Top Connectivity Themes Had MWC Gone Ahead

From 5G and private networks to 6G and partnerships

Sadly, MWC 2020 was not to be, as the risk from the coronavirus outbreak was deemed too high for the show to take place (see Assessing the Coronavirus Fallout for Tech). But its cancellation hasn’t stopped a flurry of network announcements from telecom operators and suppliers. Here, I cover what I believe would have been the big themes in Barcelona.

5G Everywhere

No prizes for guessing the would-be star of MWC this year: 5G, once again, would have been front and centre of the show.

Yet with 5G now a commercial reality for 55 operators in 31 separate markets, according to CCS Insight, the focus would have evolved from far-reaching demonstrations such as flying taxis and remote airships, to more realistic and pragmatic scenarios (see here for further details of our research into 5G networks).

Private Networks

I’m sure we would have seen many demonstrations of 5G for private networks, ranging from connected ports to smart manufacturing. These deployments allow organizations to “ring fence” connectivity, enabling greater control, customization and security.

Last week, Deutsche Telekom held a virtual MWC press event, where it announced its fourth private cellular or “campus” network, set up for BMW at its Leipzig plant in Germany, in partnership with Ericsson. In the first stage, the network is based on LTE, but the operator plans to upgrade it to 5G in the future. The operator launched its first campus network, for lighting company Osram, at MWC 2019 (see MWC Barcelona 2019: Operators).

Nokia announced that it has deployed a private 5G network for Lufthansa Technik, to allow remote inspection of engine parts for aviation customers in Hamburg. Vodafone is the technology and services partner. Germany is a leading market for private networks, having reserved some local spectrum licences at 3.7 GHz to 3.8 GHz for enterprise and public sector organizations.

Standalone 5G

Standalone 5G is the crucial next iteration of 5G technology, bringing a dedicated cloud-native core that isn’t anchored in LTE. It’ll be crucial to enabling many concepts often associated with 5G, such as network slicing and super low-latency applications.

To date, the vast majority of 5G deployments have been based on the non-standalone flavour. But at a press event hosted two weeks ago, Ericsson said it expects to see commercial deployments of standalone 5G in 2020, led by South Korea, China and the US.

Dynamic Spectrum Sharing

This is another important technology that would have received airtime at MWC. Dynamic spectrum sharing enables operators to offer 4G and 5G connectivity within the same frequency band. This will be crucial to many seeking to achieve widespread 5G coverage without refarming existing 4G frequencies.

For example, last week, Ericsson confirmed the commercial launch of Ericsson Spectrum Sharing. The first operators to support its solution include Swisscom, Telstra, Ooredoo and Play. The technology won the prestigious Mobile Technology honour, also known as the CTO’s Choice award, at the GSMA’s annual Global Mobile Awards.

Open Radio Access Network

Open radio access network (OpenRAN) technology could have been one of the biggest themes of MWC 2020. This standardizes hardware and software elements in the radio network, enabling more companies to supply different components.

For operators, it’s an opportunity to cut the costs of building new networks and reduce reliance on a very small number of traditional suppliers.

Players seeking to take advantage of OpenRAN include Mavenir, Parallel Wireless and Altiostar, and I’m sure all would have been vocal at MWC. Last week, we heard a flurry of announcements, including a partnership between Mavenir and Turkcell for the former’s virtual RAN solution.

Last week, it was confirmed that the Open RAN Alliance would be joining forces with the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), to align on development of 5G RAN. TIP was launched at MWC in 2016 by Facebook with the aim of boosting connectivity by disaggregating hardware and software. The coming together of the two organizations is a logical move that should mitigate duplication between them and hasten time-to-market for new solutions.

6G

As MWC loves to look far to the future, I wonder if an operator planned to tout its 6G credentials at the event. According to reports, NTT DoCoMo is developing a strategy to become a leader in 6G technology, with a possible commercial launch in 2030.

Oddly enough, the operator has yet to go live with a commercial 5G service. But, if reports are to be believed, it seems that this might not have stopped the operator seeking some early 6G kudos at MWC.

5G Challenges

Despite positive reactions to 5G following strong recent progress, many of the technology’s now familiar challenges would not have been far away from the conversation.

It’s almost a tradition at MWC for operators to vent their frustration at how regulators are holding back their ambitions. This year would have been no different, with CEOs of European operators protesting that authorities’ belligerence has impeded the progress of 5G and that the high price paid in some spectrum auctions is harming investment.

The position of some governments as to what role to allow Huawei in building national 5G networks would also have provoked much discussion. No doubt operators would have agreed that a broad range of suppliers is the healthiest scenario for the industry and that current uncertainty is unhelpful.

The industry continues to scratch its head when it comes to identifying new uses for 5G in the consumer market. I’m sure we would have heard plenty about multiplayer cloud gaming, virtual and augmented reality, fixed wireless access and e-sports, but these were already themes of the event in 2019. I don’t believe anything new would have surfaced.

Other Announcements

Last week, Telefonica confirmed that it’s expanding its cooperation with Microsoft, announced at the event a year ago. The companies will offer joint solutions based on Microsoft’s cloud services, and Microsoft will be the strategic cloud partner for Telefonica’s own digital transformation.

Deutsche Telekom announced that it will introduce a dual-band repeater to amplify mobile signals indoors. Initially mostly aimed at small businesses, the solution is the latest fruit of a partnership with South Korean operator, SK Telecom.

A group of leading operators, backed by the GSMA, revealed plans to develop an interoperable platform for edge computing. Dubbed Telco Edge Cloud, the initiative aims to make solutions more accessible by sharing capabilities in areas such as latency and storage with application developers and software providers.

With the overwhelming focus on 5G, other topics often high on operators’ agendas may have taken something of a back seat this year. Still, a lot of news would also have come from areas including the Internet of things, artificial intelligence, digitalization of customer care, content and video streaming and efforts in sustainability and climate change.

Conclusion

MWC 2020 would have offered a great forum to showcase the tremendous strides that the industry has made in 5G over the past 12 months.

By next year’s event, however, more than 100 5G networks will in operation and, if the impact from the coronavirus outbreak is not too severe, in the region of a quarter of a billion 5G connections, based on our latest forecast.

There could be even more to talk about in 12 months’ time. Roll on MWC 2021.

Last week, CCS Insight hosted a livestream entitled What Would Have Happened at MWC 2020?, including an assessment of the impact of the coronavirus on the tech industry. Click the button to watch it on demand.