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Listen: Next in Tech Episode 155: Mobile World Congress Preview

What has been the premier telecom conference has expanded to be a technology showcase for everything from IoT to AR/VR. Lynnette Luna, Julber Osio and Mohammed Hamza, part of the analyst team braving the 100,000 or so attendees converging on Barcelona, join host Eric Hanselman to discuss what they’ll be looking for. Will satellite have an impact on fixed wireless access? Could spectrum allocations shift focus to the Chinese consumer markets? There’s a lot to digest ahead of this massive event.

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Next in Tech Episode 155 Mobile World Congress Preview

Table of Contents

Call Participants.............................................................................................................. 3

Presentation.................................................................................................................... 4

Question and Answer...................................................................................................... 5

Call Participants

ATTENDEES

Eric Hanselman

Julber Osio

Lynnette Luna

Mohammed Hamza


Presentation

Eric Hanselman

Welcome to Next in Tech, an S&P Global Market Intelligence podcast where a world of emerging tech lives. I'm your host, Eric Hanselman, Chief Analyst for Technology, Media and Telecom at S&P Global Market Intelligence. And today, we're going to be discussing Mobile World Congress, the global gathering of all things telecom that's going to be taking place in Barcelona.

And with me to discuss what's going on, what we can expect is this part of the team that's going to be out there as we're descending on an MWC, it's analyst Lynnette Luna; Julber Osio and Mohammed Hamza. Welcome to the podcast, to all of you.

Lynnette Luna

Thank you.

Julber Osio

Hi. Glad to be here.

Mohammed Hamza

Eric, thank you. Look forward to an interesting discussion.

Question and Answer

Eric Hanselman

Well, interesting and wide ranging. And in fact, I actually haven't been in-person in Mobile World Congress for now for a bunch of years since before the pandemic. In preparing for all of this, looking at everything that's going on, it just continues to expand and become ever larger, ever more comprehensive. I guess, I was looking at the themes. It's crazy this year. Although I think most of you have been there in person before, right?

Lynnette Luna

Yes. I've been there several years. I think last year it was the first time I went after the pandemic. I think I haven't been there for 2 years. Total information overload, but very exciting to come back and kind of digest everything that you've learned at this, I think, what, almost 100,000 people show up so pretty impressive.

Eric Hanselman

Yes. That's 100,000 of your closest friends, right? But Mo, you've been there before and Julber, you've been there as well?

Mohammed Hamza

Yes. So I went last year for the first time in over a decade actually. So might be -- have changed from mobile to fixed back in the day when I was in a previous research company. So things have changed a huge amount. And I think this is where it's interesting and that the shift has been very much from consumer to industrial enterprise, B2B-focused rather than the Mobile World Congress, I remember, which is full of devices from Nokia and others. So the world has changed a huge amount for sure.

Eric Hanselman

Well, in the last time there was a Nokia handset that we were thinking about was a while back. But I guess, I was just looking at the themes and there are 6 themes this year, which seems like a lot. But they seem to cover a much wider range. And I don't know if we're getting to something with this, the scale and size of a Consumer Electronics Show kind of thing, but maybe almost. I mean, 5G and beyond, which, okay, great. That seems like that makes sense, connecting everything.

Yes, a lot of connectivity there. Humanizing AI. As my listeners know, I guess we've got to talk about AI everywhere all the time. So okay, but manufacturing, digital transformation, game changers, our digital DNA. I mean, talking about a lot of issues, really, that are going beyond just the real core pieces that we've always had as part of telecom and there's a lot going on here.

And I guess, when you start thinking about it's there, I mean maybe we can narrow it down by thinking about what the specifics are, I guess, that we're going to be looking for and the kind of things, I guess, that we should be looking out for, that are kind of kicking out there. I mean you were talking a little bit about some of that transformation. Julber, what are you looking for and what do you see as turning up as part of MWC?

Julber Osio

Eric, actually, I'm looking for 2 things. First is discussions on how to monetize 5G, particularly the shift from consumer 5G to enterprise 5G. And it's been coming up in other conferences that I have been. Like there's this discussion about how consumer 5G is not living up to its promises. That's why operators are moving towards enterprise 5G.

