For anyone involved with mobile phones, networks or the IoT, the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona is the place to be in February. Over four days, the industry reveals its latest and fanciest ideas in the ongoing evolution of mobile telephony. It is vast. This year around 2,300 companies were exhibiting, several with stands large enough to fit a passenger jet in; over 100,000 visitors were wandering around it, including senior politicians and royalty and the organising industry body – the GSMA (God Save Mobile Analysts) probably raked in around $100 million in revenue. Which is more than some of the sectors it is promoting will make this year.
It’s not a show famed for radical new technology. Unlike CES, which gives us technical wonders like the selfie stick, MWC is about gradual evolution. But that is gradual evolution of a very, very successful industry – one that likes to take the annual opportunity to convene in Barcelona and flaunt its success.
So what was new? For me, there were four things which stood out. That might feel minor, but when you’re trying to predict the future, it’s difficult to judge. These are the ripples and butterflies that could bring massive change. No-one in the industry thought SMS and messaging would take off. But they were happy to bet on WAP as the mobile internet, which only goes to prove you should never believe an analyst or futurologist. So here’s my choice of four things which took my fancy.
- You WILL like 5G
5G – the next generation mobile network, was one of the big themes this year. However, it’s becoming a bit divisive. The infrastructure suppliers are pushing it hard, as they’re concerned that unless they can sell some new infrastructure, network operators will stop upgrading and just milk what they’ve got. They’ve also got a second motivation. The patents for 2G and 3G are about to expire, so the companies which make money from licensing them are seeing the possibility of their revenue falling off the edge of a cliff. But if they can get everyone to evolve to a new standard which encompasses more of their IP, the gravy train can start all over again. It’s something I call the Qualkia Conspiracy.
It’s clear that not all of the network operators are buying the 5G story. Some appear to have read William Webb’s excellent book “The 5G Myth” and are wondering whether there might not be an alterative approach. Which brings me to the innovation I liked.
It’s not unusual to see a few booths at these mega-shows offering massages to relieve the stress of pounding the floor and trying to escape the earnest salesfolk peddling their particular variety of antenna, smart watch or small cell, but for the first time ever, there was a stand offering a hypnotist.
This could become a major innovation at these shows. As attendees become more sceptical about the technology being thrust upon them, what better answer than an explosion of hypnotists funded by the various elements of the industry that want us to believe that their most outrageous claims are true. As we run out of technical or business arguments for 5G, 6G or even Gx, these ranks of hypnotists could keep us on the straight and narrow. I think it’s going to be a brilliant addition to the MWC experience.
- IP Sniffer Dogs
I like the Qualcomm stand. As one of the prime movers in mobile standards, they’ve always got a great display of future applications, and they were one of the most bullish in telling us that 5G is here now. What you don’t see on the stand, not least because it’s intangible, is their efforts in protecting their IP. A large percentage of their revenue comes from licensing their patents to almost everyone who makes anything to do with a mobile network, whether that’s a phone or a base station. Over the last year, they’ve been vocal about the issue of companies who are not paying those license fees.
This year at MWC, for the first time, we’ve seen them deploy a pair of IP sniffer dogs. On the first two days of the show they were predominantly roaming Halls 5 and 7, where many of the smaller Far Eastern suppliers are located. Although they’ve made no claims about their success it was noticeable that a number of the smaller booths had far fewer items on display after the dogs had been round.
It’s interesting how this has fed into the Broadcom / Qualcomm acquisition talks, with Broadcom denouncing this as a PR stunt by Qualcomm to try and talk up the value of their IP, which should be treated as a cynical ploy by shareholders. Nevertheless, given the issues around patent exhaustion and the development of aggressive new patent pools in the IoT area, such as the Avanci initiative, it’s probably a sign of the future in IP licensing.
- Text Messaging with NB-IoT
You know the feeling – you’re tied up in the dungeon, can’t remember the safe word and there’s no network coverage to text a friend. That’s obviously a regular occurrence for the folk at Vodafone, who have come up with a great new application for their new Narrow Band IoT network, which is messaging in the dungeon.
The theory behind this application is that all of the new LPWAN standards have a better link budget, which means that the radio has a better chance of penetrating buildings and getting through in places where good old GPRS struggles and newer standards like LTE fail. (And don’t even think about the total inability of 60 GHz 5G to get through a wet paper bag.) The reason that LPWAN standards were designed to have these increased link budgets is to help in all those tricky applications like smart metering in basements and parking sensors buried in underground car parks. But the boffins in naughty Newbury have seen beyond that and were demonstrating NB-IoT as a fall-back for those awkward occasions when SMS just doesn’t have the penetration. So next time you get out your 50 Shades of Grey and head for the dungeon, make sure you’ve got an NB-IoT enabled handset ready.
- The Future is AI
It was the year of two letter acronyms and if it wasn’t 5G, it was AI. The Internet of Things was still all the rage, but it’s increasingly becoming adjectival rather than acronymic, with everything being smart instead. Top of the list, along with smart home, smart cities, smart transport and smart mirrors (honestly), was smart agriculture.
On the LoRa stand (Look Out! Randy Animals), it was down to our delectable Tracey to explain how the Internet of Cows is one of the prime applications. In this case AI is Artificial Insemination, with an IoT sensor which can measure the cow’s temperature to predict the optimum time for the bull to service them.
They do it in Japan as well. On the Docomo NTT stand, two immaculately dressed young men were showing some very NSFW images of bovine couplings in their very personal take on livestock management. Being Japanese, their app also appeared to track the heifer’s massage cycle and stress levels to ensure that the lifecycle from Kobe to your plate results in the tenderest possible steak. Technology can be a wonderful thing. Particularly when served rare.
It’s a difficult job trying to predict the future at a show like MWC. So much seems fanciful and quite a lot of it never happens, so steering the line between realty and fiction is a difficult one. Or to put it another way, not all of these four highlights are true. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which ones are and which are still to be invented. After all, by the time we get to MWC2019 they may all may exist. All you have to do is to think them.
What I will say, is that one of them (at least) is true and that one was my innovation highlight of MWC2018.