MWC 2024, presented by the GSM Association (GSMA), expects 93,000 attendees to come to the conference in person and online. While this is more than last year (88,500), it is below the pre-pandemic level of 109,000 attendees.

Strand Consult analysts offer a global audience a preview of MWC topics and keynotes with critical reflections on the significance of the gathering of global mobile leaders.

An exciting meeting or a tired chorus?

Having participated in the MWC for over 25 years, Strand Consult looks at new trends from a historical perspective. MWC is basically the GSMA’s movie franchise. James Bond movies, Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe come to mind. Every year a new movie with a similar plot and cast appears. Some films reimagine the franchise and create spin-offs, others have a short but profitable life (Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings), and still others are slowly fading away.

The MWC is in the process of being recreated and needs a reboot. Experts study the event’s program a few weeks before it starts to find something new, but notice that the format, content, messages and key speakers of MWC remain almost unchanged from year to year.

The main topic is the current generation of mobile communications (5G) with additional topics filling in the gap: 5G and Beyond, Connecting Everything, Humanizing AI, DX Manufacturing, Game Changers, and Digital DNA. While AI is a hot topic, other topics are already outdated.

MWC 2024

MWC 2024 – the same procedure as last year

The MWC program includes a familiar lineup of participants and opening speeches by mobile industry executives who are likely to repeat what they have said before:

  • Telefonica CEO and GSMA Chairman Jose Maria Alvarez-Pallete;
  • Margherita Della Valle, CEO of Vodafone;
  • Christelle Heidemann, CEO of Orange;
  • Jie Yang, Chairman of China Mobile.

The first three speakers open the conference on Monday at 9:30 a.m. and then speak again on Monday in the fourth keynote at 4:30 p.m., along with Tim Höttges from Deutsche Telekom, who will also appear on Monday in the second keynote at 11:30 a.m.

Unsuccessful coaches are fired

Margherita Della Valle became CEO last year after 20 years in senior management at Vodafone. Since her transition from CFO to CEO, Vodafone’s share price has fallen by about 30 percent. This may have benefited the management team, but not the shareholders.

In football, players and coaches who don’t win are fired. Bayern Munich coach Thomas Tuchel was fired this week because he failed to deliver results. In telecommunications, however, players and coaches stay afloat even when they lose, comforted by the hope that maybe next year will be better.

This mediocrity is demonstrated by the recent State of Digital Communications 2024 report from the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association (ETNO), which shows decades of decline and underinvestment in Europe. While the report aims to stimulate change in European policy, it can also be seen as an industry whose leaders are unable to effectively organize in their trade association.

GSMA needs to step out of its comfort zone

Attendees pay a lot of money to attend MWC and would probably like to get more excitement on the first day, rather than having the same executives speak twice in one day. Presumably, the choice of speakers reflects the GSMA’s priorities among member operators. It’s time for the GSMA to step out of its comfort zone and invite new leaders.

GSMA represents more than a thousand mobile operators around the world. These are the people and companies that provide mobile communications on every continent and in every environment. The GSMA has a lot of interesting stories to tell about its members, and even more interesting people to introduce from its ranks. However, most of these people and companies will not take the stage.

Jørgen Bang-Jensen will be an interesting speaker, who in 10 years turned the fourth operator in Poland, Play/P4, into the largest operator in the country, ahead of T-Mobile, Orange and Plus. He led the company to an IPO and subsequently sold it to Iliad for €3.5 billion.

Як підняти інтерес до MWC

How to raise interest in MWC

Of course, keeping a conference interesting and uninterrupted is a difficult task. This was the case at the World Economic Forum in Davos and the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. However, events such as the Paris Air Show and the Frankfurt Book Fair have stood the test of time. The decline of an event franchise may reflect a downturn in the industry or a loss of mission.

The GSMA itself has not been very successful in implementing a systemic policy for the mobile industry. Consolidation, spectrum allocation, taxation and regulation of telecommunications are largely unfavorable for the industry worldwide and have a significant financial impact.

The GSMA is not so much a trade association as an event organization company. CEO Mats Groenried’s annual remuneration of $2.4 million is not linked to the profitability of the association’s members or the industry. It may depend on event revenues.

