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.
Such is the desperation of the telecoms industry to hype up the next big thing and sprinkle its dull-but-important masts, ducts and grey boxes with a pinch of utopian fairy dust that many are completely ignoring more immediate, and commercially critical concerns.
The biggest of these is simply connectivity. It’s frankly comical that a recurring complaint from people we speak to at the show is that they’re unable to have meaningful conversations about the basic business of making sure people are connected, despite that being the fundamental foundation on which all the other buzzwords such as 5G, IoT, etc, stand.
Connectivity is a given, which would be fine if it was half as assured as this myopic complacency implies. Every stand, it seems, has a car on it this year and this incongruity is accentuated by the fact that, today, very few are connected to anything of significance. “Walk the floor at MWC and you’ll see plenty of ‘connected’ cars – but connected to what?” said one exasperated industry exec who preferred to remain anonymous. “I’ve never seen so many VR headsets, but they’re not connected to much at all, just some neat games. How do they fit into these big themes of 5G and IoT?”
Talking to consumer-facing media reinforced this impression. One seasoned hack confided that most end-users they speak to are grateful if they even get 3G half the time and that the term 5G is meaningless to them. The daily reporting by the BBC from the event adopts a similarly sceptical tone and seems far from convinced by all the aspirational guff being pumped out by marketing departments across the telecoms world.
As if that’s not bad enough we’re now seeing splinter groups forming with the apparent aim of pushing this utopian dream even harder. Nokia’s big 5G announcement on ‘day 0’ of the event was overshadowed by a large consortium of operators and vendors calling for just the ‘new radio’ part of the 5G standard to be accelerated, despite the fact that it will lack the backhaul, cloud infrastructure, software platforms, etc needed to make the 5G dream viable. If anything highlights the wishful-thinking folly of much of the talk at this year’s show it’s that.
One other person who apparently shares this view is Enrique Blanco, CTO of Telefónica. In an interview with Light Reading he says “As far as Telefónica is concerned, if someone is thinking 5G will be deployed and implemented like 4G, they are making a big mistake. This is not going to be about new devices and antennas. The radio is not the key topic. There is a lot of noise about the radio but we need to make noise about the whole architecture — for me, much more relevant is the issue of network slicing.”
The commercial pressure on operators and the vendors that sell into them is clear. The big 4G infrastructure projects have dried up and mobile data is rapidly becoming commoditised. There’s a sense of desperation to find new technologies to sell and thus to manufacture demand for them, but demand can’t be created overnight.
We’re constantly being told how crappy our lives are in the absence of a VR-driven version of Knight Rider that can perform plastic surgery on us during our commute into work, but this message is just not resonating with most people. The telecoms industry seems to be panicking; chasing growth through the haphazard manufacture of implausible first-world problems.
A strong sentiment we are getting from the show floor here at Mobile World Congress 2017 is that everyone just needs to chill TF out and get back to basics. 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.