MWC Barcelona Recap—The Future is Here (Almost)

In the past week, leaders from far-flung industries and locations gathered both in- person and online to discuss the latest developments in 5G, IoT, artificial intelligence (AI) and more. In addition, the impact of COVID-19 was made known through discussions of disruption, innovation and the future.

Throughout the week, a common theme emerged from MWC—many industries and technologies are operating in what can best be described as the “in-between”. Sandwiched in between the pre- and post-COVID eras, leaders discussed the impact of the pandemic on their respective specialties, while also charting a path forward into an exciting era of innovation.

In this recap, we review some of the major trends and technologies discussed at MWC Barcelona 2021.

5G

Hans Vestberg, Charmain and CEO of Verizon, declared that 5G “is the innovation that makes other innovations possible.” In our view, if 2020 was the year of 5G preparation, 2021 is on track to be remembered as the year that 5G investments and deployments paid off.

5G’s high speeds and low latency enables game-changing innovation. At MWC, the potential of 5G use cases was on full display. Verizon exhibited their autonomous robots that can be used in both mining and manufacturing. The display highlighted the role robots can play in protecting humans from hazardous work conditions.

Verizon also presented footage of a 5G drone use case. On a 4G network, drones need to land frequently to download data, wasting valuable time and battery power. With 5G, drones can be used over much longer distances. The real-world examples highlight the immense potential of 5G moving forward.

Artificial Intelligence

The telecom industry is well acquainted with AI technology—it’s allowed them to enhance their network operations and improve the customer experience. The pandemic seems to have fundamentally changed the way operators view AI, as they now see it as a major component of moving toward more automated processes.

Voice and data traffic increased by nearly 50 percent at one point during the pandemic. AI helped assess where and how carriers could modernize and upgrade their network capacity and was integral in keeping up with surging demand. Moving forward, AI will play a crucial role in 5G network slicing by offering auto-discovery, auto-scaling and dynamic slicing.

At MWC, leaders also discussed AI regulations and standards. A common refrain involved a lack of clear standards and disparate regulations across the European Union, the United States and the rest of the world. As things currently stand, a lack of clarity could hinder AI implementation. Dr. Richard Benjamins, the Chief AI & Data Strategist at Telefónica, believes that many organizations prefer a global standard for AI regulation to ensure that the same rules apply to all.

IoT

IoT has been waiting for its day in the sun. Businesses have rolled out various IoT use cases as a proof of concept, but getting IoT to work is one thing, and getting it to deliver value is another.

However, IoT shows signs that businesses are ready to scale it; 63 percent of enterprises in a GSMA survey said their IoT deployments are part of their digital transformation plans and not a standalone project.

“IoT is no longer about proof of concept, but proof of value,” said Sylwia Kechiche, Principal Analyst of IoT and Enterprise at GSMA.

The state of the smart home is a telling snapshot of what IoT is trying to move beyond “a collection of stuff,” as iRobot CEO Colin Angle described. Currently, consumers can have dozens of appliances and functions in their home, each controlled by a different app that demands attention and programming. Not ideal the ease of use.

The way smart homes can move forward is for them to “program themselves,” Angle added. The smart devices would gain an awareness of the homeowner’s preferences as well as the other devices in the homes and work together with minimal configuration from the homeowner.

As innovators begin integrating IoT functions more seamlessly into larger systems, they can finally unlock the value the technology has promised.

Tech for Good

MWC Barcelona wasn’t all just business. Presentations enumerated the environmental and social benefits of emerging tech, not just economic.
Speakers noted the intrinsic efficiency of 5G, which uses half the energy of 4G, and fiber networks, which consume a fraction of the energy copper does.

“The positive impact of our networks brings a better life for all at a lower cost for the planet,” said Stéphane Richard, Chairman of GSMA and Orange Group.
Technologies like cloud computing carry perks for the environment: as CSPs migrated more operations to the cloud in their digital transformation plans, they reduced their carbon footprint. As CSPs used AI to orchestrate their network traffic, they gained efficiency and consumed less energy.

MWC also hosted much discussion on connecting the world’s underserved communities, which can reduce extreme poverty. That was a primary objective of Starlink, the broadband satellite network that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk detailed in a highly anticipated keynote. Musk told attendees to “think of Starlink as filling in the gaps of 5G and fiber” for the hard-to-reach 3-5 percent of the world population.

“It’s very difficult to make the economic case for rural coverage,” Musk said. Starlink is looking to form partnerships with CSPs, helping them provide rural coverage required for a 5G license, or to provide backhaul for those that have rural towers.

Bringing It All Together

MWC Barcelona 2021 was a place to take stock of the technologies that show increasing promise but haven’t yet fully delivered. In general, leaders and presenters conveyed a sense that technology and communications remain at the cusp of true advancement. Even after having their digital transformation trajectory shot forward several years by the COVID-19 pandemic, things sit in the in-between.

The key to unlocking the potential of 5G, AI, IoT and other emerging tech will be to have them work together seamlessly and make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

Want to learn more about what was discussed at MWC Barcelona? Check out our coverage here.