MWC 2024, Monday 26 February

Today marked the first day of MWC, and artificial intelligence (AI) was a key theme, of course. Our analysts got hands-on with Samsung’s Galaxy Ring, witnessed other new device launches, saw updates on the Open Gateway initiative, and more. Below is our take on the biggest announcements from Barcelona; you can also find yesterday’s top stories here.

Qualcomm AI Hub Hopes to Drive AI App Revolution

After announcing chipset platforms at its Snapdragon Summit in October 2023, including Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 for smartphones and Snapdragon X Elite for PCs featuring significant on-device AI capability, Qualcomm has unveiled its AI Hub. The offering provides more than 75 models optimized to quickly enable developers to produce applications supporting on-device AI.

This isn’t a surprising move from Qualcomm but is a critically important step to speed application development that can fully harness the features of its flagship chipset platforms. Qualcomm and others are promoting the potential for on-device AI to drive a significant replacement cycle in smartphones and PCs (see MWC 2024, Sunday 25 February), but few mass-market applications available today offer the features promised by the introduction of dedicated neural processing units (NPUs). Addressing this shortfall is critical to delivering the touted benefits of on-device AI and ensuring that reality starts to catch up with industry hype.

Qualcomm has laid the foundations for developers with its new platforms, but the introduction of a centralized hub for developers containing an accessible library of AI models is a much-needed step to a new range of rich experiences enabled by AI running locally on devices. The ability for applications to intelligently choose the processing unit — CPU, GPU or NPU — underlines the advantage Qualcomm has created in heterogeneous computing.

However, the move also highlights the need to significantly increase its investment in developer resources and engagement. A robust programme will be essential for any chipmaker wishing to ensure long-term differentiation of its toolsets and platforms. Nvidia’s success in building a development ecosystem around its GPU offering, and a significant competitive moat in the process, further underlines its importance.

Hands-On With the Samsung Galaxy Ring

Samsung has unveiled the first images of its Galaxy Ring and hinted at how this might fit into its wider health ecosystem. The Galaxy Ring is designed to complement other Galaxy devices by providing another touch point for Samsung Health, leading to more-advanced and tailored health experiences powered by AI.

Samsung’s Galaxy Ring and Samsung Health app

A crucial question for Samsung is the positioning of the Galaxy Ring given it arguably provides competition to the company’s Galaxy watches. However, Samsung’s Hon Pak, vice president and head of digital health, spoke about the firm’s desire to meet users’ needs with a variety of devices; the Galaxy Ring helps those seeking a simpler device to track their health and well-being.

Unsurprisingly, Samsung is using AI to turn the extensive amount of health and well-being data into more meaningful insights. This feels like an important next step as it tries to better serve Samsung Health’s existing 64 million users and attract more to its ecosystem. We expect an expansion of the proactive health guidance Samsung offers in areas like sleep. However, the company must ensure it’s using this data responsibly and communicating this carefully to its customers given the sensitivity of health data.

CCS Insight was able to try several prototype versions of the Galaxy Ring, in different colours (gold, silver and black) and sizes, but Samsung notes that these variations may yet change. It features an eye-catching concave design which we believe stands out nicely from rival offerings. Still, as with any smart ring, sensors and connectivity add some bulk, and users may need time to get used to the design.

Mobile Industry Touts Progress of Open Gateway

The initiative, which makes network functions available to app developers, was unveiled to much fanfare at MWC a year ago (see Insight Report: MWC 2023: Telecom Operators) and is an important theme of this year’s show too. Keynote speakers including Mats Granryd, director general of the GSMA, and Jose Maria Alvarez-Pallete, CEO of Telefonica, hailed achievements over the past year, confirming that more than 40 mobile operators have made a combined 94 APIs commercially available to enterprise developers in 21 markets, spanning Asia–Pacific, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas. An important focus for Open Gateway has been tackling online crime, and this has led to coordinated launches by operators in markets such as Brazil, Spain and Sri Lanka.

Qualcomm Launches Snapdragon X80 5G Modem-RF System

As has become a consistent annual launch at MWC, Qualcomm has unveiled its latest 5G modem-RF system, the Snapdragon X80. Devices using the platform are expected in the second half of 2024.

Unsurprisingly, AI is a prominent feature in the spec sheet, with the introduction of a dedicated 5G AI processor. The system also includes several “industry-first” claims, including being the first 5G modem with fully integrated support for narrowband non-terrestrial networks, six-antenna architecture for smartphones, six-carrier aggregation and AI-enhanced millimetre-wave range extension for fixed wireless access devices.

The reality is that AI isn’t new to modem technology and has long helped with range extension, antenna management, frequency band complexity and interference challenges. However, this new platform is a big step and sees a dedicated tensor accelerator for the first time, which will further sharpen performance in uplink and downlink speeds, latency, quality of service, coverage, location accuracy, spectrum efficiency and power efficiency.

