It’s been 3 years since the last Mobile World Congress that neXt Curve has attended in person. Needless to say, the global pandemic has all but made in-person events a toil at the least. GSMA, the host of the MWC, found fortune this year as the US and Spain finds themselves on the back end of the Omicron wave. The show that might not have been went on with approximately 60K attendees, and over 1,900 exhibitors in attendance. According to John Hoffman, CEO of GSMA, the event was by all measures as success.
Here are neXt Curve’s key takeaways and highlights from Mobile World Congress 2022.
TAKEAWAY 1 – 5G’s Path to Enlightenment
Surprisingly, 5G was not talked about that much. Sure, you saw it mentioned in keynotes, but it was not necessarily the center of attention. This year, Open RAN clearly stole the show on many fronts whether you are an Open RAN vendor or a so-called-legacy vendor. This might be a good thing for 5G. This could mean that the hype is subsiding and we can now focus on how to sensibly evolve our networks, especially in the US market which drove the 5G bandwagon but suffered several spectrum-related snafus along the way prompting a mad rush for midband spectrum over the past two years.
Operators in Asia and Europe, and observers in developing markets who took a cautious approach to 5G adoption seem to have figured out the path to value by tuning into the state of 5G technology readiness. With Release-16 just coming to market, operators in China and South Korea appear to be taking measured steps in evolving their 5G networks from NSA (Non-Standalone). While vendors push operators to upgrade to a SA (Standalone) 5G core, operators such as SK Telecom are working with Samsung on implementing SA Option 4 (NE-DC, New Radio-E-UTRAN Dual Connectivity) that allows them to connect their 5G and 4G radios to a 5G Core while achieving performance parity with NSA mode.
Devices continue to push the envelope of 5G feature readiness as companies such as Samsung, Oppo, Xiaomi, and Honor announced Release-16 ready handsets with SoCs and modem modules from Qualcomm (Snapdragon). Qualcomm announced its X70 which infuses AI to further improve connected handset performance and spectral efficiency for an operator’s network. Going forward, any operators looking to evolve their 5G deployments will have a fast-growing population of 5G-ready handset owners who can benefit from services that come closer to delivering the 5G promise to consumers.
TAKEAWAY 2 – The Open RAN Purgatory
Can you call it POC purgatory? Yes, you can. Apart from Rakuten Mobile, DISH and Germany’s 1&1, there continues to be tepid adoption of Open RAN across the globe. That is not to say nothing is happening. There are indeed commercial implementations as Samsung Networks, Mavenir and Parallel Wireless will quickly note, but by and large operators continue to take a cautious approach toward bringing Open RAN into their networks. Pilots and lab trials continue to characterize the state of the movement despite vocal advocacy and measured deployments most notably by Telefonica and Vodafone.
There is little doubt that there is broadening interested in Open RAN given prevailing tumult in the geopolitical landscape that has taken highly competitive Chinese vendors off the table for many Western markets. Given a field of large-scale vendors that has been cut in half, CTOs have accelerated their interest in open network technologies. The challenge for the Open RAN community is scaling up its delivery capabilities and capacity when the sizable pipeline of POCs and trials convert. The community will also need to quickly ride up the “brown field” learning curve.
The role of the systems integrator (SI) will be important in ensuring that a multi-technology Open RAN portfolio can be integrated, operated, and managed at scale. At the moment, the only Open RAN vendor with full-lifecycle and large-scale experience implementing and operating an Open RAN infrastructure is Rakuten Symphony. However, Rakuten Symphony will need SI partners such as Tech Mahindra to codify solution patterns and transformation methods and scale out their ability to deliver SymWorld-based solutions and support their customers in the massive transformation toward webscale operations, hyperscale infrastructure, and a “neo telco” mindset.
TAKEAWAY 3 – Open Telco Modernization and Integration
The adoption of open technologies is always an architectural decision, one that is balanced between the need to sustain and modernize existing technologies in a portfolio and injecting interoperability into a technology portfolio. This is a perspective that has been largely absent in the Open RAN community as vendors have pushed the debate arguably beyond the interests of the operators who were the originators and key stakeholders of the movement to begin with.
Over the last two years, a significant degree of purism has risen in the Open RAN movement especially as incumbent players such as Nokia and Ericsson (and Huawei) work their Open RAN angle which has been broadly perceived as a “incumbent threat”. But rarely do open technology movements foster pervasive adoption. Interoperability can be achieved several ways through modernization techniques, systems integration, and middleware that can help operators realize their aspirations for a more manageable, programmable, and operationally scalable infrastructure whether the network is comprised of traditional, open, or a mix of technologies.
neXt Curve sees that open telco modernization and integration will become an increasingly important consideration for CTOs as well as vendors as Open RAN is stitched into the fabric of an operator’s network infrastructure portfolio and operations. This means brown field modernization and the handling of the complex integration of diverse and heterogenous portfolios of technologies and network deployments are essential in realizing any degree of scalable automation and intelligent operations.