And the other thing that I want to talk about is also about spectrum. I know that spectrum has been a topic in previous MWCs and most of the spectrum in the whole world has been harmonized. But still, there are lots of gaps that need to be filled, especially after the WRC just last year in '23.

Eric Hanselman

Yes. That opens a whole bunch of questions. And the World Radio Conference for those of our listeners who aren't familiar with it, that continuity of spectrum and availability of spectrum is one of those things that gets back to some of the fundamental aspects of the telecom pieces of making sure that, in fact, we've got coverage and we've got coverage that's aligned across the globe. Those are the kind of things you're going to be looking towards?

Julber Osio

Yes, that's right. If I may just discuss what has happened in the previous WRC. At WRC 2019, that's a big thing for the mobile industry because the IT, the International Telecommunications Union, opened up millimeter wave for mobile, and everyone was excited for that because it opened up large sways of spectrum for the industry. But as we've seen in the U.S., they are the only ones who really went for millimeter wave 5G. The rest of the world has been big on mid-band on 3.5 gigahertz.

Now the interesting thing is that with WRC-23, it officially harmonized mid-band spectrum, 3.5 gigahertz worldwide for 5G. So it would be interesting to see how this would play out, in terms of the road maps of regulators worldwide as well as the strategies of operators and the vendors who build the technology for the mobile industry.

Eric Hanselman

Thinking about where that starts to expand now. I mean harmonization now means that, "Hey, you've got common environments, which [ demands ] this." But mid-band is one of those areas in which we're looking for the ability to get coverage, to get range, to get in-building penetration. And those are things that we think about -- I guess that feeds into the connecting everything piece.

A lot of that is that linkage and some of the transitions that are taking place both in the consumer markets and in commercial markets, especially when we start thinking about things like fixed wireless access, which if you think about one of the places where we have been having some reasonable 5G success, there's some reasonable traction there. Mo, those are things that you've been looking after, yes?

Mohammed Hamza

Yes, absolutely. I've always been very skeptical and maybe slightly cynical as well in terms of fixed wireless and the adoption, jointly of new mobile technologies. I've lived through GPRS, the edge, the 3G opportunities that never happened. It wasn't really until HSPA, LTE, stuff like that. Those iterations came along that. Mobile started to transform. And then, of course, the iPhone kicked it all off for the consumer market.

And during that same kind of, if you like, 3G disaster zone that took place with the cost of the spectrum that was essentially overdone by many a government, you had the whole WiMAX situation, right? And you remember Sprint and you remember that whole kind of effort there to go WiMAX, go wireless broadband instead of mobile. That really grew the industry up, in terms of everything from IPR disputes to actually getting the devices and everything in place.

And I think that ecosystem development is really what's missing at the moment in a sense that all of these technologies are enablers. But without all the relevant parties, all the relevant actors from vendors to industrial factories and companies and enterprise being involved, this stuff tends to sit and not go anywhere.

I mean with fixed wireless, especially like if the operators aren't willing to commit that CapEx in terms of building the density of the network out, it's never really going to be a solution that is effective enough. I mean especially if you look at that within the context of low orbit satellites and those sorts of deployments from Starlink and many others that are becoming the choice for consumers, at least, in terms of the immediacy of connectivity and the reliability of that connectivity.

Often the case, fixed wireless -- at this stage anyway, it's almost like a bit of a solution that operators haven't fully committed to, in a sense, to really drive that uptake forward. And I think in some sense, if you look at markets like the U.S., I feel almost like the fixed wireless take-up is almost out of desperation than an actual network that is capable of delivering the kind of fees that people expect. I mean, yes, that's a slightly cynical view, but it is true in the sense that it takes a long time to protect it to get to where it wants to be. And I think...

Eric Hanselman

It's where it's being cynical. How strange.