Beyond the inevitable AI-themed headline, it’s important to note the significance of Qualcomm’s leadership in modem and RF front-end system design. Six-carrier aggregation will be embraced by operators seeking to maximize spectrum assets and boost capacity. Operator spending on 5G has slowed, as highlighted by Ericsson and Nokia, but features promised by 5G-Advanced and the need to exploit investment in 5G networks is likely to produce a second phase of investment as networks migrate to standalone 5G.

Apple’s difficulties in developing its own 5G modems illustrate the challenges inherent in modem design, and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X80 launch ensures that the San Diego outfit remains at the competitive “front end”.

Deutsche Telekom Showcases AI-Powered Prototype T Phone

This showcase by Deutsche Telekom uses a prototype T Phone to provide a glimpse of how the consumer experience might look if AI is used to power the interface with the device.

AI in smartphones is one of the hot topics at MWC this year: Samsung and Google are using AI heavily to market their latest flagship device ranges and it’s also a key theme for Honor at the show.

Deutsche Telekom’s demonstration gave an experience that felt as if the phone knew what users wanted to do before they completed a task. The company has partnered with and uses a framework it calls a “large action model”. This differs from large language models to provide a more intuitive experience, seamlessly linking apps or other content on the device and presenting it in an accessible way. Crucially, this should result in a single interface for the user, rather than requiring them to switch between different apps and services.

Deutsche Telekom’s concept AI phone

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this approach. The Rabbit R1, announced in January at CES in Las Vegas, showed this capability on a dedicated AI-powered peripheral device that connects to a smartphone. At the time, CCS Insight felt that this would lend itself well to being executed directly on a smartphone rather than as a third-party device.

Although network operators don’t have a great track record when it comes to offering their own hardware, the T Phone has already exceeded expectations in volume terms, so Deutsche Telekom should be applauded for its efforts. Delivering experiences and solutions such as this demonstration will help the company differentiate its offering from other operators.

AI-RAN Alliance Aims to Accelerate AI

As radio access networks (RANs) have become more complicated, suppliers and operators have sought to deploy automated tools to improve performance and efficiency. Many have been looking to machine learning models to balance network performance and electricity usage. Research looking ahead to 6G has focused on using AI to improve the future radio air interface. But to date, collaboration has been through mostly ad hoc bilateral or small groups.

The new AI-RAN Alliance creates a forum to tie together these disparate AI efforts. It aims to accelerate the RAN to improve performance, address new revenue opportunities from AI in the RAN and build an ecosystem. Founding members include Amazon Web Services (AWS), Arm, DeepSig, Ericsson, Microsoft, Nokia, Nvidia, Samsung, SoftBank and T-Mobile. This list includes only two operators and mostly Western companies; notably, there are no Chinese companies, although the organization says that membership is open to all.

It has three focus areas: advancing RAN capabilities through AI to improve spectral efficiency; integrating processes to use infrastructure effectively and generate AI-driven revenue opportunities; and deploying AI services at the network edge through RAN to increase operation efficiency and offer new services.

Enhancing spectral efficiency is a natural extension of existing energy efficiency and 6G air interface work. Offering new AI-enabled applications represents an acceleration of edge content caching and edge applications, but now AI-focused. The most interesting focus is on asset usage, harnessing the fact that AI and RAN share the same infrastructure. Here, the alliance may seek to push AI inference out onto the edge rather than running in central cloud data centres.

However, using spare AI-suited compute in the RAN will increase costs for the service provider. To persuade operators to buy AI hardware for the RAN, suppliers will need to show that the potential revenue from this will outweigh the additional electricity cost of running these loads, as well as the increased wear and tear on RAN hardware.

The growing use of AI in the wireless access network is inevitable. This greater RAN sophistication is partly why many countries have placed greater scrutiny on the choice of RAN suppliers for security reasons. Announcements of new organizations are common at MWC, but many have been short-lived. Given the size of the opportunity for AI in the RAN, the AI-RAN Alliance has a good chance to succeed if it can expand its membership with more leading operators and a wider range of suppliers.

Motorola and Lenovo Launch Unified Ecosystem Solution

Motorola has announced Smart Connect, yet another software solution to tie different devices into a single experience. The supported device mix is Android phones, Android tablets and Windows PCs. This is far from a new idea: Apple and Samsung have long advocated for and advertised continuity in their device ecosystems; Qualcomm has pushed Snapdragon Seamless to better connect devices using its chipsets; and even Microsoft’s Windows-native Android phone integration is a rival concept.

