It’s payback time: 5G, IoT and the real drama at Mobile World Congress 2017

27 Feb 2017

Barcelona. Image: TTstudio/Shutterstock

Smartphones are passé – the real drama at Mobile World Congress 2017 will be all about how mobile operators will refuse to miss out on revenues from 5G, IoT and VR, writes John Kennedy.

Mobile World Congress (MWC) is a kind of Mecca for all things digital. It is the respectable face of an industry that connects most of the several billion people on Earth.

It is an industry that doesn’t always get the recognition for its impact, but if a network goes down for any length of time anywhere on the planet, consumers will begin to seethe.

This year will be my fifth year attending MWC since 2009, and it is interesting to see how the event that attracts more than 100,000 mobile professionals has evolved in that time.

In 2009, Android was still a pup; it felt edgy and a bit like a skunkworks project. You could attend an auditorium briefing with Alphabet chairman (then Google CEO and chairman) Eric Schmidt with just a few hundred others in the room, and he would geek out on new capabilities such as the Chrome mobile browser and Google Goggles.

Three years later and the queue for a similar briefing with Schmidt would result in thousands of people queueing around the block to hear of his plans to connect everyone on the planet to the internet.

On the face of it, those early years of MWC were all about the smartphone age. Google pushed Android really hard, Microsoft gave a half-hearted push with Windows Phone and the irony was that the biggest phone at the event was actually the iPhone – even though Apple didn’t take a stand or have a formal presence. But you knew they were there.

Last year, in show business terms, the smartphone age was overtaken by new trends such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR).

And the performing bears at MWC 2017 will be aspirations towards 5G, internet of things (IoT) and more VR.

But there will always be the phones. Chinese telecoms giant Huawei – dubbed the next Samsung – has already unveiled the P10 smartphone, which will compete with the iPhone on cost and performance. Rather than launch a phone, Samsung revealed just two tablets, shying away from controversy thanks to the Note7 debacle. LG revealed the G6 to some aplomb. And the ironic star of the show is a Finnish company called HMD Global, which is bringing back the world’s favourite workhorse phone: the Nokia 3310.

But the phones, the VR headsets and ‘change the planet’ speeches by people such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg are a bit of a sideshow.

Behind the scenes

The real business of MWC is deals, billing arrangements, IP licensing, network porting agreements and MVNO, ie the boring stuff, not the shiny stuff.

But to understand the context of what is really happening, just look at your WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or Snapchat app, or the myriad of Google products that are on your phone. Does your operator get revenue on these? Apart from your data plan, the truth is that tech giants have cleverly supplanted the original cash cows that were voice and text.

These apps have replaced the role of the traditional mobile operator, and the latter is left helpless because all it can do is provide all-you-can-eat data packages and calls.

The operators built the network, but Facebook, Google and others are making a killing from advertising on free services such as calls and messages.

So while all the shiny new phones were making consumers breathless, women and men in suits behind the scenes are trying to make deals and find ways to at least get a return on their investment in the networks that we take for granted.

The tensions are already spilling over. Last year, we reported how Denis O’Brien’s Digicel network in the Caribbean and Hutchison Whampoa’s Three networks in Europe were deploying ad-blocking technology developed by Israeli tech company Shine. This appeared to be a fightback, hidden of course by the apparent virtue of saving consumers’ bandwidth, often sucked away by advertising.

At a GSMA gig in Dublin in November hosted by local tech company Anam, executives from Digicel told me that rather than struggling with Facebook and Google – or over-the-top (OTT) players, in industry parlance – operators are finding new ways to fight back.

These efforts will be in open banking, network shaping, and a host of other ways to marry the consumer with the network again.

The reality is that mobile operators hold the network, which means they hold the key.

Amazing things are already happening – for example, smartphones are becoming wallets thanks to Apple Pay and Android Pay. It is just the tip of the iceberg.

The key is the infrastructure. As we hurtle towards 5G, we will require networks denser than anything we’ve ever managed, if consumers are to enjoy speeds and services superior to the broadband you get at home or in work today. We are talking hundreds, if not thousands, of mini base stations within square miles of cities.

New data compiled by Viavi Solutions ahead of MWC 2017 revealed that 25 mobile operators were lab-testing 5G.

Five operators have reached data speeds of 35Gbps or more in 5G trials. To date, Etisalat has demonstrated the highest data speed of 36Gbps, with Ooredoo conducting tests at 35.46Gbps.

Irish company Taoglas – already defining the IoT antenna business – has developed technology that turns mobile base station antennas for 5G into Lego-like building blocks.

On the IoT front, the industry-wide acceptance of narrowband-IoT will be a big factor in Barcelona this year, as will new low-power wide-area network platforms such as Sigfox.

VR, AR and MR will provide the populist, crowd-pleasing japes ahead of what Apple may be planning on the 10th anniversary of the iPhone.

The Irish tech firms at the tip of the spear

Not many Irish people realise it, but the GSM Association (GSMA) was headquartered in Ballsbridge, Dublin, during the 1990s.

In fact, the Irish have always punched above their weight at MWC, since it was first held in Nice.

Enterprise Ireland has maintained a presence at the pivotal event and many companies that have since been acquired, including Brite:Bill and Trustev, were stalwarts at this stand.

In all, 30 Irish companies will be among the thousands of companies exhibiting from all over the world.

Enterprise Ireland’s stand in Hall 7 (7F70) will feature 14 of these companies, including Xtremepush, Vistatec, Software Radio Systems, MDS Amiba, MAdme, Inhance Technology, Iricent, iMobMedia, HeyStaks, Equiendo, Druid Software, Cubic Telecom, Benetel and Aspire Technology.

At this year’s event, the on-trend positioning of Irish tech firms within the seismic events shaping the mobile industry for the next decade is astonishing.

Two firms – Belfast-based Ampliphae and Dublin-based Iricent – are already plotting the networks of the future using artificial intelligence.

Dublin-based Anam is working with German telecoms giant Deutsche Telekom to help more than 800 mobile operators worldwide capture the revenues from SMS spilling over from the burgeoning app-to-person (A2P) market.

Cork-based SRS is helping a US operator called SmartSky Networks to provide air travellers with 4G speeds in the skies.

And Dublin-based iMobMedia is driving advertising revenue for mobile operators by combining networks with powerful analytics.

Carpe diem

The future is there for the taking, but only for those brave enough to seize it.

The mobile industry will have to be honest with itself and admit that OTTs such as Google and Facebook came into the fold like wolves in sheep’s clothing. And they made a killing.

But don’t be sensitive, it’s just business.

Conversely, Google and Facebook et al will need to be honest and admit that they cannot survive without the networks themselves being able to flourish, invest and grow.

As new trends such as 5G, IoT and VR occur, mobile operators will not make the mistakes of the past and let the revenues leak into the already bloated coffers of Silicon Valley.

A turning point has been reached at MWC 2017.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years