As the telecoms industry convenes in Barcelona for the annual Mobile World Congress (MWC), it has more than a few headaches to resolve, writes Adrian Pennington.
The fact is that 5G has not been the roaring success it was expected to be, certainly with consumers, there’s arguably not been enough progress on sustainability and while 6G has become a regular discussion point, the world seems on the point of bifurcating west and east, putting the future of the global internet at risk – all key questions that will be on the mind of exhibitors and attendees at MWC 2023.
More than 80,000 people are expected to attend MWC this year, topping the 61K who made it to the 2022 event, where sustainability is top of the agenda. The key MWC 2023 themes are 5G Acceleration, Reality+, OpenNet, FinTech and Digital Everything.
MWC 2023: Doubling down on green
On the one hand energy efficiency is now rated the top priority by telcos with 80% rating it important or extremely important to their planned upgrades, in the most recent Global Trends 2023 report from MWC owners and telco lobby group, the GSMA.
This speaks primarily to a cost savings and environmental story for operators. For equipment vendors, it underlines the fact that power efficient kit is now a competitive selling point.
But the report is mixed. The GSMA claims telecoms is among the leading industries in terms of climate commitments but in the next paragraph says less than half of operators have committed to the UN Race to Zero pledge.
Renewables account for 9% of energy consumption among operators, per GSMA, although there’s considerable variation by region. European operators use renewables for the majority (70%) of their energy; African and Asian groups (including China) are at less than 10%.
On the plus side, climate impact disclosure is now commonplace with the majority of operators worldwide reporting on CO2 emissions. There is less uniformity on policies related to e-waste. The GSMA says increasing these reporting rates will depend on investor pressures, consumer attitudes, and reaching a consensus on accepted KPIs.
Climate change will be highlighted at MWC2023, notably in an address shared by the CEOs of Vattenfall, Telia and Vodafone and, in another keynote, by Alejandro Agag, Founder & CEO, Formula E talking about racing electric SUVs.
But as Iain Morris of Light Reading, remarked, “Green is [being] promoted by executives who will just have flown hundreds or thousands of miles to do what could be done online or via an old-fashioned phone call. For an industry with a dodgy track record on the environment the optics are hardly ideal.”
He cited research from Omdia (a Light Reading sister company) that reveals emissions from China Mobile soared 111% between 2018 and 2021 and points out that Western operators may only appear to perform better “because they rely heavily on a controversial market-based methodology when reporting their Scope 2 emissions – those stemming mainly from the electricity they buy. This system means they can report massive cuts simply by acquiring cheap renewable energy certificates that make no real-world difference.”
Morris also calls out the lack of diversity among attendees to MWC. Despite the efforts made to foreground women and people of colour in its conference, the exhibition floor will be predominantly white, male and middle aged.
Both charges could be equally levelled at any trade show. The diversity issue will probably take at least a one generation to shift out white middle-aged males into retirement and before the efforts of education and recruitment programs bear fruit.
An uncomfortable aspect of the recent ISE show, also in Barcelona and likely to be replicated at MWC2023, was the prevalence of younger women hired by exhibitors to act as stand ‘guides’ or badge zappers. If they were employed for the same job, younger men were less obviously doing so.
MWC 2023: 5G - Show us the money
5G is in danger of being seen as a damp squib. While the industry heralded the first billion 5G connections by the end of last year, the promised supercharged economic uplift and whizzbang applications have yet to materialise.
“You will struggle to find a market that has seen a real and sustainable growth in ARPU in line with 5G launches,” Matthew Iji, director of modelling and forecasting at GSMA Intelligence, explained to Mobile World Live, the content arm of the GSMA.
The industry remains upbeat, arguing that it is only now with the rollout of 5G Advanced that the technology’s benefits will be realised.
New network and service deployments will drive 5G “beyond vanguard markets” in Europe, North America and Asia, said Peter Jarich, Head of GSMA Intelligence. “New use case development beyond [faster mobile broadband] which has driven early 5G success will see 5G get closer to realising its full potential: think further cloud, edge, slicing and maybe even API monetisation momentum.”
