As ever, excitement is building for the annual pilgrimage by the mobile industry to Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The show kicks off on February 26, and here we reveal what to expect from this year's gathering.
As in previous years, we expect 5G to dominate the headlines at the event. Momentum has accelerated since the 3GPP Release 15 specifications were finalized for non-standalone 5G New Radio at the end of 2017. We expect numerous announcements from chipmakers, device manufacturers, infrastructure suppliers and operators about their plans for 5G products.
Qualcomm has already announced partnerships with 18 operators and 19 manufacturers, as the industry moves to pre-commercial trials based on Release 15. AT&T aims to launch a service before the end of 2018; other US carriers, as well as operators in Korea, Japan and China are set to follow in 2019, ahead of large-scale deployments in 2020.
The 5G hype will be boosted by news from the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, where several technology companies have been showcasing early 5G networks. Although these demonstrations are based on pre-commercial standards, Intel, KT, Samsung and others will help the industry by highlighting many uses for the technology. These include fixed wireless broadband, mobile video and the massive Internet of Things (IoT) space.
However, there's growing concern that Europe will be left behind in 5G. We expect a major talking point at the show to be a lack of ambition from European operators to roll out 5G beyond early proof-of-concept implementations. This comes as little surprise considering some of the hurdles they need to overcome, from a regulatory and technology perspective, and given that spectrum availability is an ongoing challenge.
The biggest obstacle is arguably the cost associated with deployment. A recent estimate from Deutsche Telekom indicates that deploying a 5G network to cover Europe would require an investment of between €300 billion ($368.9 billion) and €500 billion, so it's no wonder that there's some nervousness, particularly given regulatory pressures. New service revenue opportunities for operators will also be a prominent topic.
We hope that the evolution to LTE-Advanced Pro, also known as gigabit LTE, will be enjoy more attention than it did last year. More than 40 operators around the world have now either deployed the technology or have plans to do so. We believe it is a critical stepping stone to 5G, and to allow operators to extend the return on their 4G investments. However, the temptation to concentrate on future 5G networks instead of showcasing today's real-world scenarios could prove too much for some.
For operators, we expect IoT to be a major theme, but with a bigger focus on industrial IoT than consumer applications. We expect Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom to emphasize narrowband NB-IoT network technology following initial commercial launches in 2017. Other operators such as Orange, AT&T and KPN are more wedded to LTE-M, an alternative narrowband technology based on 3GPP standards.
There will also be news on rival cellular narrowband solutions such as Sigfox and LoRa. Expect plenty of debate over the merits of each, as operators adopt a range of strategies. With connectivity still representing only a minority of the total value of an IoT project, discussion may move on to how operators can generate more revenue from their investments. Data aggregation, analytics and machine learning present fresh opportunities.
CCS Insight also believes operator consolidation will be back on the agenda at this year's event, in light of the recent news that Vodafone is interested in buying selected European assets from Liberty Global. In our view, the need for greater investment in fixed-line and mobile networks will encourage players to come even closer together in a bid to gain from the scale this offers.
Artificial intelligence will be the hot topic at major events in 2018 and it was also a focus area at last year's Mobile World Congress. We expect references to the technology will be used liberally by many exhibitors and speakers. Although we're hugely enthusiastic about the technology itself, we're increasingly concerned about the way in which it's being marketed. In some cases, companies are labeling their products as intelligent, when they have little more than a basic "if this, then that" algorithm. We don't believe consumers will buy artificial intelligence — what they really want is devices and services that deliver a better experience that improves with time. We urge attendees to challenge any company offering so-called artificial intelligence products to explain exactly what intelligence their solutions really provide and how they learn to make gradual improvements.
We also expect to see a much broader set of uses of artificial intelligence by network operators and network equipment providers come to the fore. These will range from network resource allocation and optimization, through detection of fraud and security problems, to services based on the enormous amount of data available from the network, and processing of the massive quantities of data generated by IoT systems running on the network. One thing is clear: the mobile industry needs to show that it has a vision for what it can do with artificial intelligence, and we expect to see many early examples of this in Barcelona.
Last year, the unexpected hit at the show was the reboot of Nokia's 3110 feature phone. This proved to be a metaphor for the wider malaise facing phone-makers, as the sea of smartphone sameness continues to erode the impact that new models have on the market. Big names like LG and Xiaomi have indicated they won't launch flagship devices in Barcelona, so all eyes will be on Samsung, whose Unpacked event takes place on the eve of the official opening of Mobile World Congress.
According to widely leaked details of the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus handsets, the new designs bear a strong resemblance to their predecessors. The teaser strapline for Samsung's event — "The camera. Reimagined." — suggests the main attraction will be a dual camera. In fact, this is a feature that seems to have become a major source of differentiation for the latest generation of smartphones, and we expect to see as many as four or five cameras built into the devices (up to three rear-facing cameras and two lenses at the front for taking selfies).
It's also likely that there will be news from HMD Global (Nokia), Huawei, Sony and many of the smaller Chinese phone-makers, which might result in many devices that have already been announced in China being showcased again. We predict an avalanche of largely nondescript smartphones serving the mid- and low tiers. This could mean that niche players get a chance to stand out from the crowd, and Bullitt, a maker of rugged phones, is a good example of this. The company will show off its new Land Rover Defender device among other news. Don't be surprised to see concept devices with folding screens, too.
Virtual and augmented reality
Another feature of the event we expect to be repeated this year will be demonstrations of both virtual and augmented reality. Content sharing in real time over a 5G network using virtual reality as one of the end points is likely to be a popular demonstration, but we think augmented reality will take a much more central role.
We predict announcements from Google and its partners related to its ARCore platform, in particular. Related to this topic, CCS Insight's chief of research, Ben Wood, will be chairing the Virtual Worlds: Immersive Experiences session at the event, with panelists from Google, HTC Vive, Dream Reality Interactive and The Guardian.
Despite a limited presence of large media companies exhibiting at the show, we expect the topic of content and how telecom operators can differentiate beyond connectivity to be hot areas of interest behind the scenes. In particular, a strong focus on sports is likely to emerge as Web providers increasingly bid to win rights at major events. The most recent of these is the English Premier League rights auction, which takes place in the run-up to the show in Barcelona. With that in mind, the Sports & Entertainment Summit is timely. Many TV solution providers and platform makers will be using the event to market and sell their offerings to telecommunication companies.
Other themes we predict at the show include connected cars (expect numerous stands to feature cars as part of their showcase), discussions about the role of the e-SIM and its implications for network operators, as well as debate about Net neutrality given recent events in the US and the potential for huge amounts of data flow over 5G networks.
As always, CCS Insight will have an extensive team of analysts at the event. We'll publish Daily Insight updates during the show and detailed event reports soon after it closes.
Ben Wood leads the research at CCS Insight having been in the mobile industry for over 15 years.