In the hype-a-thon that is MWC it’s easy to lose focus. Walking its halls since Cannes circa 2006, I’ve come to accept it as at once forest and trees, oracle and arcade, and more poetically perhaps, the clouds in Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. Perhaps I don’t know MWC at all.
But for a certain blue chip pedigree, I am a startup guy. As I pack for the Catalan capital and weigh between suits and sneakers I am at once struck by its essential paradox. Old and new, hip and square, virtual and forged. And yet to truly “#BeMWC” is to embody precisely that – equal measures suit and sneakers, futurist and guardian, hardware and software; An MWC Avatar if you will.
The wearing of several hats simultaneously allows you to see a few sides of the problem at once. On the one hand we’ve got an industry with real, fundamental dysfunction at its core. On the other, the long view techno historian in me sees the perennial push-pull at the poles as all part of the show. A necessary synthesis. SPOILER ALERT: Expect massive disruption at the end of Act III.
Are we there yet?
So ask the kids at regular intervals on the car trip, and the answer is always the same. This year’s assessment would be no different. But as high as expectations are, at the very highest levels, they are also refreshingly straight forward this year. If past 5G-focused MWCs were large on lofty vision, this year we’re looking into the other end of the telescope to at those little bundles of joy, the device air interface chipset. Failing miserably on that score last year, MWC18 was rumored to have had but one lone 5G air interface device – a tablet, incidentally. By contrast this year promises to be awash in 5G-enabled devices from every leading vendor excluding Apple.
NOTE: Though Apple famously fueled 3G (think iPhone), they now fall far from the tree, never appearing in Barcelona – they have their own big show and no expensive 5G chip of their own.
Pass The Chips, We’re Phoning it in
But if flipping the telescope means focusing back to the devices, the leven in the mobile network recipe, we can only hope that all the other ingredients are there I proper measure.
If we follow the leap frogging pattern of telecom Gs, and keeping with the iPhone backstory, we can see 5G as in the same spot 3G was around the year 2000. While focusing on devices (and what might soon be sellable), the big vision then as now still lacks a business model. The iPhone’s triumphant, and indeed disruptive arrival created an entirely new ecosystem within the industry, but it wasn’t the telecom industry that created it. They merely laid the tracks.
I’ve had a weakness for mobile phones since dreaming of my very own a Star Trek flip. I am sure I am not alone. But there’s a real and valid sense that the phone’s ascendance has come to an end. True, it’s hard to move beyond this fairly established form factor. Alarmingly though, many seem ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater pointing to this as proof that mobile networks have already extracted their value.
While it would be naïve to expect an easy sequel to te iPhone/3G bonanza, that we can’t see the revolution that is now underway is merely a failure of the imagination. This is a charge we have lobbed in past blogs and Webinars and here we are at the dawn of another MWC with a story that is eerily one of nearly 20 years ago. Plus ça change….Without deflating the fun of MWC, 5G and the latest fleet of friendly robots, this year’s show will be more of the same; new wine in old bottles (new chips in old devices), all over again. Not much to wow about, but is there something else bubbling?
Into the Wide Open Air
Phones aside (and I hope they will be at MWC), if there’s a set of conversations that interests me most they will be here; At the meeting points of how NFV, Open RAN and Citizens’ Broadcast Radio System (CBRS) come together. I am not saying that hardware isn’t still king and queen of the ball, it’s just that every prom comes to an end, and the lights are flicking on this one.
One can’t underestimate the challenge of moving away from an infrastructure model so invested in and entrenched. But let’s remember that it is such a costly, deep pocket game precisely due to the amount of overlapping, redundant proprietary hardware it holds dear. Of course, with all of its steep licensing,heavy regulation and terrapineque standards development, it’s by every measure an awesome global solution. Today it serves over 5 billion of earth rock’s mobile denizens, drawing some $1.4T annually. That’s nothing to sneeze at. But again, every prom comes to an end and in the waning days of the hardware revolution, like the handset revolution , this is the last dance. Cue Stairway to Heaven.
And now comes the fun part. As the technology comes ready for the next wave, new and some yet unimagined competitors arrive, the tremors of disruption begin. We can paint the picture. No more proprietary hardware. The core is virtualized, and at last, RF has an open source baseline. Open air networks like CBRS open the doors to all comers to invent themselves as an operator at almost no cost.
Before you know it, traffic over air interfaces explodes and with it, clouds of new niche services. The naysayers, called out earlier, contending the value was already extracted in 4G eat their hats at the enormous growth potential coming from these new private networks.
As lifelong telecom dreamer, inventor and proud foil cap wearer I just love the promise of open air, softspectrum and the ability to hand new players and innovative verticals the keys to their very own car in the form of open APIs. It’s closer than you think and something to be on look out for in Barcelona.
See you next week!