The largest sponsors

MWC’s largest sponsors are consultants (Accenture, EY, KPMG, PWC), cloud providers (Snowflake, Microsoft, Palo Alto Networks), and, of course, Huawei. Other 40 sponsoring companies work in the partner ecosystem. In total, about 2,400 companies participate in the exhibition. Of course, these companies come because they want to sell their services to mobile operators. In particular, two sponsors among mobile operators are Etisalat and STC.

The single largest beneficiary of investment in the mobile industry is Apple, but it never sponsors or participates in the MWC.

Що цікаво відвідати

What is interesting to visit

In any case, about 90,000 people come to MWC because of the networking opportunities. There are many interesting people who make a difference, but they are not necessarily on stage. Here is Strand Consult’s assessment of the sessions worth attending.

Behind the scenes: the ministerial program

Accordingly, the “center of political debate” is not the keynote addresses, but the ministerial program, where legislators and mobile leaders discuss the most important issues. However, these meetings are closed to the press and the public.

It is clear that policymakers need a confidential space to discuss issues, and the MWC offers that opportunity. At the same time, the GSMA could help operators address their concerns more effectively through better global communication. Thus, the GSMA should consider broadcasting these ministerial meetings live. In fact, investors could join the discussion if they had a better understanding of the issue. Difficult topics should be brought up for discussion.

An example is the session with the soft title “Towards a new infrastructure investment framework”, which will take place on Tuesday at 11:45. Operators who want to learn more about fair share and broadband cost recovery will likely skip this panel altogether for lack of relevant keywords, but they should attend. It will feature two of the most important regulators on the subject: Brendan Carr from the Federal Communications Commission and Carlos Baigorri from the National Telecommunications Agency (Anatel), Brazil.

Carr and Baigorri are likely to describe government efforts to broaden the base of financial contributions to broadband infrastructure and create sustainable connectivity funds for low-income users. Importantly, these efforts are needed as many of the world’s leading digital companies expect to be able to use mobile operator networks and public radio spectrum for free. Strand Consult notes that both market and regulatory efforts are needed to recover costs.

Reimbursement of expenses

Strand Consult’s global research project, Broadband Cost Recovery, Affordability and Equitable Distribution, tracks this issue globally and describes why operators in South Korea, the US and other regions have succeeded in cost recovery, while European operators have failed in this area.

In connection with this topic, the European Commission (EC) launched this week a consultation based on a “new initiative for the digital infrastructure of tomorrow”. The title is a good reflection of the fact that for more than a decade, the European Commission has been putting off necessary policy changes for “tomorrow.” Strand Consult described the problem of the European Union’s slowdown in broadband investment in 2014, when the gap was “only” €100 billion and there was hope that the EU could catch up with the US and Asia.

The EC’s report is a farewell to Commissioners Thierry Breton and Margrethe Vestager, who reiterate that they inherited the problem and distance themselves from the fact that the gap has widened under their leadership. The EU Internet market has become more complex thanks to artificial intelligence and cloud technologies, as well as the emergence of American and Chinese hyperscalers. It has become more difficult to solve this problem, so subsequent commissioners are even less inclined to take it on.

The window has closed

Renata Nicolai, Deputy Director-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology at the European Commission, offered European operators the ideal conditions to bring a fair share to the finish line, but ETNO and GSMA failed. They did not properly prepare enough policy makers and did not involve many stakeholders who could benefit. They overconfidently believed that their leaders would be able to sell the policy on their own.

With a few exceptions, Europe’s window of digital opportunity has largely passed. Investors have shifted from EU telecom companies to Africa, where the value of its internet economy exceeds that of Europe. Accordingly, the panel also includes Lasina Kone, CEO and COO of Smart Africa, which aims to connect, innovate and transform the African continent, which consists of 39 member states and more than 1.1 billion people.

Bokar Bar, Director General of the Telecommunications Council SAMENA, will moderate the important event “Digitalization of Government and Industry” within the ministerial program. Messrs. Bar and Kone are members of the UN Broadband Commission and are leading important efforts to achieve the connectivity goals for Africa and the rest of the world, in particular through concepts to broaden the base of infrastructure contributions and affordability from leading digital enterprises that use and benefit from broadband networks.

Геополітичні виклики

Geopolitical challenges

The MWC will feature valuable sessions on geopolitical challenges, reflecting the growing importance of telecommunications infrastructure for the digital society. Countries must decide whether their digital societies will be based on democratic principles or authoritarian ones.

