Between February 28 and March 3, the leading global telecoms and networking event, Mobile World Congress (MWC), took place in Barcelona. The event was hosted as a hybrid event. It attracted about half the attendees that it saw before the pandemic struck, namely 60,000 attendees. The event organizers reduced the floor space accordingly. Nevertheless, there was a great buzz, real energy, and enthusiasm among attendees.

The main themes of MWC22 were 5G, cloud, AI, fintech, internet of things (IoT), and emerging tech. I could not cover all these themes at MWC22. Still, from my many meetings with vendors and enterprise users as well as during conference speeches, I took several (subjective) observations that reflect my focus areas:

  • Private 5G networks will take many more years to emerge on a wide-scale basis. Several discussions with network equipment vendors and professional services firms underlined that private 5G networks are emerging more slowly than the bullish headlines would suggest. Yes, there are countless 5G pilots, and the penetration of 5G-capable handsets is increasing. And yes, there are clear problems with Wi-Fi-based connectivity — for instance, the timing-out handover problem for AGVs when moving between Wi-Fi cells. In many scenarios, 5G — in combination with mobile edge computing — offers an alternative to Wi-Fi. Yet, in the meetings we had at MWC22, the consensus was that it won’t be for a few years before large-scale 5G deployments will be the norm for private 5G networks. The slow and ongoing standardization process between 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) release cycles, as well as the lack of chip sets, devices, spectrum limitations, and modules that support emerging 3GPP 5G standards, remains a drag on the speedy 5G uptake. As a result, 5G ecosystems are evolving slowly. Clear use cases that depend specifically on 5G features are rare. The message we heard was that private LTE, narrowband IoT, LoRa, Sigfox, and Wi-Fi 6 work well for almost all use cases.
  • Non-carrier 5G and networking offerings are gaining momentum. Demos and discussions at MWC22 underlined that a new generation of network solutions providers is emerging. All major hyperscalers showcased how they are getting more heavily involved in the networking arena. Google is working on network slicing on Android 12 for more secure anywhere-work solutions and providing access to Google Cloud. Microsoft is offering Azure for operators, a 5G overlay on Azure cloud WAN where Microsoft’s internet backbone carries the customers’ traffic so that telcos can focus on cell towers and central offices. Amazon Web Services seems the most ambitious, offering a private 5G solution and cloud WAN and edge application offerings — not to mention Kuiper. All hyperscalers aim to leverage their significant network and data center infrastructure, their customer experience expertise, their cloud architecture, their offering design capabilities, simple pricing models, and their agile innovation methods. MWC22 made it clear that a new threat for telcos is on the horizon. Telcos must urgently define their strategy for how to deal with non-telco network solution providers.
  • Business-outcome-driven networks require a mindset change among network professionals. The growth opportunity that will be triggered through connected solutions is enormous, both for B2B and B2B2C offerings. Estimates for the total 5G opportunity range from $4 trillion to $6 trillion by 2030. The connectivity part accounts for only 5% to 10% of this opportunity. If telcos want to increase their share of the 5G opportunity pie, they need to reach out to new stakeholders outside the technology teams. Yet, telcos have made little progress to adjust their strategies to prepare for this. Our discussions with telcos at MWC22 suggest that the mindset change must still go further. To reach business line managers, telcos must focus more on delivering outcomes that reflect the business objectives of customers. In addition to ramping up their software capabilities, telcos must boost their ecosystem play with systems integrators and professional services firms. Above all, telcos must transform their stale employee experience and innovation cultures to provide agile solution development and to attract and retain the best talent to speed up innovation cycles.
  • The lines are blurring between cloud computing and networking. Given the fundamental and essential role quality network infrastructure plays for cloud services, the debate regarding cloud-network convergence to fully harvest the capabilities of cloud and network is resurfacing. However, cloud-network convergence is evolving toward a more integrated architecture approach: one cloud, one network, and integrated service capabilities. Not surprising, Open RAN and multicloud environments were big topics at MWC22. The integrated approach will make it easier for enterprise customers to migrate to the cloud, migrate between clouds, sell cloud services, manage cloud services, and optimize cloud services. Carriers can take on the role of cloud-network solution providers. To succeed as providers of intelligent cloud-network infrastructure, carriers must speed up product and service delivery, rethink the distribution model, and refine self-service portals for customers. Cross-divisional collaboration internally and with systems integrators, software firms, and professional services firms as well as an embrace of open innovation will help carriers develop a more agile and experimentative culture.
  • The future of work requires a quality network infrastructure. Hybrid working is the new norm for office working. Discussions at MWC22 also underlined that a more integrated workforce is key for delivering better customer and employee experiences through closer integration between office and frontline workers. Speakers emphasized the need for quality connectivity and security to support video- and augmented reality (AR)/VR-based training and selling to attract talent with flexible working environments. Several sessions at MWC22 underlined the opportunities that better broadband connectivity enables for expanding the role of frontline workers. For instance, field service support is growing into a broader service and sales role. Customers often place more trust in field service personnel than traditional sales managers. Tools like AR and VR can help frontline workers deliver better customer experiences. Hence, the quality of network connectivity and collaboration and knowledge management between frontline and office workers plays a significant role in the shift from “product support” to a “service mindset.”

Overall, MWC22 struck a constructive tone. Compared with pre-pandemic events, there was much less glamour and fewer hyped device releases. Inevitably, there was some talk regarding 6G. But overall, the mood was one of getting things done with what is possible and available today. People were clearly happy to meet in person again to carry on the discussions that they had virtually for over two years. MWC22 made it clear that physical events beat online sessions anytime.