Mobile World Congress 2021 (MWC21) took place between June 28 and July 1, 2021, after Mobile World Congress 2020 was canceled due to the pandemic. This was the first time attendees could get a sense of the global state of and the major trends in the telecommunications and technology sectors in the previous 18 months. MWC21 was arranged by GSMA as a virtual event. GSMA estimates that in 2021, about a third of the 2021 visitors attended in person, although a very large number tuned in online. Our main takeaways of MWC21 were that:

  • The information and communications technology (ICT) market accelerated during the pandemic. The shift to remote working, the boost in online sales, and the increased use of cloud-based services has given the ICT market additional momentum. Forrester Analytics Technographics survey data from this year shows that investments in customer experience and innovation technologies are top priorities in 2021. Another main theme at MWC21 focused on ensuring that everyone, especially those in remote locations, has access to quality connectivity as a basic precondition for digital participation. During the event, Elon Musk reemphasized the potential of SpaceX to deliver connectivity via its low-earth-orbit satellite constellation, Starlink. And Huawei pointed to early financial indicators that telcos in China pushing 5G report higher revenue growth rates than those that don’t. Key to their 5G success are tiered data packages and value-added content and services.
  • 5G moved center stage, and open network architecture gained momentum. 5G was discussed everywhere at MWC21. 5G is moving beyond the pilot stage into the mainstream to support the next generation of cloud-based architecture and systems. Accordingly, Google noted that the demand for edge-based solutions is growing quickly. Telcos such as Orange emphasized efforts to completely rewrite software for the cloud to focus on customer relationships and to become more customer-centric by embracing cloud-based tools for its OSS and BSS infrastructure. The shift by telcos to a cloud-based architecture and Open RAN network was highlighted in the TelcoDR exhibition area — the “telco cloud” area — where vendors like Totogi demonstrated cloud-based customer experience (CX) tools to facilitate the telco CX initiatives. Similarly, Dish and Vodafone shared insights regarding their intent to build 5G networks on hyperscalers like Amazon Web Services.
  • Data analytics, artificial intelligence, and connectivity strategies are becoming increasingly aligned. Google estimates that 75% of all enterprise traffic will be in the edge by 2025. However, the company also highlighted a few challenges for the distributed edge: where to put the edge physically, operational and financial feasibility considerations, and the question of where to do the actual processing. As tens of thousands of edge data centers need to be rolled out, tech professionals need to define how to manage and support them across many geographic areas.
  • The future of work is intrinsically linked to the cloud — and thus connectivity. Cloud services sit at the center of emerging hybrid work environments. At MWC21, various vendors agreed that the biggest concerns of tech leaders relate to security, data privacy, network and cloud reliability, and voice and video quality. VMware pointed to Zero Trust architecture as a central imperative as well as the programmability and network slicing of 5G as a very attractive aspect for application development and the move toward designing networks on demand.
  • Ethics, sustainability, trust, and diversity emerged as important themes. At MWC21, there were many sessions that emphasized the “softer” issues that must be addressed by tech professionals. Telefónica pointed to its privacy-by-design initiative in the form of its Transparency Center, which manages the privacy of its customers across all devices. Aequum emphasized that there is no “raw data,” as every data has a bias. Hence, Aequum argues, database design should be viewed as part of AI design. Moreover, organizations that design AI algorithms must also have strong diversity initiatives to minimize biases. stc pay pointed to the benefit of building close partnerships with trusted brands. And Ericsson stressed that 5G energy consumption is not linked to data usage, as this link has been decoupled. In this context, Orange shared that, in its plans, 5G will be 10 times more efficient than 4G in 2025 due to growing traffic load and up to 20 times more efficient by 2030.
  • Hybrid events are OK, but they’re not the real thing. As a hybrid event, MWC21 worked well given the current circumstances. MWC21 was not the “real thing,” but it did prove the limits of hybrid events. The true value of industry events is the opportunity for the leading players in one sector to come together in person in one physical location for a couple of days to share information, exchange opinions, and do business. The intensity of being part of such a physical event over several days cannot be compared with tuning into a virtual session for an hour before tending to completely unrelated themes again. For MWC22 to be successful, the event needs to be very similar to how it was before the pandemic struck.