Mobile World Congress is disconnected from reality

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.

Daily Poll

What did you feel was the biggest talking point to come out of MWC 2017?

  • Still miles away from 5G (28%, 42 Votes)
  • The telcos are still struggling (20%, 30 Votes)
  • 5G is almost there (17%, 26 Votes)
  • IoT has matured (12%, 18 Votes)
  • IoT will not deliver the promised revenues (9%, 13 Votes)
  • VR is WTF (5%, 8 Votes)
  • Data analytics still hasn't been addressed (5%, 7 Votes)
  • VR is OMFG (3%, 5 Votes)
  • The telcos have found their place (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 149

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  • Private Networks in a 5G World

  • 5G Networking Digital Symposium

  • LIVE: Getting the Best out of 5G

  • 5G Ecosystem Digital Symposium

  • 2020 Vision Executive Summit

  • Industrial IoT World

  • TechXLR8

  • BIG 5G Event

  • IoT World Europe Summit

  • 5G World

  • 5G Latin America


  1. Avatar Stephen Speirs 28/02/2017 @ 1:44 pm

    Enjoy your reality-check + facetious writing, good job! Yes wouldn’t it be nice if we had more comprehensive mobile coverage, which is fundamental as you say to connected cars. If you are driving outside our main towns, just be careful where you have a car accident (like as if you have a choice!) … more here ….

    PS: I used Ofcom’s mobile availability app to get a better picture of 3G & 4G connectivity on one of the roads I drive regularly, the 127 mile A82. Unfortunately “live” operation of the app was not possible … .as it relied on at least 3G which just doesn’t exist much on this major trunk road. So most of the mobile coverage pictures were obtained by typing in the postcodes from my desk at work!

    Yes, geographical cellular coverage requires more focus IMHO.

    • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 28/02/2017 @ 2:42 pm

      Facetious, moi?

      • Avatar Stephen Speirs 28/02/2017 @ 4:38 pm

        sorry I meant “insightful” ! 🙂

  2. Avatar Ben Bannister 28/02/2017 @ 8:55 pm

    Yep – that about sums it all up neatly.

  3. Avatar amol patil 01/03/2017 @ 2:36 pm

    Very well said. When A4 and M4 are still struggling with handover issues, it is absurd to think about connected cars and AR/VR. Operators are still not understanding the worth of what they are sitting on- the network itself!

    There is a lot that can be done with what they already have; from network optimisation to understanding people’s behaviour, to monetisation… theres more that can be done with the customer experience optimisation!!

  4. Avatar Rick Aspan 02/03/2017 @ 9:18 am

    Scott: We couldn’t agree more! In fact, that was CommScope’s main message all week at MWC–the need for practical steps in preparation for 5G that center on network optimization, virtualization and densification. There is so much to do to enable connectivity, not just for when 5G arrives but for today’s 4G networks too. None of this “sexy” and futuristic stuff will work without great connectivity.

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