AI was the buzz at Mobile World Congress 2024, but making a return on their 5G investment was at the forefront of operators’ minds. Adrian Pennington reports.

The mobile industry does not want to repeat the mistakes of 5G where streamers like Netflix extracted all the value from data carried over their networks.


MWC 2024: Brad Smith, Vice Chair and President, Microsoft Corporation

“5G is the fastest growing mobile standard in history but there are big challenges ahead,” said Mats Granryd, Director General, GSMA, setting the agenda for the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona. “Mobile revenue growth has gone down but capex has gone up. We have to keep investing in new infrastructure to keep the world connected. “By 2030 AI could contribute $50 trillion to the global economy. As an industry, we need to think ethically about developing and using the tech for the benefit of everyone.”

The convergence of AI with 5G (and future 6G) networks attracted the major cloud and computing providers to the event in Barcelona. McKinsey forecasts a potential $300bn market to be unlocked if operators expose their networks to APIs from the developer community and cloud providers.

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The relationship is symbiotic: AI applications won’t scale without mobile networks and mobile networks need to move to a more efficient data processing where AI runs on in the cloud. In reality, that means huge data farms with thousands of servers.

Microsoft claims it is spending more money than anyone else on building AI data centre infrastructure and arrived at MWC touting recent $5bn investments in Spain and Germany.

“AI is a new sector of the economy,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft Vice Chair and President in a keynote. “AI is the most important invention for the life of the mind since the invention of the printing press.”

Like Guttenberg’s invention, “AI is a tool that helps people to think, reason, share and learn,” Smith said.

The comparison did not end there. He also noted how printing technology was distributed across the world, “exploding” the number of books published from essentially zero to 20 billion by the end of the twentieth century.

It also led to the Renaissance and fermented the spread of democracy, he said, linking that to the potential of AI. “It should inspire us when people use technology to do good for others,” he said.

AI is already everywhere

Michael Dell, the Chairman and CEO of Dell Computers, made a similar pitch for telcos to tie networks with AI running on its data centres.


MWC 2024: Michael Dell, Chairman and CEO, Dell Technologies

“The opportunity is bigger and moving faster than anything we’ve seen before,” he said. “There will be a significant proliferation of open and closed source large language models (LLMs). There will be multimodal models, local models and globally distributed ones. Models on your phone, nano models, models on your PC. AI will be everywhere, just like the internet today.”

Deutsche Telekom has already deployed AI in 400 use cases across the company and has built an AI ‘competence centre’ of experts developing AI-based products. It is also a signatory to a pact with other operators including SK Telecom and Singtel to build an LLM for telco-specific services.

“We do not want to be dependent on hyperscalers [like Microsoft Azure and AWS],” said Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Tim Höttges. “We want to build our own system without [help from] the outside. I think we understand our world better so we have to train the LLM ourselves.”

Calling AI a “game-changer” for this industry, Mike Fries, CEO, Liberty Global, said he was leading his company’s charge from the top.

“We are not doing this by the seat of our pants but in a thoughtful way. Getting AI right is 10% of the model, with 20% IT and 70% about people. The organisational changes required are a massive lift. We want to bring everybody along with us.”

Australian telco Telstra aims to have all of its internal processes including customer service enabled by AI within 18 months.

“Tens of millions of data points cross our networks every five minutes,” said Vicki Brady, CEO, Telstra. “Humans can’t deal with that. We believe it’s got to be a whole business strategy, not a tech strategy. Rather than testing things, we are embracing AI now. For instance, our customer service teams are using GenAI now to get information super quick to customers.”

MWC gave a keynote to Demis Hassabis, the British computer scientist and video game designer who co-founded DeepMind in 2010 and sold it to Google in 2014 for $500m after which its AI system beat the human world champion at the complex game Go.

He said companies like Google are working to develop artificial general intelligence (AGI) - the next level of AI which will be able to perform almost any cognitive task that humans can.

“The human brain is the only reference point or proof of existence we have in the universe for AGI. The goal is to mimic all the cognitive capacity that humans have.”

He said current generation AI had gaps including the ability to plan and use memory – essentially to think. “It will be a gradual process rather than a sudden step change. Will we know when we see it? It may be obvious, on the other hand, we may have to test for it, on thousands of tasks and see if it passes the AGI threshold on all those.”