Two years ago, in protest of the invasion of Ukraine, the GSMA canceled the Russian pavilion at MWC and banned some Russian companies from the show. It was a relatively easy decision, given the collective rejection of Putin’s aggression and the fact that Russia has few, if any, global tech companies. However, the GSMA is allowing China Mobile and other Russian companies to participate in the show, even though they are not globally significant.

Doubtful support from China

However, the GSMA is billing China Mobile and Huawei the most. It remains to be seen how the Security Summit will address real threats in light of recent reports that the Chinese state-sponsored hacker group Volt Typhoon has been using “Life Off the Grid” techniques for years to infiltrate critical infrastructure in anticipation of chaos.

Other reports describe systematic repression and censorship using Chinese technology. Huawei has been working closely with the Taliban in Afghanistan, supplying them with surveillance equipment, and has also equipped Russian networks to facilitate the operation of Russian mobile communications in Crimea and the occupied territories of Ukraine.

Many people naively believe that the telecommunications industry, including the GSMA, can remain neutral to these challenges, but the reckoning is coming. Doing the right and moral thing, respecting freedom and human rights is the price of business.

Eutelsat learned this the hard way from Reporters Without Borders. Some believe that the war in Ukraine can be sustained, but an invasion of Taiwan, the epicenter of semiconductor production, would bring the world to a standstill.

Policymakers and mobile operators around the world can learn from a new study by Strand Consult on strategic technology choices in Latin America.

More than artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence is the hype of today, positioned as a technology to solve industry problems. While AI is promising, systemic business models for telecom companies remain to be seen. On Wednesday at 9:30 a.m., MWC will host a session dedicated to AI.

As a computing phenomenon, AI can be seen in the evolution from neural networks on personal computers 30 years ago. The transformation of computing power that NVIDIA has made in its chips is similar to what SpaceX has done for NASA and the space industry. These are great examples of what visionaries can do given the right framework and conditions.

AI is related to quantum computing. The Copenhagen Quantum Hub is one of the brightest examples for Europe. Thanks to a grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation (funded by Europe’s most capitalized company, Ozempic Juggernaut), the Niels Bohr Institute is working with NATO to maintain the Alliance’s technical advantage.

The MWC will feature a discussion on the ethical aspects of AI, attempting to resolve issues without destroying valuable technologies and addressing important legal and practical implications, as demonstrated by the Air Canada chatbot.

2G, 3G, 4G, 5G і наступне покоління G

2G, 3G, 4G, 5G and the next generation G

MWC notes that 5 years have passed since the launch of 5G, and it’s time to take stock of the deployment and talk about 5G-Advanced and the next generation G. What started with 2G has evolved rapidly.

With 3G, the industry tried to increase ARPU from 36 to 72 euros. Instead, profits were cut in half. Financial returns declined even as the industry rolled out 4G. While not enriching its shareholders, the mobile industry has provided returns for OTT shareholders.

After five years of 5G implementation, financial returns have not reached the desired level. 5G is a technology that makes it cheaper to deliver the growing volumes of data produced by OTT. This raises the important question of what to do with 6G, how to finance the deployment and through which business models.

Everyone is talking about OpenRAN, but…

MWC has an OpenRAN partner program. Strand Consult runs a knowledge center on the topic and is testing the waters as evangelists of open hardware – the new idea that network components can be put together from different vendors and provide alternatives to end-to-end solutions from large-scale providers such as Huawei, Ericsson, Nokia and ZTE.

Initially, OpenRAN was positioned as a secure alternative to Chinese providers such as Huawei and ZTE. This has not proven to be the case, as China Mobile and 43 other Chinese firms play a key role in the O-Ran Alliance.

Many OpenRAN “trials” have been announced by operators around the world. However, to date, 294 mobile operators in 109 countries and territories have announced the launch of 3GPP-compliant 5G services, both mobile and fixed wireless access. Today, OpenRAN equipment accounts for about 1 percent of the total 5G equipment.

Open interfaces between proprietary units are a great idea, but not yet a commercial reality. Those operators that are buying OpenRAN equipment are buying it mainly from Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung, not from the smaller players that claimed OpenRAN would radically change the market.

