Mobile World Congress 2023 may be done and dusted, but the agenda that emerges from the show tends to impact the industry’s focus across the following year. I’ve felt in the past that these trends have been more tangible than they were in 2023; we’re perhaps in a year of evolution rather than revolution.
That’s not to say that there was nothing to report on; on the contrary, it’s perhaps a sign of how established 5G now is that we’re exploring so many possibilities of what can be done within the framework that it offers. One example is in enabling connected cities; use cases of this type have been around for a while, but 5G is enabling complex IoT scenarios that are really beginning to take hold in emerging markets.
Our editor Manny Pham felt that we hadn’t seen the same leaps and bounds as we have in the past, with many of the same themes from last year resurfacing – particularly open RAN and iterative 5G. Huawei in particular is pushing its 5.5G agenda as a means of making the most of 5G given that 6G is still a long way off; on the consumer side, the use cases are perhaps a little light, offering augmentation and customisation to services that have seen their usage increase in a higher bandwidth environment, such as video calling. Some of these are practical, such as automatic translation, while some such as AI avatars are purely cosmetic, but all serve to improve the fundamental experience enabled by 5G technology.
5.5G perhaps comes into its own more in the enterprise space, particularly with regard to private networks – another trend that emerged from MWC. Manny cited an example of Huawei deploying a 5G private network for a white goods manufacturer in Asia which increased production by 30% while reducing labour costs by 20%. This demonstrates how 5G can boost profitability and output for enterprises and we’ll likely see more collaboration with enterprises as the benefits of 5G private networks become clear.
Private networks are also an opportunity for operators to claw back revenue from OTTs, which have cornered the content market. Operators can work with sites such as hospitals, factories and mines to offer private data networks and mobile VPNs that are more efficient than a typical Wi-Fi network, and tackle some of the challenges of these situations more effectively – particularly in the mining space, where communications between personnel above-ground and underground can prove difficult.
With OTTs taking a portion of what was typically telco revenue, a tug-of-war is ensuing – and OTT providers such as Netflix are even arguing that operators should start stumping up funds to help develop the content that is being offered via their networks. With the hunger for content evident across both developed and emerging markets, it’s clear that this debate will reach emerging markets at some point if it hasn’t already – after all, operators are struggling with revenue across the world, so they’re unlikely to have much patience with OTT providers that they perceive as muscling in on their turf. Given that monetisation strategies for 5G have proven elusive since its launch, operators will be looking to preserve their financials. Customers have been unwilling to pay a premium for 5G – consumers are keener to have the same for less, than more for more, as the difference offered by the fifth generation is less clear to them.
Mobile World Congress is of course focused on the latest technologies, which means that we’re seeing technology that will not reach emerging markets for some years. Open RAN is a prime example – currently, it is only affordable in developed markets, but major proponents of the tech such as NEC argue that it will be the only way to deliver future-proof 5G to Tier One operators in the long term. Therefore, it will eventually become viable in emerging markets. However, it’s debatable whether the problems solved by the technology apply in these regions; the idea of vendor lock-in is not such an issue, and the comparative lack of technical expertise in emerging markets makes end-to-end delivery by a single vendor highly appealing to most operators – particularly with regards to troubleshooting in the event of equipment failure. That said, there are examples of operators in emerging markets exploring open RAN, with Manny noting that Philippine operator Smart launched a proof of concept for using the technology in their network this January.
LEO satellite was another notable trend, with operators looking towards the technology in the face of exploding demand for content – particularly in emerging markets such as Africa and Southeast Asia. The challenging terrain and lack of legacy networks in these regions often makes satellite the most viable option – but it has long been considered prohibitively expensive given the return on investment. However, the balance appears to be shifting here; the potential revenue from currently unconnected users is increasingly making LEO satellite worth the investment for operators, particularly in low ARPU countries where subscriber numbers really affect revenue generation. IOH (Indosat Ooredoo Hutchison) is taking this approach to connect previously isolated regions in Indonesia, demonstrating how important it is for operators to start increasing their flatlining revenues by capturing a previously unconnected audience.
While there was certainly buzz at MWC about newer technologies including AI and the metaverse, it’s arguable that we’re not seeing any use cases for these solutions in developed markets just yet, so it’s unlikely we’ll see specific applications for these technologies in emerging markets within the next year or so - it tends to take at least this long before the buzzwords being thrown around at MWC start becoming a reality, so watch this space!