Some notes from MWC23
Updated: Mar 9
It is this time of year again! Every year since MWC started out in Barcelona, I have been there. Obviously because I have engaged with the GSMA throughout the years having been part of its governing structure, this has been a natural annual exercise for me – but also in the years following, it has been natural for me to take this annual trip – even during the COVID period. In the following, I will give a summary of my impressions from the event. Please note, however, that the summary is my personal observations and impressions and not a comprehensive report on everything that happened at or around MWC. It is not possible for a single person to get a full picture of an event like MWC, however, there are official reports from GSMA and also lots of professional reporters from various tech media that may provide or have already provided more comprehensive MWC reports.
I always try to do a mix between attending a certain number of conference sessions and to have a few meetings – and also to walk around the exhibition to get a general impression of what’s going on. The main purpose for me this year has been to get a technology and industry update and not to do a large number of business meetings.
If we look at MWC numbers, this year’s event was almost back at the record numbers from prior to COVID – and my feeling is that everything is back to normal. According to the GSMA, there were more than 88.000 attendees this year. If you compare with COVID and pre-COVID numbers, MWC 2022 had around 61.000 attendees and the “special” MWC 2021 which took place during summer towards the end of the COVID period had just over 20.000 attendees. MWC 2020 was cancelled – but the record number of attendees was from 2019 with more than 109.000.
If we look beyond numbers and statistics, what really happened at MWC?
As a start, the main MWC 2023 themes announced by GSMA were “5G Acceleration”, “Reality+”, “OpenNet”, “FinTech” and “Digital Everything”. Although there were sessions in the conference covering all these areas to some extent – my focus was somewhat narrower – with some personal observations and impressions summarized below.
The opening keynotes at the conference were as usual offered to a few of the large operator groups, obviously including Telefonica – which is not only the host country’s incumbent operator but also the chairman of the GSMA. New this year was that the Chinese operators were not part of the opening keynotes (making the session easier to follow). It was all about Europe. In addition to Mats Granryd, the opening keynotes included the CEO of Telefonica (José María Álvarez-Pallete) and the new CEO of Orange (Christel Heydemann) – as well as Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner for the Internal Market.
On the content-side, there was a lot of talk about the metaverse, “earth computing”, Artificial Intelligence, web3 and the need for redefining the operator. A key announcement from the GSMA and also the operators was the industry-wide initiative called GSMA Open Gateway, a framework of universal network APIs, designed to provide universal access to operator networks for developers. A personal and interesting observation in this area is that when I worked with the GSMA around 15 years ago, we had a similar initiative in the GSMA’s technology community – on network APIs. The initiative failed at the time – along with also some later and similar initiatives. I really hope that the time is right this time – so that it will work out. Actually, I believe that the operators have engaged with the wider ecosystem this time – so maybe it will (?). It is not the first time I have seen a very good initiative failing, even inside one operator group only, most of the time due to governance, and that it comes back maybe 10 or more years later and (possibly) succeeds.
As usual, there was also a plea from the operators for a level playing field (mostly referred to these days as hyperscalers taking their fair share of the network costs). This was, as usual, referred to by Orange in the keynotes – but also by other MNOs (e.g Telecom Italia) in other sessions during the conference. My personal observation on this, however, is that these kinds of regulatory messages typically come from the usual “large European MNOs” like Orange, Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone – while others, like e.g. Telstra promoted a more opportunistic approach for the operators rather than a defensive one.
On the issue of “fair share”, however, the EU Commissioner did not really want to get into the topic at the MWC – as there is an ongoing consultation on the topic. He said the EU's consultation on the issue is about the bigger issue of “ensuring gigabit connectivity across Europe in the coming years”. In addition, Greg Peters, co-CEO of Netflix, obviously also hit back at the operators on the topic, stating that it is not necessarily “entertainment companies” that should compensate the operators for the cost of their networks – but it could also be the other way round – more specifically: “our margins are significantly lower than those being achieved by either BT and Deutsche Telekom. We could easily argue that these telcos should pay entertainment companies for the cost of the content, because a tax like that would have a significant adverse effect”.
A very interesting observation from the opening keynotes this year was that the word “5G” was not much referred to (and I also had a similar comment last year). A personal observation of mine is also that MNOs have not really been able to be clear on who is 5G really for, for the consumer or for the industry – or both? At least, their public messaging is confusing in that respect. It seems, however, that the regulators and politicians probably are more focused on promoting the (in this case: European) industry – while operators most likely have consumers or most likely both in mind – although quite confusing. I have previously written several articles about 5G, what 5G really is for – and who will eventually benefit from it (e.g. 5G (here, here and more).
The promise of 5G with all kinds of use cases, very many of which are B2B, is really for the industry – be it industrial automation, remote surgery, use of drones, autonomous driving, massive IoT etc. The challenge in this area, however, is that consumers probably don’t care (even if there is a lot of advertising about it) – and operators really have to monetize on their 5G investments – which is much easier to do in a mass market rather than more specialized and narrower B2B markets. Thus, operators are in the need for support or relief on their network Capex – and this provides a real urgency for the operators to push for the “fair share” agenda – although the issue of a “level playing field” and “free-riders” on the MNOs’ networks have been there for a long time.
