Mobile World Congress 2023 Preview

We are attending Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next week (February 27 to March 2). Drop us a line if you would like to meet up. This is the wireless industry’s biggest event and it sounds like this year will be a big show, with attendance closing in on pre-pandemic levels. This is usually one of our most productive weeks of the year. And while we are have not booked 70 meetings for the week like we used to, we anticipate drinking form the firehose. There are a few topics which we plan to focus on. Of course, no plan outlasts getting punched in the face by 100 press releases on Day 1. We plan a whole series when we get back to cove all of that, but there are a few items which we really want to nail down at the show.

Top of the list is the progress, or lack thereof, for the Open RAN (O-RAN) initiative. This is an initiative to open up the telecom equipment stack. Today that stack is largely controlled by the big equipment makers like Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei (sortof, but definitely still hanging on). Our view is that O-RAN is undergoing a civil war between those big equipment makers who want the standard to be “open”, and a host of software and chip companies who want it to be Open.

O-RAN is important obviously for the wireless industry, but also for the chip makers who are lining up on either side of the divide. We wrote a few months ago about the brewing fight between Intel and its general purpose compute approach against the semi-custom approach being adopted by Marvell and Qualcomm, as well as homegrown silicon attempts from Ericsson. We have a guess as to where this is headed, but want to see how it is playing out on the front lines.

A perennial topic for us at every show is the State of the Baseband Market for phones. This used to be a much more contentious topic, but has attrited into an equilibrium between Qualcomm and Mediatek. Mediatek has some great products but shows little interest in breaking into flagship phones and competing against Qualcomm at the high end. For their part, Qualcomm seems to be much more focussed on expanding the use of cellular modems into every end market out there especially automotive and “IoT”. Apple will not be at the show formally, but will remain the elephant in every one of these conversations.

Another big topic for us is automotive. MWC is not really a show about cars. Nvidia does not even have a booth at MWC. That being said, Qualcomm has had a Formula 1 car in its booths for years for a reason. Cellular connectivity in cars is an important topic so we expect there will be many people at the show with a view on progress here. Again, our guess is the story will be about Qualcomm’s relentlessly growing list of design wins. Moreover, autonomous vehicles, whenever they arrive, will benefit greatly from connectivity, so we expect this to be a topic in many booths.

On a related note, we are also spending a lot of time exploring the changing relationship between semis vendors and auto makers. Again, this is not a show about cars, but there will be a lot of semis companies there, and we think there are some big changes taking place in the area.

We will also be double checking all those expectations about a semis recovery in the second half of the year. Mobile was among the hardest hit segments in the current downturn, but everyone expressed some flavor of optimism for a recovery later in 2023. It will be interesting to hear what people on the ground are seeing.

MWC is the ideal venue to learn about the future of the wireless standards. So part of our time will be spent gauging the state of 5G spending, which we think has likely peaked. mmWave does not look like it will be a major theme this year, so maybe we will actually see some people making real progress there. And rounding out the 5G hype cycle will be private networks. A few years ago, these were top of the list for 5G discussions but have since faded to the background as the operators realized they (still) cannot sell to enterprises. However, we are fairly confident that there is real progress being made on this front with actual deployments rolling out from smaller companies. Which bring us to 6G. The next version of the standard is still years away, and looks incredibly technically challenging. As 5G build outs slow down, we expect 6G to become a more prominent topic, but probably (hopefully) not this year.

Finally, we also be speaking to a whole host of IoT, CPE, eNodeB and cable companies who make up the backbone of the wireless industry and the show. On the other hand, we will be doing our best to avoid discussing AI, even though we can already tell every booth will mention our glorious GPT future.

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