- The next generation phone network 5G was a ubiquitous feature at MWC Barcelona, the world’s largest mobile industry event.
- There were plenty of compelling demos for how the technology can be applied, but not so much in the way of how it will be monetised.
- A pivot towards societal impact points to the industry’s future potential for profit and growth.
Last week’s MWC Barcelona was the usual buzz of frenzied activity, meetings scattered across crowd-filled halls and exotic displays of new tech – rich in visual and emotional impact. But between the razzmatazz keynotes, intelligent robots and 5G demos, the stands at the event formerly known as Mobile World Congress sometimes felt like they were the battlefield in a technology showdown between the world’s great internet powers, the US and China.
As a wider trade war unfolds and bans on specific companies’ kit ensue, internet players, cloud and device companies and mobile network operators are gradually being bifurcated into alliances and camps that accord with the West or China.
Such alignments run counter to the hypothesis of a global digital village connected by an Internet of Things of shared platforms and common, 5G-driven connectivity. For the world we are entering into appears fraught with divisions in this digital nirvana: due to challenges around national security and mutual trust, as well as keeping connectivity quality equal across geographic and economic divides.
Some strategists say that the IoT is going to be a globalising phenomenon, but the politics tells me it isn’t going to be that straightforward. Strategies to build agility in business, a versatile and future-skilled workforce and vision in government policy will be critical.
driving the mobile world
The onset of a technology cold war provided overarching context, but the detail of MWC Barcelona came down to three themes seen and felt in the bustling halls of the Fira last week.
First up was ‘where is the money?’ We saw plenty of demos of how 5G and other connectivity technology can be used – all the way from a drone-laden airship that is deployed in natural disasters or other emergencies, to robotized manufacturing plants, which use 5G technology to control mechanical arms undertaking extremely sensitive tasks. But we saw few walk-throughs of how money will be made from such ‘use cases’ by the mobile operators. This latter question is critical, especially as 5G will demand significantly more investment like for like than the move to 4G did.
Tape to replace towers and base stations. Relentless pace of change in telco disruption is getting faster. In 10 years' from now will telcos still control the software defined network?#MWC19 @PwC_AU @PwCAUdigital pic.twitter.com/YoHau6o5S9
— Mohammad Chowdhury (@mtchowdhury) February 28, 2019
Secondly, the compelling new technology on show in Barcelona spoke to a growing gap between the progress there and the need for the mobile industry to be able to utilise and monetise it.
I see this as three gaps: technology, skills and customer experience. In each area, there is an opportunity for mobile operators to make important strides in the coming years to be able to provide the connectivity smarts that power the new tech that will ride on top.
Some operators are on the case and were able to show it, too, through how they are developing network-based skills in security, privacy, identity management and analytics, whereas others are at a far earlier stage in the journey. Most operators were rather focused on enterprise cases this year – and left some of us wondering what’s new for the consumer.
Finally, we saw the emergence of what I like to call the Big Society agenda.
Policy makers spoke of how they must reset strategies to capture the benefits of digitisation for everyone, and determine the state intervention needed in building out national broadband networks, safeguarding national security, develop labour market skills for the future and protect consumer rights and privacy.
Mobile industry CEOs talked about the pivot from subscriber expansion to enabling the digitisation of society: a noble cause no doubt, but also one that is deeply tied to the industry’s future potential to continue to be profitable and attractive to investors.
A different take
Technology highlight of the week? One was Sophia, an eerily almost-human-looking robot who works for the UN and is able to have an AI-powered fluent conversation with you. Whilst I found Sophia rather scary – in fact too much for me to able to chat with her much – her ability to process random questions and respond was amazing.
— Mohammad Chowdhury (@mtchowdhury) February 26, 2019
All in all, a great MWC Barcelona that offered much excitement, engaging experiences in sampling new technology, and plenty of food for thought too. Back at PwC, we have strong perspectives on much of the question areas, and are busily connecting with our clients to delve into what we think their priorities need to be.
Interested in knowing more about the key themes from MWC Barcelona? Read 8 MWC19 take-outs from an Australia market perspective here on the PwC Australia website.