I clearly understand that operators need 1) to save Capex as much as they can – or 2) get some relief or support in their network build-out. Then it is very encouraging for me that the company I help building up today (Proptivity) offers operators relief in their Capex budgets while still providing them with excellent 5G coverage. It is not the same as getting public funding for 5G rollout or getting hyperscalers to pay some of it – but it clearly helps.
Moving on from the opening keynotes and the key messages from the operator community, I attended also several other conference sessions. Keynote 2 on delivering the digital decade (the second most prestigious one) featured Tim Höttges, the CEO of Deutsche Telekom and Börje Ekholm, the CEO of Ericsson – in addition to the new ITU Secretary General, Ms Doreen Bogdan-Martin, who had just also received the GSMA Chairman’s Award for driving digital inclusion and bridging the connectivity usage gap. As also referred above, Deutsche Telekom slammed the regulatory situation in Europe – and Ericsson also commented on Europe’s unsustainable industry structure – commenting that “European operators simply cannot afford to build out the networks and I think that is going to hurt European competitiveness long term”. In general, some of the key messages were: “Europe has lost on 4G - should not repeat on 5G”, “operators need to spend 6% on innovation vs <1% today”, “OTTs should take their fair share of costs”, etc.
Other impression from my conference sessions include:
OpenRAN: Many tier 1 operators believe in this concept and I attended a session on it, including among others Deutsche Telekom’s SVP for Group Technology and chairman of the O-RAN Alliance, Alex Choi. It was intended as a pro and con debate – but all speakers were in favour. Aspects (in favour) referred to were supply chain diversity, workload portability, programmability, SW updating, new money, new players, new energy, efficiency, energy efficiency, innovation etc. On the concern side, security was referred to with more players involved etc – but must (and will be) be covered by every player from the start. The issue of inconsistency between forums was also brought up, e.g. between 3GPP and O-RAN Alliance. Of special interest outside the conference sessions was Vodafone’s OpenRAN 5G network in a box solution. AT&T’s CTO of networks, Igal Elbaz, also stated that the development and deployment of open, disaggregated radio access networks (RANs) will definitely happen because it’s important for future innovation. The timescales might not be so encouraging, though.
Network slicing: Network slicing is seeing some progress, but there are still many things to sort out. A lot of pilots are being done – and operators believe in it – but it will still take time. Operators need to consider not only individual slices but need also to sum up the different slices in an effective way, otherwise there will be no efficiency. End-to-end slicing does not exist, i.e. through RAN, core and transport – which will be necessary.
Private networks: I did not see or listen in on much on private networks this year, however, I understand that there was a lot around private networks at the exposition also this year. I shortly commented on it last year that, when people talk about private networks, sometimes it is about enterprise solutions and sometimes it is about private spectrum. In any case, private networks remain a hot topic.
Fixed Wireless Access (FWA): There was a session on “FWA: The real success story on 5G” which I attended. I did not get many technical take-aways from it – but operators like T-Mobile in the USA and DNA in Finland have done quite a lot in the area – and, as I already knew, FWA can be a good business case for FTTH replacement or complement especially in rural areas – and it has been rolled out with 500 - 1000 Mbps. It can also be a good business case for SMEs.
5G Advanced: Huawei calls it 5.5G and the GSMA and 3GPP call it 5G Advanced. Whatever it is called it is about the 3GPP’s Release 18 and beyond. A useful presentation on the 3GPP roadmap was given by Jio Platforms in a session I attended. Without repeating this, there are many overviews of this kind made by 3GPP or others, but you can start from e.g. here.
mmWave: I attended a session on mmWave and its status in the world. It was commented that, as of today, the usage of mmWave on is growing, although not very fast, and many countries (including my own) have not yet released spectrum for it. We have also seen that Korea has even withdrawn their licenses for it - due to lack of usage (globally, only 20% of MNOs with licenses have launched). According to GSMA, the growth last year was 30-50% and devices supporting mmWave have grown 40%.
6G: I decided not to attend NGMN’s press and industry briefing at MWC this year – as I did not believe there would be much of interest (as there was not very much new on 6G this year). I did, however, attend an MWC conference session on 6G and spectrum – and I was (not) very surprised about the focus on spectrum between 7 and 15 GHz – and not about THz (which I mostly had heard earlier). 7-15 GHz is obviously better than THz on terms of providing mobile coverage (refer also my article on 5G and 6G from two years ago). Mobile applications in the THz band may be possible using very high gain antennas, beam tracking and device discovery, however, this is clearly at research level only at this stage. Point-to-point applications are probably most likely in that band. It should be noted, however, that the ITU’s World Radio Conference is due to happen this November in Dubai – and the availability of new spectrum typically needs to be planned 10-15 years ahead. Thus also the push for new spectrum these days. For another commentary on NGMN and 6G, see also this article from Telecom TV.