Lynnette Luna

I think U.S. operators, they had some extra spectrum. "Hey, let's put some fixed wireless out there." It's not going to compete with fiber, but it will fit with a certain niche, and we're only going to put it in areas where congestion is not a problem. So it's kind of like here's the mix to revenue, and we're going to host [indiscernible] we're same network. So we'll see where it goes from there. Mobile is still the priority for operators in the U.S. but...

Eric Hanselman

But you've really called out what is that issue and which is that they sort of said, "Yes, we're going to do a little bit of this." But -- and of course, consumers have picked it up because it's easy. It's exactly the ease of deployment thing that it's always good and useful for technology.

But if the operators haven't actually built for it, suddenly you move from what is a handset experience, which is going to be relatively low bandwidth to now having a household running an Internet connection off fixed wireless. Suddenly that puts stresses on the network that's supporting it.

You have to have the backhaul capacity to manage it, and it gets to be an even more complicated situation than the battle days of cable oversubscription, right? When all the kids came home from school and suddenly your available bandwidth was massively oversubscribed and had all sorts of problems.

Lynnette Luna

Yes. I think they're being careful right now about where they offer the service, like I can't get Verizon fixed wireless because they've got the number of users that they're only going to allow on that. So it'd be interesting how they want to scale that going forward. Back to the spectrum issue, 3.5 is great. In the U.S., it's encumbered by the Department of Defense.

And so there's kind of a little skirmish going on there about whether that can be shared and when that could be released, maybe quite some time. So all the spectrum in the U.S. is encumbered by somebody else, mostly the Department of Defense. So these 2 government agencies, the FCC and the Department of Fed will have to determine how they can share most effectively in that area.

Eric Hanselman

And do we really want to be skirmishing with the Departments of Defense? Who wins there? But I think that is one of those situations in which, "All right. We've, at least, now gotten some level of harmonization that hopefully starts to open up opportunities globally." Just in terms of how the device manufacturers and all of the infrastructure pieces start to support it. And there are aspects of that, that I guess, we're going to have to keep an eye on.

Julber Osio

Totally because if we harmonize spectrum, it would be easier for our partners in the other industries, in the industry verticals. For example, the technology vendors, for them to easily build products that would work everywhere they want to market their products. And particularly right now, we had mentioned about the U.S. skirmishes and the mid band.

There's also another one brewing just because of WRC-23, the 6-gigahertz band has been opened up for mobile and the FCC in the U.S. has already allocated it for unlicensed Wi-Fi. So there is still going to be some challenge on that part is the U.S. is not going to be aligned with the rest of the world. And it's going to mean another thing.

China is a big proponent of mid-band, specifically 3.5 gigahertz to 4.9 gigahertz. So if the U.S. will not align themselves with 6 gigahertz, China might become more dominant in the tech scene as they engage with the technology manufacturers worldwide, you're saying 6 gigahertz.

Eric Hanselman

You've got 2 very large markets that if they're not well aligned, you got manufacturers that are going to head for opportunities.

Julber Osio

Right. Right.

Eric Hanselman

And that starts to segment and bifurcate the market, which is one of those things. Again, in the telecom world, we've got much more -- I guess, a greater global focus because of the fact that we're talking about what ought to be hopefully unified and harmonized radio infrastructure, device infrastructure, that ecosystem. Mo, to your point, it becomes -- it's a much larger environment that has to be built out, in order to support that. But again, I guess, still a few hiccups in terms of what's actually how we're going to be able to move forward.

Mohammed Hamza

And the use cases vary, right? So you go to different geographies, different locations. I think if you look at Europe and you look at the amount of fiber that's being laid to 90-plus percent of households, the fixed wireless opportunity in itself is going to be very small compared to what you see in the U.S. And that's going to be in Europe and other places going to be shared with satellite.

So yes, the fixed wire opportunity is going to be something that, that I think takes hold in very specific markets, especially in Europe where connectivity generally at home, especially is pretty good. There's a real [indiscernible] these days for fiber deployment. So Yes, fixed wireless, maybe satellite, maybe it is going there.

