MWC 2021 Wrap-Up

It’s the last night in Barcelona. The show ended today, most people have gone home except for the die-hards and people from the US West Coast who could not get a flight home. Time for good Spanish wine, some jamon iberico, maybe one more cafe con leche. People who have been working in booths for four days straight, repeating the same things for a thousand times, are happy to talk about anything unrelated to the marketing department’s messaging (pro tip for analysts). This is when the real news about the show comes out.

Obviously none of that happened at this year’s Mobile World Congress. By most accounts, the show was a telecom version of the zombie apocalypse, with weary drones drifting aimlessly across a semi-abandoned landscape. Despite this, years of routine drive us to search for themes from the show.

First, 5G is moving along, pretty much just like every standard. There is so much noise around the latest wireless standard that is hard to pick out much signal. The most we can say is that is the standard seems to be spreading out a little bit faster than prior ‘G’s but that is as much a function of a few carriers (especially in China and the US) and the fact that Covid shutdowns allowed for easier access to many cell sites than in normal years. Telcos have an easier job upgrading to 5G because many of the changes can be pushed as software updates, with far less need for new physical infrastructure. Totally absent is any interest from consumers, as is there is little here for them.

The mmWave portion of the standard is moving very slowly. We are highly skeptical about these deployments (and here and here). The technology is interesting and will be great for consumers who can access it. But very few people will have access to it any time soon. Read through that Qualcomm press release we highlighted earlier this week, the one with 42 other companies providing quotes. While they all say glowing things about mmWave, only a few actually mention timing. AT&T says by the end of the year they will have mmWave in PARTS of 40 cities and 40 venues. Notice also how Verizon, once the mmWave champion, is absent from the release. Most of the other quotes talk about use cases, test systems and trials. All of the handful of actual commercial deployments are targeting very narrow deployments. This is not a failure of the technology, it is a result of a handful of vendors who are trying to will mmWave into existence for their own ends. It might work, it has worked in the past, but hope is not a great strategy.

The cloud is eating telecom. There was a fair amount of news from the cloud service providers like AWS and Azure. Three years ago, Verizon and AT&T were each already doing over a billion of business with AWS, a figure that has only grown since, with the only change being that Google and Microsoft have pushed their way into the mix. Two years ago there was a spate of acquisitions in the telecom software space, Microsoft arguably led the way acquiring Metaswitch and Affirmed, as cloud companies sought to provide a software layer to ease telcos onto their systems. The telcos are slowly being disarticulated as the Cloud and IP switching take apart the way they did business for 100 years. We suspect that if there had been a real show this year, AWS, Azure and Google Cloud, plus probably Ali Cloud, would have had a very large presence at the show. The telcos all seem to be turning the corner: they started with moving their corporate IT to the cloud (like every other corporation) but now seem to be heavily moving their networking workloads there as well.

This is important because wireless operators are changing the way they run their networks. For starters, the 5G standard allows telcos to build networks that look a lot like how Internet companies have been building networks for over a decade – virtualization, containers, commodity servers, etc. This is a big change and explains why equipment companies like Ericsson are announcing partnerships with AWS and their ilk.

All this leads to what we see as the biggest theme of the show – Open RAN. ORAN is an aspiring standard or architecture for telco software (to greatly oversimplify it). We wrote about ORAN a few months back, and had we attended MWC this year, getting a good read on ORAN would have been high on our priority list. There is clearly a lot taking place in ORAN space, with some companies showing up for meetings with too many ideas and others not showing up at all. If some version of ORAN maximalism took hold, it would upend the business of some big companies, notably Ericsson and Nokia. That maximalist ideal seems unlikely to be achieved. If for no other reason than Nokia and Ericsson have been fending off these kinds of threats for 30 years and have many tools at their disposal. The most likely outcome is that ORAN continues in some watered down form.

That being said, the scheme has some undeniable momentum. Several major companies announced ORAN support in one form or another. Harder to discern from this remove (see above re: Spanish wine) is how those companies view ORAN. Sufficient effort from companies like Qualcomm, Intel, Samsung and a handful of operators could push the architecture into a stronger form.

So despite the distance, and the lack of attendance, MWC turned out to still be a nexus of some important industry motion.

Photo Credit: D2D Advisory

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