The metaverse: Also this year, I attended a full session on the metaverse. It was quite entertaining with a good presenter from Dimple, however, there was not much new. The guy was Korean, so he referred a lot to K-pop and developments in Korea – and there were avatars and more. The question we could ask ourselves, however, is this: Will the young Generation Z adopt the mixed reality developments from Korea or Japan conquer the world (meaning: will there be a mass market?) – or will it not? It seems far fledged for an older guy like me. On the metaverse, I can simply repeat my observations from last year (here and here). I don’t know what the metaverse really is - and neither do most people. 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. Time will show – and as the session concluded: The metaverse is in the making. Mobile gaming seems to be a hot candidate though.
Artificial Intelligence (AI): In a session on “Natural Intelligence: Can AI really think for itself” there was not much new for me, but there were some comments around creative or generative AI (e.g. chatGPT) and some of its use cases (e.g. to “accelerate”, “simulate”, “create”, “automate” or “personalize”). There was also some talk about trust and bias and (which was not new to me) and the fact that algorithms need to trained (with a sufficient amount of data). To the main question of the session, I guess the answer is generally no – as the algorithms just learn what we train them to – but the question then of course is: Who provides the data – and is it real or fake? See also my earlier article from almost three years ago: Artificial Intelligence - Friend or foe?.
Security: This year there was a full-day session on security on the Thursday of MWC (too late for me), which I hear was very successful. The GSMA has tried to step up its act on security for a few years now – and this was the first full-day event ever at MWC. There was also a session on open network security. My summary of this is that with a more open ecosystem, the attack surface is more complex – but the response can be made more agile as well. The fact is of course also that 5G is more secure than 4G and so forth.
WiFi7: One thing to note from this year’s show was that the first implementation of WiFi7 was shown at MWC – demonstrated at KT’s stand in collaboration with Intel. Tiago Rodrigues, CEO of the Wireless Broadband Alliance commented: “Multi-Gigabit Wi-Fi is real, fantastic to see the innovation around Wi-Fi 7”. On the debate between 5G and WiFI, see also my earlier article on (WiFi6 and 5G – Is 6 better than 5?). Now we see WiFi7 coming to market – but the arguments are the same.
eSIM: MWC had a lot more about eSIM than previously – and it seems that eSIM is finally coming to market.
IoT and Fintech: MWC also had a lot on this this year. I did not see or attend much on it though.
New devices: As usual, there were new devices showcased at or before MWC this year as well, however, this was not in my areas of focus.
GLOMOs: As every year, the GSMA hands out a number of Global Mobile Awards (the GLOMOs). This year’s winners are announced here.
4YFN: Like the last few years, the 4YFN exhibition was present at MWC – taking up all of Hall 8.1 – totally crowded with small startup companies. According to Jon Hoffmann, CEO of GSMA Ltd, these are the future companies that will fill the main exhibition halls in a few years from now – and next year, he hopes that the 4YFN will occupy the double size compared to this year (probably also Hall 8.0).
Side events: Like a few times before, several organizations had organized side events to MWC, capitalizing on the availability of the global mobile industry. These included the Mobile Ecosystem Forum (MEF) and Telemedia 8.1.
To summarize my impressions:
Less on 5G: There was less focus on 5G this year – at least in the conference sessions. I guess 5G is now quite operational – although 5G SA is now just coming to market. Vendors obviously have things to show on 5G though.
Who is 5G for? This is something that has been bothering me for a while – and the public messaging is confusing. Regulators, operators and all vendors seem to have different perspectives. There are no real consumer use cases yet, industrial use cases are not quite there yet – and what will eventually pay for the Capex is the mass market. Thus, MNOs want relief on their Capex somehow.
Fair share or level playing field is therefore still on the agenda.
5, 5.5 or 6G: The 5G roadmap will still develop for several years – and 6G is far out. In my view, 6G will probably not be there before 2035 – and I have not yet seen any mass market use cases for it. 5G is, in principle, already a “universal singing and dancing machine” – and what 6G will be is still unclear. It may just be even more universal (?)
ORAN has made some progress – but is not yet there.
The same goes for Network slicing. It is not yet there – but there is a lot of piloting going on. E2E slicing does not exist yet - and I also find it questionable whether the operators will be able to handle the various B2B use cases and the various peculiarities needed from the different verticals.
FWA may be the only good 5G use case as of today (except “even more broadband” for the consumer) – at least as a starting point on 5G rollout.
What the metaverse is remains unclear.
eSIM is finally coming to market.
Security is an increasingly important topic – and with an increasingly open ecosystem it is getting ever more important.
AI, IoT, FinTech remain hot topics.
As always, although MWC is an exhausting exercise, I really enjoy going there. I will most likely be there next year as well – and MWC is equally as much about networking and making business as getting a technology and industry update.