Did MWC 2017 illuminate or obfuscate the 5G vision?

Illuminate or obfuscate? Perhaps MWC mainly served to cast more light on the cracks in the façade.

Guest author

March 7, 2017

5 Min Read
Did MWC 2017 illuminate or obfuscate the 5G vision?

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Professor William Webb, Director of Webb Search reviews the recent Mobile World Congress 2017 event and asks how much progress we have made towards the eventual 5G standard.

MWC is the key calendar event for the mobile industry. With 5G deployment expected by some in the next 1-2 years, MWC 2017 was the moment for vendors to set out their stalls and operators to talk up their plans. Going into the show many expected wall-to-wall 5G wonderfulness, but things did not all go quite to plan.

There was much of the “5G will connect everything perfectly” message, and most stands sported a car and a VR headset which either were, or could be “5G connected”. Intel, for example, demonstrated connected cars and cities, and announced testbeds or labs with Ericsson and Nokia. But Nokia was not quite on message, suggesting that they would not go along with an industry agreement to push for quick decisions on “new radio” to operate in non-standalone mode. Instead, they appeared to want to move straight to full 5G solutions. The CTO of Telefonica was also critical of the industry’s race to standardisation, suggesting it was closing down options too early and that the main focus in any case should be the network, not the radio.

The reason for such haste appears to be impending fragmentation, with Verizon launching their own 5G standard and those keen on 2018 deployment looking for something they could claim to be 5G, while others were content to let the 3GPP standards process mature. An upbeat report from the GSMA warned about the dangers of fragmentation. But the solutions proposed to avoid it appear to be causing their own schisms within the community.

The GSMA report represented one of the more rational outputs. While enthusing on how “5G will turbo-charge connectivity” it pointed out that new business models are needed, new network deployment approaches required and that the investment required is “huge”. It had some ideas on how new revenue might come from business services, but noted that initial 5G deployments would likely be enhanced broadband for consumers in dense urban areas.

While there did appear to be a general view that 5G was mostly enhanced broadband, there was also fragmentation here. For example, Enrico Salvatori at Qualcomm said that the focus in Europe for 5G would be on the Internet of Things, leading globally on requirements and specifications, and that enhanced mobile broadband would be a North American and South Korean focus.

As has long been the case with 5G, few are prepared to say anything negative in public, while many express scepticism in private (which is one of the problems with 5G, leading to a lack of healthy debate – so anyone out there who is prepared to be quoted please do step forwards). At Telecoms.com, Scott Bicheno penned an article on how the PR was disconnected from reality noting that “the word on the show floor at MWC 2017 is that the industry has completely got ahead of itself with all the highfalutin talk of remote surgery and sentient cars.”

Rory Cellan-Jones at the BBC, while admiring Intel’s stand, noted: “a senior executive at one of the world’s biggest mobile operators, who took a very cynical view of his industry’s current state. ‘Who’s going to pay for it?’ he asked me, adding operators were already seeing their margins squeezed, as they battled with nimble newcomers such as WhatsApp, and had little appetite to pour money into 5G without seeing much of a return.”

Rory then met with: “a chief technologist at a major networking equipment company – one that could stand to benefit from the 5G rollout. But he described the hype around the technology as ‘irrational exuberance’ – the same term used by an economist warning in the late 1990s about the dot-com bubble. He believed that current advances in 4G – what’s known as Gigabit LTE, which enables much faster data rates over existing networks – offered a more practical and affordable solution.”

Amdocs, at least, were prepared to go public, with Telecoms.com reporting: “Gabriel Kerner – Amdocs head of product management – told us some use-case scenarios for 5G, such as gimmicky IoT toasters and fridges, are so ill-defined that the industry needs to take a step back and ask itself what it really wants to achieve. Being the first to deliver a technology that nobody really wants or needs is a pointless distraction and will end up being a wasted endeavour for everyone involved.”

And Mike Fries, CEO of Liberty Global, Europe’s biggest broadband provider, was also not shy, saying: “You can wish all you want for 5G. You can have an overwhelmingly powerful vision for it. But without the capital it’s not going to happen.”

Of course, I’m far from being an unbiased observer. My book “The 5G Myth”, published last November, suggests that the utopian vision is just not economically viable, and that consistent connectivity delivered using evolved 4G and Wi-Fi might better meet user requirements. Scott was on the same page, closing his piece with “Making sure everyone has a ubiquitous, safe, robust connection to the network may not be as sexy as 5G robot surgeons but it not only addresses a real, current issue, it is also an unavoidable prerequisite to all the other stuff everyone can’t stop banging on about here in Barcelona.”

So we leave MWC 2017 none the wiser as to the business case, technology, deployment model or timescales for 5G. Instead, fragmentation and confusion appear even more likely than a year ago. There is little doubt that 5G will happen – too many players have staked too much to let it fade away. But there is much doubt as to whether it will just be an evolution of 4G or something revolutionary, and if the latter whether it will be a case of ‘irrational exuberance’ with all that entails.

Illuminate or obfuscate? Perhaps MWC mainly served to cast more light on the cracks in the façade.


Professor William Webb is a Director of Webb Search and the author of “The 5G Myth: And why consistent connectivity is a better future”.

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