Immersive future not here yet

Two years ago, it wasn’t AI but the metaverse that everyone was talking about. In 2024 the metaverse might have dropped off the face of the planet. While there is use of XR headsets in the industry, mobile consumer VR experiences are non-existent.


MWC 2024: Demis Hassabis (right) co-founded DeepMind in 2010 and sold it to Google in 2014

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There actually isn’t much value for the mobile industry in consumer VR because it is all conducted over wi-fi in the home.

“There are no 5G-enabled headsets, period. Nor is there likely to be since VR happens indoors. Out of home is where it gets interesting for mobile and where we need to provide connectivity,” said Leslie Shannon, Head of Trend & Innovation Scouting, Nokia.

When it does, new standards are needed to distribute immersive video and haptic feedback. Along with audio and visual information, experiences in the future of consumer XR – which Apple badge spatial computing and is the metaverse by another name – will incorporate tactile senses.

“The immersive future is nearer than you think,” said Valerie Allie, Video Solutions Senior Director, InterDigital, citing the Las Vegas Sphere and Vision Pro. “How can we blur the line between the physical and virtual and communicate physical sensations with virtual ones?”

InterDigital is helping develop a new haptic media format within MPEG which will outline how to create, stream and render haptic content.

“Thanks to this, creatives will be able to create content with haptic media synced with audio and video,” she said.

The company was demonstrating a connected game allowing visitors to explore the tactile sensations of live game play.

“With this new standard, we can create immersive haptic content which we can stream and distribute to the latest immersive headsets for large-scale deployment.”

App developers for XR headgear like Vision Pro will be able to create personalised experiences delivered in real-time over 5G based on the user’s actual context. This had technologist Cathy Hackl worried about the data privacy implications.

“Virtual air rights will become a new battleground,” she said. “When you wear devices like this another corporation will be able to see everything around you. Maybe sell your data to deliver hyper-personalised advertising. Your senses become real estate. How do you control what you want them to see? Who owns the space in your house? I should be able to see what I want in my house but the amount of data these devices will have about you means privacy will become a really big issue.”

Mind the EU gap

A GSMA Intelligence report noted that 5G has made great strides with the technology now available in most countries but that revenue has not grown at the same pace.

“Economic weakness has played its part but a bigger issue is that price premiums are eventually competed away in the absence of a ‘killer app’ that people will pay more for,” the analyst report noted. It is business-to-business applications that remain a focus for the industry even with the launch of 5G Standalone (end-to-end 5G networks that don’t rely on previous generations of mobile tech) “underpinning growth for the next three years.”

Europe’s operators also point to being frustrated by EU regulation that has inhibited their growth. The EU even warned in January that sluggish 5G deployment risks delaying other technologies dependent on fast internet such as AI.

Although 5G has reached 80% of the EU population, it is far below the 94% in Japan and 98% in South Korea and the US. Around 40 million people in EU countries will still have no access to a fixed gigabit connection by 2030 according to the EU’s own figures, and will therefore fail to meet the block’s target of providing 5G to all households.

“European policymakers need to change direction now,” Margherita Della Valle, Group CEO, Vodafone told the conference. “They need to reboot our legacy telecoms regulation and create a real single market supporting 5G standalone at base.”

In its State of Digital Communications report, telecom lobby group ETNO warned that significant additional investment in roll-out is still needed before EU targets to reach full 5G and full gigabit coverage by the end of this decade are achieved.

“Europe needs investment and investors need to see changes – such as a new competition policy to reach the economies of scale that 5G requires,” Della Valle said. “We need one set of rules not 27 sets of national rules. Imagine if the billions we waste today through fragmentation could be invested in higher quality, less congestion, more innovation. European economies need our investment.”

Responding, the EU Commissioner for Internal Markets Thierry Breton told the conference that future spectrum auctions for 6G should not go to the highest bidder but to the operator committed to investing in the quickest network rollouts.

He said that in Europe there was a €200bn gap in funding needed to bring EU states on par with other major economies. Latency of 200 milliseconds he said “is much too long to ensure reliable monitoring, vital telemetry or to prevent accidents between connected vehicles.”

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