Eric Hanselman

Well, because satellite -- again, satellite, talk about ease of use. All you need is a clear view of the sky and off you go, but it is something where, I guess, where we're seeing some of the numbers we have, Starlink subscriber numbers are way up skyrocketing, shall I say. We've got Amazon with Project Kuiper granted, they've now launched, I think, what? I think a grand total of 2 or 3 of the satellites of what is their final constellation that will need to be thousands, but they're starting. So maybe more competition in that market as well.

But I guess, that larger question is what other options are there? And again, in the U.S., we've talked about the large amount of investment that's being pumped into broadband access. Those are areas that, again, maybe we're trying to approach that. There's been a fiber focus there. Maybe there are options in fixed wireless that start to pick up some of the slack, places where we still are having trouble getting fiber out into rural environments. But a lot of different things to juggle here.

Mohammed Hamza

Yes. Indeed, I think in the satellite stuff specifically, I think what's interesting now is that we've had satellite broadband availability for a long time, but it's only in the last year or 2 that it's really become viable in terms of speeds. But it's coming a long way, and I think that's really going to be a game changer for satellite, at least, in the consumer market. And there's other opportunities emerging for that as well. Satellite backhaul and IoT connectivity, but that takes us to a whole different world of kind of services and applications as well.

Eric Hanselman

Well, as you're saying, it's expanding beyond consumer. And consumer, clearly, there's a lot of visibility. I mean when you've got iPhones that have got albeit rudimentary satellite communications capability, that starts to raise consumer awareness but what? It Was just last month that Deere & Company, the folks behind the John Deere agricultural equipment business have announced a partnership with Starlink, in which they're going to put Starlink antennas in the roofs of their agricultural equipment, harvesters and such.

So that in remote areas, I think originally, they were going to target Brazil, but basically places where their expectation is, they're going to rely on satellite-based connectivity to be able to connect to devices that need that always-on anywhere access. So a lot of commercial possibilities that are opening up there as well.

Mohammed Hamza

Yes, I think that's pretty broad as well in terms of capabilities that satellite support, right? So remote devices, remote retail, remote banking. Like essentially anything that's remote, I think, satellite will play a part.

Eric Hanselman

Well, if we start thinking about where we are in terms of a lot of this transition, personally, I'm going to be looking for some of those indicators that we've got real adoption of key technology, especially in [indiscernible] that I'm looking for, some of those automation of infrastructure pieces. Some of the things, again, maybe moving beyond the AI hype but starting to look at some of the real applications. I'm curious for each of you. Are there particular things that you're looking for at Mobile World Congress that are maybe some proof points about industry trends or things that you look to see, that are actually proving out some of the shifts we've been talking about?

Lynnette Luna

So sometimes, it's hard to find what's real and what's not at Mobile World Congress. Obviously, it's all about the future. We always want to look towards the future, and we have these hype cycles where we think something is going to be adopted, but it's not. It's taking longer. It's just the cycle that the whole industry goes through.

Eric Hanselman

You're saying there's high out there, Lynnette?

Lynnette Luna

So yes. So we're talking about 6G, but we haven't even finished rolling out 5G. So I think what I'm looking at, and I look at the consumer side, which isn't as -- actually, I used to say the consumer side was way more exciting than the enterprise side, and that's now the opposite. But on the consumer side, what I'm looking at is it's kind of consumer side, it's more B2B.

But this open gateway initiative that was introduced last year, the GSMA introduced that as a way, opening up APIs to the network to allow developers to access the network and use some of the network functions to offer services. Carriers realize that in the 4G world, they just let over-the-top players run over their networks and make new business models that they were not able to monetize.

So now, they're trying to open up these networks. They've tried to, for a while, but it was very hard to get standardized APIs among all carriers. And I think with 5G, that makes it a lot easier with more open network architecture. And so that was introduced last year. I think I just saw an announcement from Orange and Vodafone and Telefonica that they are opening up the first couple of APIs to developers around number of verification and SIM swaps. So it's more around like fraud and making sure accounts are taken over.