If any great return on their multi-million Euro investments is to be made by operators it will be in the enterprise. Yet the GSMA’s own research identifies only 5% of operators having defined an enterprise metaverse strategy. While consumer interest in the speed of 5G is considered positive – it doesn’t extend much further than that.
“Speeds are not what will ultimately sustain pricing premiums (and therefore revenue growth),” the GSMA reported. “A ‘wow’ factor is required to attract new customers or incentivise existing ones towards higher spend.”
Read more 5G NR: The Other Side of 5G
XR is a candidate here, with the potential to usher in a new age of (immersive) consumer experiences that benefit from 5G’s advanced capabilities in areas such as speed, latency and capacity.
However, a GSMA Intelligence Operators in Focus Survey suggests AR/VR is a not a priority among operators. Sales of AR/VR headsets remain flat and a reduction in headset pricing and an increase in content are needed before AR/VR moves to the mainstream.
It reiterates its expectation of a “flurry of metaverse/XR content developments” in 2023, with gaming, video and music at the forefront. There’s a metaverse summit at MWC 2023, based around the enterprise and a keynote on the topic with speakers from Web3 platform developer Dimple and Sebastian Borget the co-founder of virtual world Sandbox.
There’s also a first ‘immersive storytelling space’ at the show and a focus on the growing relationship between mobile and sports ecosystems, in collaboration with Barcelona FC.
MWC 2023: Can the splinternet be avoided?
The gap between 5G’s game changing promise and its prosaic reality is of concern if the industry is going to persuade investors including national governments to bet big once again on 6G.
The sixth-generation wireless network is now being pitched as the missing component in the 5G topology that will finally deliver transformational improvements for real-time internet applications such as driverless cars or remote surgery.
According to Light Reading doubts are creeping in among governments and the investment community about whether another ‘G’ is worth it.
“The 5G experience has been a long-overdue wake-up call,” wrote Iain Morris. “It began with the usual publicity frenzy about new revenue-generating service opportunities (remember self-driving cars and robot surgeons?), few of which have materialised.
“Politicians joined in, telling voters 5G was an economic game-changer. Somewhere in this process, the realisation struck that 5G was basically 4G on caffeine – a bit faster, a bit more cost-efficient, but (despite all the money spent) no great cause for excitement.”
This matters if investment is to be galvanised for 6G. Already, there’s a race to reach 6G milestones with South Korea predictably stating its intent to beat the rest with commercialisation as soon as 2028.
China is also piling R&D into 6G development. The country is smarting from having its leading mobile tech developer Huawei outlawed from much of the national communications infrastructure in the US and Europe. The current geo-political situation has exacerbated cooperation on global standards with some observers pessimistic that a unified internationally recognised 6G will ever be agreed.
Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm admitted as much during an interview last year; “If the tech world is fragmented East and West then it is going to mean competition between two ecosystems.”
Standards body the ITU has been attempting to avert a splinternet in which core tenets of a shared and interoperable Internet are no longer available around the world.
The GSMA will hope to play a role in bringing the industry together. Huawei is far from ostracised at MWC2023 where more than a dozen executives have been given speaking platforms. China Mobile’s president and CEO is also keynoting.
In the absence of definitive proof that the company is, like TikTok, syphoning data back to Beijing, it is right to continue to engage with the Huawei which after all is one of the world leaders in 5G technology. That it has achieved that feat on the back of state funding continues to feed the fear of those who believe that reliance on network components engineered in China puts the West at a long-term disadvantage.
MWC 2023: Quantum preparation
The next giant leap in computing is on the horizon and operators are being asked to get ready for it. Quantum computing leverages the duality of qubits to calculate sums at speeds unimaginable with today’s electronic systems.
At the same time there is a risk that future Quantum computers can break the security of the internet and mobile networks, according to the GSMA.
A cross section of the industry has contributed to a white paper assessing the threats and potential of Quantum compute to the telecoms.
While saying there’s no need to panic, the paper recommends that the mobile industry prepares for the adoption of Post-Quantum Cryptography.
Luke Ibbetson, Vodafone Group Head of R&D said: “This industry-first whitepaper is an important step towards securing telco networks against future attack by quantum computers. The transition towards standards based post-quantum crypto algorithms will take time and has to start now.”
Read more 5G in broadcast: 5G TV online