It’s that time of year again. A veritable who’s who of the industry will again converge on (some would say invade) the sylvan shores of Barcelona for the biggest trade show of the year. Delegates will need immense reserves of energy for what is bound to be a week-long maelstrom of meetings, demos, roundtables, press conferences and more. Hopefully, they will have dusted off an array of Fitbits and other fitness wearables to rack up impressive stats that will lull at least some into leaving Barcelona feeling that they got more than they hoped from the week.
For those of us lucky to attend, dive into meetings and observe the goings on, there will be a lot to take in and digest from what promises to be a manic but eventful week. In anticipation, we have prepared a list of themes that we expect to see play out in Barcelona. The list is not meant to be exhaustive but merely to capture our current viewpoint on some of the key topics that will be relevant for the Communications Service Provider (CSP) segment and the numerous vendors and suppliers who cater to them. As always, we will keep a keen eye out for what the show will portend for the Asia-Pacific region.
5G hype will be deafening
5G is hardly a new topic. In fact, the hype cycle had already kicked into gear a while back but ever since the Release 15 standards were frozen for the 5G New Radio (NR) non-standalone version in December, the industry has kicked into overdrive. 2018 will be the year that delegates to MWC will be treated to a cacophony of noise around the impending launch of 5G and the cornucopia of benefits that will flow to consumers and enterprises when we all have more bandwidth than we know what to do with.
Momentum is building for 5G launches in 2019
We expect to see commercial grade equipment from the major vendors and prototype devices from device OEMs, with many of these featuring in carefully packaged demos that will showcase the various facets of the upcoming technology launch. Qualcomm has already set the bar with its announcement of partnerships with 18 CSPs and 19 OEMs for 5G devices. Pre-commercial trials are already in full swing in several countries as they target commercial launches in 2019. The ongoing Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang have also had several showcases, though these are based on pre-standard implementations.
CSPs will begin to lay out their 5G strategies
CSPs will start to provide some much-needed clarity around their 5G plans, speaking about regulations, spectrum acquisition, target segments and the range of technologies that they are considering for deployment. Specific target segments we expect to see discussion around include the smart home, fixed wireless and industrial use cases. We do not, however, expect to see any specifics on pricing or plans.
Fixed-line networks and edge compute will come into focus as network densification gains momentum
A lot of focus and energy will be expended on the “radio” portion of the new 5G NR standard. Deservedly so, as CSPs begin to dissect the intricacies of multiple new spectrum bands, discuss acquisition strategies, device availability and more. There will also be much talk about the applications, ranging from AR/VR to real-time, low-latency industrial use cases. However, low-latency, real time access will require blanket, broadband coverage. This is only possible by densifying the network, filling in the “gaps” in macro cellular coverage with small cells and pushing compute and storage closer to the network edge. Ericsson and Nokia have already made announcements for their Radio Dot and FlexiZone MulteFire products respectively. As networks continue to ‘cloudify’, operators will need to consider future rollouts of IP-based transport solutions to ‘mesh’ together the increasing number of endpoints on their network. Put another way, as the plumbing becomes more critical for realizing the E2E story for 5G, wires will become essential for wireless!!!
CSPs will embrace artificial intelligence (AI) and emerging technologies
AI was a hot topic at last year’s MWC but 2018 is the year we expect CSPs to truly embrace AI and other emerging technologies. To be fair, it will be a while before there are clear, monetizable uses for AI by CSPs but we expect discussions to intensify around the potential of AI to help in fraud detection, network optimization, process automation, customer care and other use cases. Voice assistants and chatbots will become more commonplace as CSPs begin to experiment with cognitive systems. Fault recognition with automated alerts that trigger remedial actions to maintain network quality will likely be the initial focus for CSPs. Another area where AI could be deployed is in customer care and experience, with AI-based systems helping CSP operational teams identify potential issues with key customers and proactively suggest remedial action to keep them satisfied. For their part, vendors are also focused on this space, and companies like Nokia have announced products like MIKA, a digital voice assistant for telecom networks to improve network quality and other metrics. Huawei will likely showcase their Atlas platform that incorporates AI to drive data processing across their server hardware.
The Internet of Things will become mainstream in 2018
IOT is no longer a buzzword. As we have gone from concept to reality, 2018 will see significant momentum in IOT deployments with the technology becoming mainstream. Until last year, we still had a three-horse race on our hands, with NB-IoT almost playing catch up to LoRa and Sigfox. A year later, it feels like MWC will be the coming out party for NB-IoT, with significant momentum building and significantly more deployments relative to the competition which, despite early mover and cost advantages, have receded somewhat in recent months. We expect to see plenty of demos and showcases of use cases with commercial devices and modules.
Partnerships galore in the IoT solution provider space
Several companies, spanning the cloud, enterprise IT and web services space, have begun to position themselves to become leaders in E2E IOT services. All of these players need a connectivity play and we believe that MWC will see partnerships both announced and solidified, with CSPs as well as key managed services players. A recent example is Nokia’s partnership announcement with Amazon Web Services around multi-access edge computing (MEC).
eSIM’s will rise in prominence for IOT and consumer use cases
As eSIM technology matures, we believe that 2018 will see the rising prominence of these solutions in both IOT and consumer use cases. Apple has already embraced the technology with the recent launch of its iPhone X and Apple Watch 3. This will also be true not just for the likes of Samsung but also for the mass of Chinese OEMs outside of Huawei who are rapidly expanding overseas. MWC should see lots of new wearables and other devices with eSIM capabilities. Beyond consumer applications, we expect that eSIMs will also become important for industrial use cases like utility meters and other examples. CSPs will also support the technology in increasing numbers.
Vertical industry use cases will be visible
IOT deployments are also driving enterprises, especially “physical” industrial businesses, to consider private LTE networks for their vertical use cases and drive the kind of productivity gains that will rejuvenate growth. Enterprises increasingly need high-capacity connectivity networks that are optimized locally for their use cases as well as helping them retain control and management locally at the site. We expect CSPs and vendors at MWC to showcase demos of new use cases and applications that are being mooted and even possibly deployed in industrial and vertical industry scenarios. While the majority of use cases are still not prime time, we believe that as the key building blocks fall into place, private LTE networks enabling vertical industry use cases will become increasingly commonplace.