Or you can verify your number without having to get -- instead of relying on the SMS number verification that you always get, right, when you try to log into like your bank. So making that more seamless. So that's not super exciting, but the hope is you get applications that maybe have dynamic data speed elements with them. So you get on an application, you get faster data speeds for that application, things like that. So it will be interesting to see how that kind of pushes along.

Eric Hanselman

Things like the CAMARA initiative around APIs, standardization and exposing some of those network services. It's interesting to see that those first applications are going for -- where there's real money involved.

Lynnette Luna

Right.

Eric Hanselman

So fraud management, those sorts of things, that interesting to see where that heads. Yes, again, it's one of those things where getting the operators to engage with developers, always been a struggle. But now, at least, you've got some formalized processes and some pathways that hopefully start to open those up a bit.

So Juber, how about you? Well, what are you looking for? And are there proof points you're going to be hunting for as you're strolling the various halls? What, we've got 6 halls and just a lot of ground to cover, but what are the things you're going to be looking for?

Julber Osio

Well, Eric, I'd like to say that I'm a pessimist when it comes to 5G or maybe a realist, that's a better word. Because when you are in these conferences, you have all these new use cases that they showcase, but the reality in the world is not all these have a solid business case. Like when it comes to 5G around the world, at least in APAC, where consumer 5G is not really that profitable.

For most consumer users, 5G is just clarified 4G. So these operators are now flocking towards enterprise 5G and I see more opportunities there. In fact, in Asia Pacific, at least, since you have these big manufacturing countries like Japan, China, there's a lot of initiatives when it comes to private 5G.

So I'm interested in seeing more applications on the manufacturing side, specifically on network slicing because a good application of 5G on manufacturing is when you could slice the network, dedicate specific tasks to a certain segment of the network and it will make the manufacturing process more robust and more agile. I would be interested in that. But if you were to ask me like, "Is this 5G really here?" I am not so convinced.

Eric Hanselman

But 6G is almost here. What you mean? Now that's really been entirely the problem, right? And it's the thing that you were identifying earlier on, which is that there was all this hype. We're in the midst of it, about what 5G is going to do and from the consumer side, I think, reasonable levels of disappointment in that it was -- yes, it's faster, but we're able to actually accomplish it.

And you pointed out things like spectrum slicing, the ability to dedicate capacity is one of those promises. And in a lot of places in the world, you've actually got the version of 5G, what gets referred to as 5G stand-alone for the listeners that are familiar with it. The idea that it's a pure 5G environment, whereas in the U.S. right now, we've got nonstand-alone, in which there's a sort of mix of 4G, 5G with signaling [ its fall ].

And you can't yet -- the exception of T-Mobile, take advantage of a lot of those, what were the promised 5G game-changing features like spectrum slicing. Now granted, you still have to have operators to build a business out of that, getting operators to do new and innovative things have always been challenging.

Lynnette Luna

Verizon and AT&T actually have stand-alone 5G, but they haven't really rolled out any consumer services. I think they're still testing on the enterprise side. But things like network slicing will trickle down to the consumer market. I think I've heard T-Mobile talk a lot about using it for a fixed wireless, being able to manage the growth better in their network slicing and other.

Advanced Technologies may be talked about just for enterprise. And I think a lot of the enterprise, I think, it will be interesting. A lot of the enterprise applications like AR/VR will eventually trickle down into the consumer market, making it more useful. But the surveys that we always do, which I'm going to actually write about one next week for our Mobile World Congress preview, continues to show that the primary drivers for carriers launching is just to increase throughput to accommodate higher data speeds.

It's not that exciting, right? But it does, in an indirect way, increase revenue when you can start charging more for things like data plans without data caps and things like that. So indirectly, I think we're seeing some increase in revenue. It's not like super exciting where...

Eric Hanselman

Yes. But not new whole reborn service offerings that are now going to do something more than just bandwidth.

Lynnette Luna

That will take time. It just takes time.

Eric Hanselman

Yes, I agree.

Julber Osio

I'd like to add to that. I think it's a chicken-and-egg situation, Eric. Like you have all these exciting stuff, but no one wants to invest money in them because the industry is, I would say, a juncture point. Like for the past few years, operators have been spending much on CapEx, on spectrum licensing fees and anything for 5G.

