Mobile World Congress 2019 in review, days one and two
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:
A remote driving demonstration was on show at the Ericsson stand

5G again dominated the headlines at MWC Barcelona for good reason, given that this is the year that the rollouts start in earnest.

While this year’s Mobile World Congress Barcelona is not yet over (at the time of writing), it’s worth taking a moment to consider the wider context – with 5G networks in the early stages of rollout (with the possible exception of South Korea), user equipment not yet in consumers’ hands and the elements that are aimed at supporting vertical industries still under-going standardisation in 3GPP Release 16 (which won’t freeze until March 2020) it was always going to feel ever-so slightly anticlimactic.

That said, it was pleasing to see that after such much collective effort across the whole industry, 5G is at long last a tangible reality, as most graphically demonstrated by the launch of the first 5G smartphones, including Huawei’s Mate X and Samsung’s S10 5G (the launch of the latter took place at Samsung’s 20 February Unpacked event).

There was also a great deal of innovation on show that wasn’t present last year. For instance, cloud-gaming platforms were present on several stands and I got to see a display on the Huawei stand that uses eye tracking technology to give the illusion of 3D objects, without the need for tinted glasses or a VR helmet. However as there is only one ‘sweet spot’, it can only accommodate solitary viewing experiences.

Two demos stuck out from the rest. The first was a live remote driving demo on the Ericsson stand, where it was possible to drive (albeit slowly and within a predefined geofence) one of Einride’s T-Pod cab-less vehicles in Sweden. The intention is for fleets of these vehicles to operate autonomously, with the initial use case being transporting goods between warehouses. The T-Pods were first commercially installed at a DB Schenker facility and Einride is working to get permission for them to run on public roads.

To get to the other demo, I had to venture into the Huawei stand’s ‘back garden’. There, a set-up streamed 8K video footage of a beach located 6km away over a 5G connection. This was to either a 5G smartphone or customer-premises equipment, at a leisurely ~140mbps and a latency of around 14 milliseconds. While I suspect that this was barely testing the connection’s bandwidth, it was great to see an actual 5G set-up just outside MWC.

The controversy over Huawei and national security was the subject of much fruitless discussion as company representatives responded patiently to by now much-repeated lines of questions. There was one new development, however - Mariya Gabriel, the European commissioner for digital economy and society said that her organisation recognised the need for a common approach to 5G cybersecurity.

“I’m well aware of the unrest among all of you key actors in the telecommunications sector caused by the ongoing decisions on the cybersecurity of 5G, she said. “Let me reassure you the Commission takes your [views] very serious because you need to run these systems every day.”

“Nobody is helped by premature decisions based on partial analysis of the facts. However, it is also clear that Europe has to have a common approach to this challenge, and we need to bring it [to] the table soon otherwise there is a risk that fragmentation rises because of divergent decisions taken by member states trying to protect themselves. We all know that fragmentation damages the digital single market. So, therefore, we are working on this important matter with priority and the Commission will take steps soon.”

Rise of the robot operators
As previously reported in our coverage of Ericsson and Huawei’s pre-MWC events (click the links to learn more) and announcements, the emphasis has shifted from the race to develop 5G to trying to offer the best 5G equipment to mobile network operators. This is in terms of cost/bit, size, weight and energy efficiency, while also promising to bring them new AI-driven capabilities to optimise the running of their networks.

This last point may have interesting (and unintended) long-term implications. During the annual Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance panel session, which was largely focused on how mobile network operators can meet the needs of vertical industries, Howard Benn, head of standards and industrial affairs at Samsung Electronics asked the operators as to whether they believe their role will be as important as it currently is in a few years’ time given that the growing use of AI for operations and maintenance.

”We’re massive fans of AI and machine learning and we’re using those techniques to deliver the right service quality into those [vertical industry] environments”, replied Vodafone’s Luke Ibbetson.

“The more we can automate our operations to make them more reliable the better, we’re actively pushing on that in the day-to-day business as usual to use all of the AI tools to the fullest extent possible, to automate our operations. This is becoming extremely complex and when you look at some of the requirements emerging in those industrial use cases you can’t do it using any other technique anyway. [But] when you look at the overall managing of a service level agreement, when you’re combining network assets from outdoors and indoors to deliver a consistent user experience across a campus network, you need an operator to pull the ends together.”

Arash Ashouriha, SVP group technology innovation & deputy CTO at Deutsche Telekom, highlighted the economies of scale inherent in large MNOs such as his own and added that: “There will be [vertical] customers who will say, look, I want to try it myself. I want to do it with a third party but the majority will continue [to] work with us, if we are able to listen to them and fulfil [their requirements].”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the presence of a new premium form factor, the foldable smartphone, with Huawei and Samsung having such devices on show. However, these were locked up in display cabinets making it impossible for us to get a feel for how practical these are to use and hold when unfolded.

"Cost is the key factor that will hinder adoption,” said Canalys’ senior analyst Ben Stanton (Huawei’s Mate X will start at €2,229 and be available in the middle of 2019, though costs could come down as volumes scale up).

“The ‘fold-out’ design [with the screen on the outside, as used on the Mate X] will eventually lend itself to cheaper devices, as manufacturers won’t need to include as many cameras, nor a second ‘outside’ screen [which the Samsung has]. The bend on the flexible screen won’t need to be as tight.

“But these devices will come too late to affect this year’s shipment numbers significantly. In 2019, vendors offering foldable phones must ensure excellent quality and durability. Any early teething problems or breakages will sour the foldable form-factor before it has had a chance to get going.”

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