At an event dedicated to the commercialization of OpenRAN, innovation, savings, and competition will likely be praised. Huawei is likely to talk a lot about virtualized RAN and cloud RAN. In 2020, Huawei called OpenRAN a “marathon, not a sprint”. Strand Consult expects Huawei to launch its own OpenRAN game this year or next.

The O-RAN Alliance, which is not a standards organization, will most likely be absorbed by 3GPP. The 3GPP already has many open interface specifications. OpenRAN can be described as USB cables that allow you to connect your iPhone to a Windows-based computer. It’s useful, but it’s not a game changer. History shows that OpenRAN has not led to the emergence of new hardware vendors. Instead, the consolidation in the equipment market reflects the fact that mobile operators want to limit the range of their equipment suppliers to get volume discounts.

MWC

API and Open Gateway are a repetition of OneAPI

The GSMA is promoting the Open Gateway initiative, its bid for an open, unified 5G ecosystem. This sounds like a repeat of OneAPI, which the GSMA launched at MWC 2009. At that time, the GSMA launched about 20 APIs.

Mobile operators miss the glory days when premium SMS was a giant financial success. Telenor and Telia invented a short code for payment that worked for all mobile operators in the country.

Operators are understandably fascinated by the idea of offering different information elements that are compatible with each other, like Lego bricks, which can be used to create exciting applications with network intelligence and seamless operation. Application developers are considering whether and how they should make their applications more intelligent themselves, or use network intelligence to achieve this goal.

In Canada, mobile operators launched a gateway that allowed access to all operator APIs in Canada through a single gateway provider. This is a concept that the GSMA has relaunched as the Open Gateway initiative.

It will be interesting to see what business models operators will launch with their APIs. Likewise, it will be interesting to see how operators will compete with APIs for iOS and Android, as well as with APIs from Microsoft, AWS, and other hyperscalers.

This competition should be seen in the light of the fact that American operators Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile tried to launch APIs but failed and closed a significant part of them around 2020.

Nevertheless, there is a large market for APIs and customers willing to pay for access to them. The question is whether mobile operators will be able to compete with Apple and Google on this front.

Хмарні технології та периферія

Cloud technologies and peripherals

Cloud technologies are taking center stage at MWC, especially when combined with artificial intelligence, 5G, and the latest technologies. The weather forecast in Barcelona this year will be very cloudy. Clouds, especially hyperscale clouds, are becoming increasingly important and impactful for innovation, security, privacy, competition, etc.

With some exceptions, cloud services are not provided by mobile operators, but cloud services are increasingly being integrated with mobile services. End users know little about cloud computing, and are not necessarily interested in it, but managing cloud computing matters.

When the end user installs an app on a mobile phone, they click “Yes”, “Yes”, “Yes”, “Yes”, “Yes” and “Yes” to everything to make the app work. Rarely, if ever, does anyone investigate what they have agreed to, what data processing they are doing, how and where it is stored, and so on. While regulations try to achieve this, not everything is secure or enforceable.

Many clouds are created and operated by companies affiliated with the Chinese government, and Chinese applications such as TikTok, Temu, Tencent, Alibaba, Shein, and so on are supported by Chinese clouds. Although there are attempts to protect American and European users from intrusion through Huawei equipment, there are no such guarantees in vast regions of the world. In Latin America, Huawei is the largest cloud provider, although AWS, Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle are well-known global leaders.

The cloud business generates half a trillion dollars annually and is growing by 18 percent year on year. That’s impressive. It’s also frightening when you consider that cloud providers can impose lock-in and path dependency that customers and end users have very little control over or mitigation for.

Гарнітури VR

VR headsets

Strand Consults recalls when robots were in fashion at MWC. The new robots were virtual reality (VR) headsets. Early adopters have been using them in recent years and there will be many opportunities to try out these new devices, including Meta’s Oculus Quest, PlayStation’s VR2, HTC’s Vive Pro 2, and of course Apple’s $3500 Vision Pro. Apple sells “spatial computing”, not VR. Apple is trying to boost sales from Meta’s declassified “metaspace”.

Meta has a dedicated VR session at MWC and is also a sponsor of the event. A good question for Meta is how they plan to participate in the cost of deploying network capacity to enable the meta space. To date, the tacit answer is that they expect operators to deploy networks that Meta will receive for free use.

Conclusion

Although MWC has its pros and cons, for many who come here to network, it remains a useful conference. There are many interesting people who are making a difference in the world, but they are not necessarily on stage.

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