon! 😊

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