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Some highlights from MWC21


I have been to every (but one) Mobile World Congress in Barcelona since it moved there from Cannes in 2006 – and I went there again under this year’s very special COVID circumstances. Below is a summary of my impressions - by no means a comprehensive view of all the new product highlights, public announcements or PR stunts that happened before and during the event (other sources spend more time on this and are also more professional in this type of industry watch) – but rather a set of personal impressions.

In terms of numbers and special highlights that GSMA wants you to know, I would refer to John Hoffmann’s official press release. Mobile World Live has also provided ongoing content updates on a daily basis. However, from my perspective I can mention a couple of things.

  • The event was definitively smaller than it has been the last years. While the event lately has hosted around 110.000 attendees with an exhibition covering eight exhibition halls, this year’s event only used Halls 1-3 – and there was plenty of air and space in the halls. Due to COVID-19, last year’s event was cancelled – but this year’s version actually took place. Although it was a combined physical and virtual event, many people actually travelled to Barcelona – me included. This was a great achievement on the part of GSMA – and they had implemented very strict health & safety measures.

  • On the positive side, having a lot of space was quite nice as it was possible to walk without bumping into people all the time – and it was much faster to get around. At a normal event, moving between halls 1 and 8 takes about 15 minutes – and needs to be planned for. In the greater picture, it was also actually possible to grab a taxi and get around town – and book a restaurant – which normally have been great challenges!

  • On the negative side, many important companies, be it operator groups or large telco suppliers, were not present – leaving the whole event less attractive in terms of networking, business meetings as well as getting proper updates on important industry news. Large suppliers like e.g. Ericsson (which normally has the second largest exhibition area) was not there. On the other hand, Huawei and ZTE were both at MWC – although they had reduced their exhibition space. On the operator side, “local” operators Orange and Telefonica had their presence (plus a couple of others), however, many operators had also pulled out – like e.g. Deutsche Telekom and some of the Americans – which normally have a quite good presence.

  • The only really crowded area was the 4YFN area which had moved from Fira Montjuïc to the main Fira in Hall 2. This area had a constant buzz and was very well visited. This probably does not contribute too much to GSMA’s finances, however, it was good to see all the startups at Fira Gran Via. I must admit that as it was before, I never found the time to move between the two locations. It is too much of a hassle. On the other hand, if I compare MWC with CES in Las Vegas, it is a whole different story – as there you need to move between several main sites – needing to plan for 30 min in between.

  • The other area that had some buzz was outside the main keynote stage, where Spain and Catalunya had some large exhibition areas – and there were actually also a number of other country pavilions, spread out across the halls.

  • On device highlights, I did not note any major ones – and I did not look for it either. There could have been a few …

When I am at MWC, I always try to get into some of the seminar sessions – like also this year. The opening keynotes were as usual offered to a few of the large operator groups, like some of the “European incumbents” and China Mobile. What I found somewhat like a “seen it before moment” was the usual nagging by the “European incumbents” complaining about regulations in Europe. While I agree with them, this seems to be a never-ending story. That aside, Tim Höttges’ presentation was good and interesting – and a little surprising – and it was more progressive than usual. China Mobile was of course talking about 5G. Mats Granryd was giving the usual industry numbers - and Stephane Richard highlighted security. Security is more and more critical going forward – so this was a good reminder.

In the second keynotes, Verizon were demonstrating robots and drones. Other sessions I attended were sessions on OpenRAN, IoT, Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, edge computing and more – the usual technology buzz words. On future technologies, there was also a keynote session on more revolutionary topics like graphene and new material technology, neuro-electronics and remote surgery. Some of these have been featured also at earlier MWCs – but more real at this stage.

There was also a session on 6G – which did not really give any new insight. 6G is far away. Refer also several of my earlier articles (e.g. here). Digital transformation was also a topic – which also did not give any new insight (refer also this earlier article here).

It is not possible to comment on MWC21 without commenting on TelcoDR (note “DR”), which had taken over Ericsson’s exhibition area in Hall 2 and was the largest booth of all this year. TelcoDR did a lot of hospitality and also engaged rockstars like e.g. Jon Bon Jovi at their booth. I must admit though, that although they apparently have put a lot of money into MWC this year, I have no clue what the company actually does. They promote public cloud – but, as it seems, mostly from others. At one of the keynotes, Danielle Royston, the CEO of TelcoDR came out reasonably strong, referring to herself as the Elon Musk (who actually also had his own remote keynote) or Steve Jobs of telco – or as the “Queen” of public cloud. I guess this could put quite a few people off, however, I do agree that public cloud is a clear part of the future.

Some comments on COVID, health and safety and its related complications: Personally, I am fully vaccinated – so I assume I am safe. This is also why I went physically. Upon arrival in Spain, that got me through customs without too many complications. Entering the Fira, however, was slightly more challenging. I had brought with me a bunch of medical face masks from Norway – as these are the best – and also what everyone uses – not only in Norway but also in the city of Barcelona. I was, however, refused at the entrance – as they required another, non-medical, face mask – so I had to go out, buy some of the recommended masks – and try to get in again. Then it was just to go and get a COVID test – and wait for 30 minutes. There was no feedback from the test – but suddenly the MWC21 app showed green access – something I figured out eventually. Then we had to wear the masks at the Fira for the whole day.

Luckily, I only did the COVID test once – as I normally skip the Thursday – as it is the least interesting day. Had I stayed on for Thursday, I would have had to take another test. Just as good! My overall conclusion on health and safety is that the GSMA had made a very good and strong health and safety plan – something which is really the right thing to do – and probably the strongest one ever! There could probably have been a somewhat better process between the GSMA and the local medical staff that executed the test regime, however. Luckily, Spain had opened for not wearing face masks outdoors a couple of weeks before.

To summarize, my impression from MWC this year was that it was more locally dominated, with exhibitors and attendees from Spain – and a more visible startup focus. Some large companies were missing – and some corners of the world were absent. This is obviously all due to COVID – and will hopefully not be a permanent situation.

I have sometimes asked myself if MWC in Barcelona had become too big (?) 110.000 people is a large crowd – although still more manageable than CES. Maybe it could be a bit smaller? However, my guess is that next February when it is back to normal schedule, we will see between 80.000 and 100.000 back in Barcelona. There will probably still be some parts of the world not quite over COVID yet, however, at least the Western world might be back (?) Time will show. I will most definitively be back! See you next year! Have a nice summer all!

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