Reflecting on #MWC 2019: Network Edition

Last week, my Techpinions colleague Carolina Milanesi wrote a terrific piece reflecting on Mobile World Congress 2019 in Barcelona. Since her column focused mainly on the device aspects of the show, I thought an analysis of the network aspects of MWC might be a good complement.

Let me tee off my saying this was one of the most positive MWC events in several years. There was broad realization that this is Year 1 of 5G. Equipment is available, contracts are being signed, and initial services are being turned up. I spent quite a bit of time in major equipment vendors’ booths, and operators were definitely in ‘shopping mode’.  Things will get especially interesting as the first 5G phones are introduced toward the middle of this year.

There was also a broad realization that, more so than with LTE, 5G will be a 10+ year journey. The first wave of services that will hit this year will be more LTE+ or like Super-Wi-Fi: pockets of coverage on a first wave of devices. These are not services that consumers will, initially, pay more for, or that will contribute any meaningful incremental revenue to the operators, over the next couple of years. Much more compelling were the ‘next phase of 5G’ demonstrated in vendors’ booths. Ericsson, Nokia, and Huawei showcased a host of enterprise and industrial business cases, focused on smart cities, the ‘factory of the future’, cloud gaming, and AR/VR. Each found very creative ways to demonstrate the benefits of the low latency (URLLC) capabilities of 5G, which will be among the first true game-changers of 5G. I loved the Bosch screwdriver at Nokia, the robots at the ZTE booth, and Ericsson’s 5G Rock Band.

Now, allow me to get a bit wonky for a minute…but among the major highlights of MWC 2019 were…antennas!  More specifically, something called Massive MIMO. These are the smart antennas that, in various configurations, are going to play a big role in getting 5G deployed. They will reduce the need to build as many new cell sites for 5G, will enable existing 4G sites become 5G sites (great example: Sprint’s 2.5 GHz strategy), and will help expand mmWave site signal range. Ericsson’s acquisition of Kathrein’s antenna business on the eve of MWC signals the need to bolster that part of the company’s portfolio…and while others were gawking at foldable phones, the geeks among us were oohing and aahing at Ericsson’s Radio Stripes.

There are three other mega-trends on the equipment side I’d like to point out. First, it looks like there’s growing momentum for fixed wireless. Several notable operator contracts for fixed wireless were announced, for both urban and rural ‘connect the unconnected’ type applications. Fixed wireless was especially prominent in Huawei’s booth, with its new RuralStar solution.

Second, I came away with some concerns about mmWave. Less on the “will it work” side, and more on the fact that only a handful of countries appear to be seriously considering using mmWave spectrum for 5G. Most of the action is in the sub-6 GHz bands — which is one of the reasons there’s a lot of pressure to move forward on the C-band in the United States. If mmWave doesn’t scale, there are concerns that it will be deprioritized from a CPE perspective, which could mean less choice of, and more expensive, phones and other ‘connected devices’ in those high bands. Plus, there’s still a lot of R&D needed to continue to improve mmWave network equipment and CPE, but it will be challenging to get the proper resources allocated if it’s going to be a niche service relegated to a handful of countries.

Third, there was a lot of positive discussion about more open, and virtualized networks. The O-RAN alliance is gaining momentum, signing up more Tier 1 operators. The Telecom Infra Project (TIP) was at MWC, and made some announcements about OpenRAN field trials. Providing a glimpse of the future, new Japanese MNO Rakuten seemed everywhere at MWC. The company is building the first all virtual telco cloud network at substantially lower cost, using components from a slew of different vendors.

Finally, although the incumbent vendors had an impressive and successful MWC, it also became clear that a new breed of companies are starting to play a greater role in the evolution of 4G and 5G networks, with lower cost, software-oriented solutions. Among the more notable are Altiostar, Mavenir, Parallel Wireless, Blinq Networks, Affirmed Networks, and Athonet. They are not yet disrupting on a major scale, but things are moving beyond trials and demos into some fairly significant wins.

Also impressive is the progress Intel has made. They seem poised to be greater participants in 5G than they were in 4G, working with service providers and infrastructure vendors on cloud-based access solutions helping them deliver greater computing resources at the network edge.

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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.

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