Key Takeaways from Mobile World Congress Americas

Last week, I attended and spoke at Mobile World Congress Americas in Los Angeles – the wireless industry’s major annual convention in North America. Staged in partnership with CTIA, this event is the Americas version of the more significant Mobile World Congress held each February in Barcelona. The GSMA also runs MWC Shanghai each June.

Although attendance this year was flat compared to last year, there was definitely a sense of things ‘getting done’, rather than being ‘around the corner’. The L.A. location also meant that some of the keynote sessions tilted in favor of key content players rather than major enterprise players, which is an issue that I think the GSMA needs to address for next year and beyond. There were no blockbuster product or service announcements, which are increasingly the province of company-specific events. Although, for the first time in several years, Apple’s fall iPhone event did not crash MWCA.

Here are some of my key takeaways, across a few key categories.

5G. Nearly all presentations and conversations worked in 5G in some way. But whereas a year ago 5G was just around the corner, this year, with the availability of 5G NR, we are in deployment mode. In fact, in North America, there will be a raft of Mobile 5G deployments during the fourth quarter of 2019. The biggest surprise is T-Mobile’s plans to turn up 5G on its 600 MHz spectrum ‘nationwide’ (actually, 200 million POPs) this year. And over the course of the next year, operators will deploy 5G will get deployed in most major cities, with deeper coverage in those cities, and across numerous additional spectrum bands. We’ll also see a much larger number of 5G-enabled smartphones and other devices (UE).

But we are still in the very early stages of 5G. The bulk of deployments are in just four countries: the United States, South Korea, China, and Japan. Europe is behind, with significant variation from one country to another. There were also lots of conversations at the show about what needs to happen for 5G to get deployed more quickly and more deeply: spectrum is a major issue of conversation, with an aggressive push in the United States for the C-band (3.7-4.2 GHz spectrum). Another key concern is how we’re going to deploy the massive number of small cells needed for 5G, given cost and siting challenges.

Although there was optimism around 5G, I did also sense a note of reality, in that this first wave is going to be mainly focused on the Enhanced Mobile Broadband (EMBB) pillar of 5G. The major new opportunities enabled by super low latency (URLLC) and Massive IoT are dependent on the approval of 3GPP Release 16, expected in 2020. That means this that ‘Phase 2’ of 5G doesn’t really kick in until 2022.

IoT.  The IoT ecosystem continues to grow and mature. The focus at MWCA tended to be around IoT infrastructure and platforms, rather than devices. But the industry is still more defined by a series of ‘base hits’ rather than home runs. There still doesn’t seem to be an IoT sub-sector that’s really taking off. Additionally, the ‘Massive IoT’ pillar of 5G, which promises to be much more transformative, is still a couple of years away from commercial reality. As a side note, CES is becoming an increasingly relevant show to get a sense of IoT across some key sectors, such as automotive, smart cities, transport, and energy.

Enterprise. This was my single biggest disappointment with MWCA. There were a lot of vendors and operators talking about enterprise solutions, across the range of 4G (private LTE) and 5G, plus CBRS and Wi-Fi 6. There were great booth demos. And, some high profile keynotes from operators (such as Verizon’s Tami Erwin). But there was remarkably little presence of, or announcements by, major companies about enterprise wireless deployments or plans.

With the approach of the next ‘phase’ of 5G, focused on URLLC, Massive IoT, and Industry 4.0, the GSMA (which runs this event) must work harder attract enterprise decision-makers to MWCA. Especially with the range of new solutions for enterprises in addition to 5G, such as CBRS and Wi-Fi 6. They also need to have a more prominent role discussing their solutions and showcasing leading-edge deployments. And not of the scripted, ‘brought here by my vendor/operator’ variety.

In-Building. The indoor market has been a challenging one for several years. But this was an area of accelerated discussion at MWCA. With the realization that mmWave, and even mid-band, will have a hard time penetrating buildings, there has been more of a focus on ‘inside out’ solutions rather than ‘outside in’, which is the prevalent mode in cellular networks. Companies with indoor small cell solutions and booster solutions, CBRS, Wi-Fi 6, and new models for neutral hosts are in the mix here. The investment community is also getting more excited about this area.

Open RAN. This topic was another area of emphasis, as operators are starting to move to a more open, virtualized network framework, consisting of more commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions. A key part of this, of course, is looking at reducing the cost and complexity of deploying and running networks, as well as encouraging a more competitive market for network infrastructure. A new breed of competitors, such as Mavenir, Altiostar, JMA Wireless, Parallel Wireless, and others, were at MWCA. But they are still struggling to get Tier 1 operator contracts and there were few significant operator announcements.

The last frontier of this would be vRAN, and like at MWC Barcelona in February, all eyes are still on Rakuten in Japan, which is building a greenfield network using a virtualized RAN. But my sense from discussions with the leading equipment providers is that major service providers are not prepared to go there…yet.

It will be interesting to see what happens at the TIP Summit in Amsterdam, scheduled for November 13-14. Expect news on Open RAN, vRAN, and some developments on Facebook’s Terragraph initiative.

Next year’s MWCA is scheduled for October 28-30, 2020. I have three recommendations for the GSMA to help keep this event relevant: first, pretty please get this conference the heck out of downtown L.A. – it’s an awful place to have to spend four days, and the Convention Center is crappy; second, place a greater focus on the enterprise, including attracting more users; and third, we’re hoping to hear something more substantive about IoT deployments – hopefully something that helps justify the ‘billions of devices’ forecasts that continue to lead all PowerPoint decks about IoT.

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Mark Lowenstein

Mark Lowenstein is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem, an advisory services firm focused on mobile and digital media. He founded and led the Yankee Group's global wireless practices and was also VP, Market Strategy at Verizon Wireless. You can follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein and sign up for his free Lens on Wireless newsletter here.

5 thoughts on “Key Takeaways from Mobile World Congress Americas”

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