Industry Voices—Jarich on Mobile World Congress 2018: 5G bumps and bruises

I’ve been attending Mobile World Congress (MWC) since well before it made the move to Barcelona. While the show has steadily evolved over the years—new topics, new venues, new iterations—one thing has remained constant. As an analyst attending Mobile World Congress, you will inevitably be asked one set of questions over and over and over. “What is the big theme this year? What’s the one thing that stood out?”

The easy answer, of course, is “5G commercialization.” Commercial 5G arriving next year, in fixed and mobile forms, was taken as a given. This meant that 5G made it into nearly every vendor and operator’s messaging. Heck, where T-Mobile came to MWC17 to talk up its faith in the evolution of 4G, it announced major 5G rollout plans this year. If that doesn’t tell you something, what would? At a more granular level, however, the problem is that a massive event like Mobile World Congress is very much like Rumi’s discussion of “An Elephant in the Dark.” Any single person’s view of it will be defined by the part or two they touch.  Getting a cohesive view of the whole is nearly impossible. Yep, that’s right. I just compared MWC to an elephant. Sorry, GSMA. Forgive me?

The GlobalData team will be delivering a view into the diverse MWC 2018 themes and trends that mattered later this week. It’s well worth your time. Who doesn’t like free insights? In the meantime, absent any grand unified view, I’d like to call out a handful of things that stood out to me this year for better or worse. Think if them as bumps and bruises on the elephant’s back.

  • Samsung in the U.S. – It’s About Time. Given an inability for U.S. carriers to do much RAN business with Huawei and ZTE, the acquisition of Alcatel-Lucent by Nokia was supposed to open new opportunities for Samsung’s networks business in the U.S. A choice of two vendors—Ericsson and Nokia—just isn’t broad enough to meet operator demand for vendor diversity. Up to now its ongoing work with Sprint, along with small cell and fixed 5G work with Verizon was encouraging. Honestly, the vendor was well within its rights to crow about getting FCC approval on its 5G access unit. But work with only one operator on LTE (where investment will continue for some time) is far from an all-in endorsement. Samsung’s selection, then, as a vendor into Verizon’s 4G LTE Open RAN initiative—delivering LTE capacity and upgrades—suggests that the opportunity has been seized. Well, at least partly. Sprint and Verizon are only two of four national carriers and delivering standards-based mobile 5G comes next.
  • Edge Demos – And their Implications. Delivering compelling demos of network technologies is difficult. The good ones are memorable. For me, that includes two focused on edge networking. Cisco demonstrated edge-based latency improvements in gaming, giving a player leveraging edge capabilities (presumably paying for them) a faster response than competitors. ZTE, meanwhile, rolled out dancing robots that weren’t quite in synch until a low-latency network slice was provisioned that brought them back into line.  Each helped to illuminate the benefits of edge networking. More than that, they point to some clear implications. While often discussed in isolation, ZTE reminds us that slicing and edge networking go hand in hand, with edge assets being something to slice. Cisco, then, reminds us that the edge is something than can be monetized, but that monetization may be complicated by issues like net neutrality and basic service logic. If gaming, for example, could be biased by the use of edge assets, would it become a necessary add-on for serious players, or discourage a broader set or casual players from playing?  
  • The Wonders of Massive MIMO @ 3.5 GHz. Below 6 GHz, the 3.5 GHz band looks to be nearly a global standard for 5G. To its credit, 3.5 GHz propagation puts mmWave to shame. But it still takes a hit compared to the lower frequency 2.6 GHz or 2.1 GHz bands; the band everyone is looking at for 5G just won’t carry as far as today’s 3G or 4G bands—all else equal. Enter massive MIMO. While we’ve all heard that massive MIMO solutions will help with mmWave propagation, operators at MWC this year began talking up their expectations of coverage at 3.5GHz if massive MIMO is used. Based on testing (and not just optimism) the expectation is that 3.5GHz 5G can match an existing 2.1GHz coverage grid—allowing existing site infrastructure to be leveraged. How much of this is based on real world test results vs. optimism will only be clear as mobile 5G rolls out in the band.
  • 5G BSS – The Last Step in Commercialization? Netcracker’s 5G Monetization Solution launch announcement was somewhat light on details. But when you dig beneath the surface to see it as a set of features running on their current OSS/BSS platform, all tied to 5G use cases, the message is straightforward. Dreaming up 5G use cases is a meaningless endeavor unless you can actually operate and make money from them; if we really want 5G to be more than just faster consumer Internet, then billing and operation infrastructures need to be ready to support it. To be sure, Netcracker wasn’t alone in this focus: we had no shortage of 5G discussions with OSS and BSS vendors at MWC from Amdocs and BSG to the new Nexign. Perhaps more importantly, though, as operators look to time 5G launches with larger IT renovations, including an OSS/BSS renovation (or enhancement) in tandem makes sense. Of course, between RAN upgrades, SDN/NFV rollouts, transport network renovation and new 5G packet core deployments, operators will need to make sure they’ve got money left for the software and IT systems that will help them monetize 5G.
  • 5G’s Search for Vertical Insights – 2018 Edition. Last year, we all agreed that 5G presents an opportunity for service providers to target the needs of digital industries. We then agreed that most of them don’t actually understand those verticals well enough to serve them effectively. A year later, operators and vendors could point to pockets of knowledge (automotive, in particular) but still didn’t seem confident that vertical market requirements were well understood. But this doesn’t mean vendors and operators aren’t trying. Instead, in many cases, it’s not clear that enterprise CIO’s know what they need—or how to frame their needs around wireless network. There were signs of encouragement. Think Telefonica’s Industry 4.0 demo applying IoT, Private LTE, AR and blockchain to automotive manufacturing. Or Philips’ CIO making an impassioned case for how 5G will impact their healthcare business on the 5G for CIOs panel I ran.  But these are the exception, not the rule. That needs to change. If not, nimble start-ups who do understand the needs of specific verticals will simply develop solutions that run over the top of 5G networks—leveraging 5G as a platform in the same way OTTs leveraged 4G to drive mass market consumer innovation.  

Peter Jarich is the chief analyst (Global Telecom and IT) for GlobalData. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.