Still, there are innovations in the Motorola–Lenovo solution. Motorola showed how a PC user can take a phone call in a small window on the PC using its speakers and microphone. The phone window will hide or show depending on the proximity of the connected smartphone and its orientation. Another example is support for dragging and dropping files from one device to another. Smart Connect also allows a PC user to run a separate instance inside the PC, displaying different apps to the connected phone. Motorola discussed uses such as families sharing devices, but we see this as a niche example.

Devices can be connected through Wi-Fi or USB and any Windows 10 or 11 PC supports the solution, including Arm-based PCs. However, only Android phones and tablets provided by Lenovo or Motorola that have the Smart Connect app pre-installed or available through a firmware update are compatible because of the low-level access needed. This greatly limits the number of potential users.

Smart Connect is a natural fit for Motorola’s push into enterprise considering the productivity enhancements offered over competing solutions and Lenovo’s strong position in the PC market. It also provides a platform to advance cross-selling of Motorola smartphones and tablets to business users. However, for success to rival Apple’s ecosystem experience, the array of Android and Windows device-makers should collaborate to deliver a mix-and-match experience that offers at least basic integration, leaving specific manufacturers to differentiate their devices beyond the table-stakes features.

AWS Cements Telecom Presence and Illustrates Portfolio Impact

AWS delivered a series of announcements centred on its strategy for transforming telecom operators, digitizing industries and reimagining the consumer experience. It highlighted several partner relationships, reinforcing its reach and impact with communication service providers.

One highlight was AWS’ go-to-market channel support for the GSMA’s Open Gateway initiative, providing a vital route for the telecom sector to reach out to the application builder community, a noteworthy pillar of AWS’ audience (see Insight Report: Operators Open Network in Renewed Bid to Lure Developers).

The firm called out Amazon Bedrock and Amazon CodeWhisperer for delivering AI-based enhanced customer service and product development to Tele2 and BT respectively. Collaborations with BICS and Telstra using a combination of AWS Direct Connect, AWS Transit, AWS Regions, AWS Local Zones and Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud demonstrated the cloudification of network operations. Access to network APIs through its marketplace and private 5G network deployments in collaboration with Intel to support third-party system integrators like Amdocs offer paths for greater profitability and growth in the sector.

AWS isn’t alone in its support for the telecom industry, but these announcements underline the company’s presence in the market as a pivotal player in the telecom arena, supporting the key technologies and areas of focus outlined in the opening keynote of the show.

Nokia to Deliver Two Years’ Worth of Announcements in 2024

Despite launching several new products, many of Nokia’s announcements didn’t feel as fresh as they should. This year, Nokia has decided to only announce products that will ship in the next nine to 12 months, meaning that some announcements from 2023 are still somewhat works in progress.

In RAN, the company is introducing 64 TRX Habrok products in both a dual-band and a high-performance configuration up to 530 MHz that’s now convection-cooled. The initial variant is intended for the US, with other models to follow. Nokia will hope that prioritizing the US will minimize collateral damage from the recent AT&T loss with other customers. There are also new interleaved passive antennas intended to reduce site design and reduce tower elements.

The new and improved AirScale small cells aim to boost coverage and capacity. They include a millimetre-wave Shikra radio variant, as well as a model aimed at the enterprise with a direct connect implementation. The millimetre-wave products are smaller and aim to support 24 GHz, 26 GHz, 28 GHz and 39 GHz. The small-cell portfolio now includes an all-in-one 5G model.

In 2024, Nokia is launching anyRAN software focused on the enterprise in partnership with Cisco, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Microsoft. This will build on its existing private networks business. It also expects to offer commercial cloud RAN in conjunction with Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Dell: this was actually announced in 2023, but Nokia says it will become commercial this year.

In Open RAN, Nokia claims to be a leader, having demonstrated interworking with Fujitsu, Samji Mavenir and at least one non-public supplier. Similarly, it claims that among the 280 members of the O-RAN Alliance, it’s one of the 15 or 20 significant contributors. However, despite Nokia’s declarations of leadership, its spending on Open RAN research and development has yet to translate into large-scale customer wins. Nokia must focus on execution to better translate its strategy into business.

Deutsche Telekom and Sony Test Network APIs for Live Video Production

The two companies touted successful trials using CAMARA network APIs on a standalone 5G test bed at a Deutsche Telekom lab in Poland. Discussing the collaboration during Deutsche Telekom’s press conference this afternoon, Claudia Nemat, board member for technology and innovation, said that the solution could be used to optimize broadcast signals in challenging environments such as stadiums, to ensure low latency and stable bandwidth. The move builds on Deutsche Telekom’s partnership with broadcaster RTL presented at MWC two years ago (see Insight Report: MWC 2022: Network Operators).

Get in touch to discuss any of the stories we highlight here or anything you think we missed from the show. And if you’re attending MWC in Barcelona, come and see us! Click to here to book a meeting.