So now, they are in the position to monetize 5G and they've seen with consumer 5G, it's not that big of a revenue jump or a revenue stream. So all of them are flocking to enterprise 5G. So if there's no demand from consumers, we -- there's no incentive for operators to offer new innovative services in the consumer side of 5G. And it's going to be a chicken-and-egg situation, I think, when it comes to investment and demand for it.

Mohammed Hamza

It almost kills itself in a sense actually because I think telcos, without spending money -- enough money on innovation and network development will, in the future, reduce their revenue-generating potential. So I don't personally think they have much choice. I do think there's going to be, obviously, a time line in terms of how these elements are built up. But I think if you look at the ecosystem specifically, I think that's where there's going to be a huge amount of opportunity.

And that's something that's, I think, very viable. I think the ecosystem still needs to build out, in terms of the CSPs and the slicing, the flexible connectivity, if you like. The intelligent traffic routing, the hyperscalers, the data center providers, systems integrators, vendors, operations, tech and all the app development stuff as well. And then you get into the kind of the device makers and so on and so forth.

And I think if you look at just private 5G as a solution, if you like, or a service. I think it encapsulates almost the revenue opportunity in itself for 5G, in terms of what is possible when you have a dedicated 5G network. I mean look at what they're doing with stadiums and arenas and sports and the Olympics and the list is endless in terms of what's already been deployed out there. And then what they're doing with that in terms of AR and VR, and these kind of next-generation technologies.

And that's where I kind of see a lot of positivity, is that I think there's a lot of potential when the network is built out in the right way. And then that enables the stuff that's not getting abled at the moment in a sense, whether that's automotive development in terms of connectivity and all the things, the data that goes with that. So that's where I am with that side of things. But I see private 5G as being pretty compelling.

Lynnette Luna

Yes. I agree with you because eventually, you can start hosting all sorts of -- I mean, there's a big demand for gaming, right? That's kind of more consumer focus, but yes.

Mohammed Hamza

That's why you know what you're talking about comes into play. The gateway, the private edge, the network edge and any kind of edge you want to kind of come up with. But I think that's where it makes sense because bringing that compute to the edge of the network and enabling applications near their locations, getting rid of latency, improving connectivity between devices and networks and so on.

Eric Hanselman

Well, that kind of brings us full circle, which is right back to the questions of the ecosystem that supports it, in order to actually leverage it and to build a business around it.

Wow, I guess a lot to cover. I'll certainly have my comfortable shoes on strolling the halls, but it will be great to see all of you out there. And we'll have to follow up and see whether or not any of the things we've been talking about are actually going to come true.

Lynnette Luna

Wear some good walking shoes.

Eric Hanselman

Absolutely. The 20,000 steps will be way beyond that.

Mohammed Hamza

When are we going to get robots that are going to take us around the -- you plug in the stand location, the name of the person you're meeting and then it just takes you straight there.

Lynnette Luna

Or just the [indiscernible] glasses, we could just stand there and they just come in front of us.

Eric Hanselman

Well, hey, maybe those are things that we will see out at Mobile World Congress. But hey, I guess we'll have to turn up there to check it out.

Well, this has been great. Thanks to all of you for all the insights. And clearly, we'll be reporting back to see we've covered. But thank you for being on the podcast.

Lynnette Luna

Thanks for having us. Appreciate it.

Julber Osio

Thank you.

Mohammed Hamza

Thanks, Eric.

Eric Hanselman

And that is it for this episode of Next in Tech. Thanks to our audience for staying with us. And thanks to our production team, including Carolyn Wright and Caitlin Buckley on the Marketing and Events teams; and our agency partner, the One Nine Nine.

I hope you'll join us for our next episode where we're going to be talking about connecting with customers, extending some of the conversations we've had, that actually has a bit of a communications angle to it. But also, some of the integration pieces, some of the API bits and how you incorporate those applications and consumer interactions.

I hope you'll join us then because there is always something Next in Tech.

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