Research Notes

Mobile World Congress 2019: A Preview by John Strand, Strand Consult

Every year for the last 15 years, Strand Consult has published previews of the Mobile World Congress (MWC). 2019 will be a different year than before. Indeed, following last year’s event, Huawei’s sponsorship of MWC for 2019 was settled before the company would emerge in political and regulatory crosshairs. Indeed MWC used to be in early February, but that was moved to accommodate Chinese New Year. 2019 has not been a Happy New Year for the Chinese, so far it is an annus horribilis for them.
MWC started 33 years ago in Cannes as a nice little conference. Attendees would meet at the Hotel Majestic’s bar following each day’s events. Today MWC is gigantic, attracting 107,000 participants and 2400 exhibitors. The mobile industry has evolved since then too. Mobile products and services were something used by just a few; now they are accessed by nearly every person on earth.  
GSMA wants this year’s program to focus on 5G and the usefulness of mobile technologies to modern society. Indeed, GSMA would like to boast that 5G is live and launched by almost 100 mobile operators by the end of 2019. Seasoned professionals who remember the hype around 3G in the year 2000 know the downside of hype; as the rollout was a bust for operators which spent billions on spectrum licenses only to find that customers would not pay extra for the 3G value added services.
In recent years, MWC has become increasingly politicized with growing focus on regulatory challenges. There was a hope that 2019 could be the turning point, and the show could return to focusing on cool technology.  2019 may be the most political MWC yet. We live in a time when many political projects have failed. Europe is falling apart. The Brexit politicians exited after the vote, leaving a mess. People are tired of incumbent politicians who can’t deliver growth. On the other hand, Trump gets more media attention in Europe than the forthcoming elections. The American President is a gift to incompetent politicians and lazy journalists; it’s easier to critique his tweets than to make policy and analysis that would resolve Europe’s challenges. 
Let the show begin. 100,000 people are ready to party. 
GSMA Director General Mats Granrud will open the conference. It is natural that this Swede would look to create consensus. He has a tough job telling regulators that the industry needs better conditions while defending his members’ purchases of Chinese network equipment and not alienating the vendors that compete with the Chinese. He will probably say that the challenges with Huawei will slow the rollout of 5G in Europe, but he probably won’t divulge the inconvenient truth that the Americans, which have opted not for Chinese equipment, are almost tw0 years ahead of the EU.
Bulgarian-born European Commissioner Mariya Gabriel will talk about AI, Innovation, Ethics & Diversity. She won’t observe that two decades of increasing EU regulation has not brought the growth or innovation that EU policymakers promised. However she will say that even more regulation is needed. For those planning on her session, see Strand Consult’s note Asia, Africa and Latin America should learn from Europe’s mistakes. Ideology-based telecom regulation turned the EU from a world leader in telecommunications to a world loser.
Expect some grumpy old men at the conference. The plan was probably for Orange’s Stephane Richard, Telefonica’s José María Álvarez-Pallete López, Vodafone’s Nick Read, and Liberty Global’s Mike Fries to tell about the fantastic future of 5G. The storyline goes that 5G is coming faster to the market than 4G, and 4G came faster than 3G, and that came faster than 2G. These men will likely emphasize that while politicians love to hype 5G, they fail to provide the regulatory framework that supports investment.
One interesting talk will be Huawei’s Rotating Chairman Guo Ping. With that title, one would expect him to take a spin around the stage. He will likely attack on the United States and claim that China is the victim for being innovative. His presentation will probably be a tribute to Chinese innovation. Don’t expect Guo Ping to say he comes from a totalitarian country that rejects human rights.
Strand Consult published two research notes on Huawei and the challenge of Chinese technology. See The story behind the Huawei story. Strand Consult also describes how the Chinese government can spy on people and governments abroad. Indeed the country’s espionage law requires any Chinese national to spy on behalf of the government if so requested.  See The debate about network security is more complex than Huawei. The Chinese cybersecurity threat is more than just Huawei network equipment, but Lenovo computers and servers, and the many Chinese-made Internet of Things devices, as well as the apps and services that run on these devices connected to mobile phones, WiFi networks, and Chinese clouds. Countries have some important decisions about network security, and confusion has not helped investment in 5G.
MWC has more to offer than a human can process. 
Outside of the technology presentations, people will talk about growing regulation of mobile products and services (GDPR and net neutrality), there will be plenty of opportunities this year to get inspiration at MWC. I look forward to the presentations from my old friend and music industry pioneer Ralph Simon whose unique insight allows him to ask all the right questions. Also worthwhile are talks by Cher Wang from HTC, Anjali Sud from Vimeo, and Sir Lucian Grainge from Universal Music Group who will talk about disruption in the entertainment industry. The music and entertainment industries have had to reinvent themselves for the mobile age, enabling disruptive players and new business models. It will be interesting to hear what the speakers have to say about the EU’s new Copyright Directive.
The Women4Tech Summit takes place on the last day of MWC. Half of all mobile customers are women, but there are too few female executives in the mobile industry. Focus is still needed on these challenges and to attract more women to math and engineering fields of study, and to stimulate the number of women who climb the ladder in the larger tech industry.
Separating the 4G out of a 5G network is as easy as separating cold water from the warm.
MWC 2019 should be a reality check on 5G. Depending on the country, operators are running 2G, 3G, and 4G, if not 5G. This means that much of the equipment that mobile operators have purchased from Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson can be upgraded to 5G. It is important to understand that the mobile operators do not have a 2G network, a 3G network, a 4G network, or a 5G network. They have a networks running all of these standards simultaneously – 2/3/4 and 5G. For policymakers to be serious about security and investment, they need to understand this complexity, both of hardware and software upgrades.
One cannot distinguish between 4G and 5G in the same way as one can  between a Mercedes and a BMW or between petrol and diesel. The two technologies are similar and have overlapping standards (IMTS-2000, IMT-Advanced og IMT-2020 etc.). In practical terms, customers who use things connected to the Internet in the future will use both 4G, 5G and NB-IOT as well as Wi-Fi. See American consumers are already buying 5G products and services while the EU falls further behind on networks and innovation.
We hope that when MWC is over, policymakers will understand why there is a need for consolidation to enable more investment and innovation. Today there is too much look good/ feel good regulation. The memory of the 3G bubble is still alive, and we have never needed responsible politicians more than now.
Despite the many challenges, MWC 2019 will be a party. We will hear about how 5G will create fiber in the air, how FTTX suppliers will extend their fiber with 5G. We will hear about all the exciting opportunities that are there when it comes to IOT and AI. We also want to hear about the need for more security and more transparency. Well, there will be plenty of food for the brains who love to be stimulated intellectually.
Mobile Worlds Congress is a unique opportunity to gain insight into what is happening around the world. The vast majority will come home from Barcelona more confused than when they came. It is part of the MWC experience, and this is one of the reasons why we go to Barcelona year after year.
Strand Consult provides both pre and post review of the Mobile World Congress. Read reviews from the past fourteen years.
Meet Strand Consult at the Mobile World Congress.
If you would like to meet with Strand Consult during the MWC, please email us your contact details and the details/purpose of the meeting, and we will get back to you. Journalists are most welcome!

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