Will 5G ever make money? And other hot topics at MWC 2023

It’s that crazy time of year in the wireless industry when everyone is gearing up for MWC Barcelona. Fierce Wireless has identified some topics that are bound to dominate discussions at panels, events and casual chats in the hallways at the conference next week. Those topics are: satellite-to-cellular; making money from 5G; private wireless networks; and the spectrum considerations for 6G.

Here are some talking points to help you at the cocktail parties!

Space to mobile

One of the most popular topics at MWC Americas in Las Vegas last September was satellite-to-mobile. So, we’re betting that topic will be hot again in Barcelona.

Some industry experts will speak at a panel entitled “A Match Made in Space” where they will undoubtedly talk about the digital divide around the world and how satellite can bring broadband to unserved areas much more economically than building terrestrial-based networks.

But the nitty-gritty of satellite-to-mobile is hard and can be approached in a lot of different ways. 

SpaceX and T-Mobile made a big splash last summer, announcing that SpaceX would launch thousands of new low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites to connect mobile phones on T-Mobile’s network. This news was followed shortly thereafter by Apple, which said it was using GlobalStar’s existing LEO constellation to provide emergency SOS service on Apple’s new iPhone 14.

Richard Wharton, co-founder of the Bullitt Group, is speaking on the MWC Barcelona panel. His company is approaching the problem from a device perspective, similar to Apple. But instead of the LEO-satellite-approach of Apple and T-Mobile/SpaceX, Bullitt is first working with geosynchronous (GEO) satellites owned by Echostar and Inmarsat. Bullitt licenses its software on others’ OEM devices, which then connect to the GEO satellites to provide two-way messaging.

Wharton said working with existing GEO constellations allows Bullitt to provide a two-way messaging service immediately.

He said the partnership between T-Mobile and SpaceX is going to take quite a lot of time because SpaceX has to launch its constellation, and the partners have to get spectrum approvals at the country level.

For its part, Bullitt eventually wants to deliver robust voice and data services via satellite, which will require 5G NR technology based on 3GPP Release 18. “To deliver those data speeds, we’re going to need an LEO constellation to do it,” said Wharton. He sees its current work as a stepping stone. “We’re the first standards-based solution out there not tied to any particular satellite operator.”

Asked if anyone else is doing mobile-to-satellite with GEO, Wharton said, “Not that we’re aware of.”

In any event, there are a lot of things to talk about on this topic. Which is better, LEO or GEO? Is it best to take a device approach or a satellite constellation approach, and should companies use standards-based technology or proprietary tech? The topic of mobile-to-satellite is going to keep the industry busy for a long time.

Making money from 5G

5G has been around for a few years now, but sadly, people are still asking how to monetize it.

Adrian Baschnonga, global TMT lead analyst at the consulting firm EY, said people are no longer talking about the 5G killer app or 5G silver bullet. Now, it’s more about the diversity of use cases, and some of those use cases came as a result of Covid — such as remote training and collaboration. There are also a lot of use cases related to industrial automation.

“When we look at high-grade applications that require super low latency and reliability, that’s where 5G comes into its own,” said Baschnonga.

But some of the most advanced features of 5G require 5G standalone (SA) networks.

Baschnonga said, “All operators are upgrading their networks at their own pace. The differences we’re seeing in regional migration reflects the wider 5G story. North America was the first to switch on 5G NSA. A similar story is playing out with the move to 5G SA, which is important for network slicing and more virtual network functions. It’s an important stepping stone.”

He said private wireless is an area ripe to monetize the early capabilities of 5G. “Businesses are very alive to the private network opportunity. Because of the speed and agility they’re able to unlock those 5G capabilities without waiting for public networks to catch up."

Private wireless

Speaking of private wireless, one panel will discuss whether it is over-hyped. And a topic that is likely to arise is how private networks will interoperate with public networks.

Divya Wakankar, VP of Enterprise at BICS, is participating on that panel. She said BICS is a wholesale provider of cellular voice and data services. It facilitates such things as international roaming and has expertise in handovers from one carrier to another. The company also has an enterprise business that is involved with private wireless.

On the panel, Wakankar plans to talk about the connectivity aspect of private wireless. “Private networks need to transition from public to private and vice versa,” she said. BICS provides eSIM profiles for devices to switch between the two. The technology is not exactly the same as “dual-SIM,” which allows users to switch from one carrier to another. But rather, BICS’ eSIM allows a device to steer between a public mobile network and a private mobile network.

And considering that some private wireless networks are getting absolutely huge, such as the city-wide network in Las Vegas, it seems this steering and switching capability might become very important.


We couldn’t finish an MWC Barcelona preview article without mentioning 6G.

So far, the next generation wireless technology has not captured the attention of mass audiences. But behind the scenes, lots of industry folks are starting to think about it. One of the first considerations for 6G is spectrum, which will be the topic of a panel at MWC.

This year something important will happen to start advancing 6G. The World Radiocommunication Conferences (WRC), which is held every three to four years, will hold a conference in Dubai, UAE, in November and December. It is the job of WRC to review and revise the Radio Regulations, the international treaty governing the use of the radio-frequency spectrum.

Ian Fogg, VP of analysis at Opensignal, said the work of the WRC is important because it brings together spectrum regulators from all around the world. “Spectrum doesn’t respect political boundaries,” he said. “Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen more alignment of technology and a single global standard for the radio technology. The spectrum piece is also becoming more globally aligned. But it takes time because of existing users on the spectrum.”

People are already talking about the likelihood that 6G will include the use of very high frequency spectrum in the terahertz range. This spectrum has a lot of capacity to support an exceptionally fast experience.

The spectrum could support uses that we’re only just now imagining related to the metaverse such as very high quality video and augmented reality type experiences.