Unfortunately for new Open RAN entrants, Ericsson is already managing the infrastructure of several operators as part of their managed service business. Ericsson is gradually introducing their Intelligent Automation Platform into these environments and building AI-infused xApps and rApps in what are large scale, multi-technology, brownfield environments. According to Ericsson, more than 70 percent of the equipment in these managed networks are non-Ericsson systems. This is giving Ericsson and early opportunity to work on their open modernization and integration chops in production and at scale to reduce the cost of providing managed services through intelligent automation (autonomous operations).
Huawei is no slouch on the modernization front either. While they might not be entirely open or open to opening up at the moment, the Chinese tech giant announced their IntelligentRAN which is a cloud-native, disaggregated RAN architecture that features elements similar to a non-real time and near-real time RAN intelligent controller (RIC). This architecture includes the Mobile Intelligent Engine (MIE) that enables developers to write AI-enabled applications on top of it similar to rApps and xApps for the RIC specified by O-RAN. It is conceivable that Huawei could selectively open their interfaces for some customers as Ericsson and Nokia are expected to do to support the Open RAN objectives and requirements of their customers.
Rakuten Symphony’s announcement of their collaboration with AT&T to help them implement intelligent operations using SymWorld’s Site Manager and RAN Commander is a sign of progress in the Open RAN pioneer’s quest for a brown field win. In this regard, Rakuten Symphony may be charting a path for Open RAN players to make in roads into network modernization initiatives of brown field operators. It is becoming apparent that Open RAN vendors will have to reckon with the fact that the incumbent vendors will be sizable participants in an operator’s open technology strategy. A testament to this notion is a statement by Telefonica CTO, Enrique Blanco at Red Hat’s Open5G event on the 6th of March shortly after MWC 2022.
“2022 is going to be a magic world for open RAN. If I close my eyes and everything is going as we have predicted, and we are working, 2023 to 2025 will be the massification of this kind of solution and we will do it in parallel with the traditional providers.”
Traditional providers don’t look like they are going anywhere even among the staunchest advocates of Open RAN. Ericsson, Nokia, and Huawei know this. In 2022, Open RAN vendors will have to reconcile with this reality whether they like it or not.
TAKEAWAY 4 – Without Hardware, Software is Nothing
While the industry continues to chant the mantra, “software is eating the world”, the sobering reality is that hardware matters in the RAN and at the edge despite cloud-native architectures and virtualization. As you get closer to the radio, optimized, purpose-designed hardware is essential and where differentiation resides even in the Open RAN universe.
Some of the leading software players in the Open RAN seem to have taken on a neXt Curve mantra, “software might be eating the world, but it needs hardware to run on.” In Barcelona, Mavenir showcased their wall of O-RAN compliant radios spanning small cells to 64TRX massive MIMO radios that can support up to 400MHz in bandwidth.
This move by Mavenir mirrors the work of Open RAN pioneer, Rakuten Symphony, which over the last three years collaborated with NEC, Nokia, and Qualcomm in co-developing a range of radio units for Rakuten Mobile. In October of last year, Rakuten Symphony announced its Symware edge appliance for RAN and MEC demonstrating the company’s commitment to hardware. This emerging trend or proclivity highlights the importance of systems (hardware and software) integration up and down the stack, or at the least having pre-designed, pre-tested, pre-certified integration of an O-RAN compliant system stack based on a modular architecture.
Samsung Networks further fortified our hypothesis by emphasizing the importance of hardware design in their own GLOMO Award-winning, commercially proven vRAN portfolio underscoring the challenges of managing their engineering lifecycle across hardware and software releases and continually optimizing their RAN architectures for performance and longevity. They asserted that tight software-hardware engineering is essential to optimally evolving their RAN products whether its open, proprietary, or a mix of both. In short, hardware is sexy again. It is also essential in the Open RAN game.
TAKEAWAY 5 – Metaverse Falls Flat
There was a concerted effort by some players in the industry to push metaverse as a topic. It largely fell flat. If anything, it was regarded more as an eye-roller than anything that evoked excitement and a sense of impending revolution. Metaverse remains what neXt Curve describes as a conceptual blob that has yet taken any meaningful shape but continues to suck in everything that amateur crypto futurists can concoct.
The reality of metaverse is that its constituent technologies and applications are still unimpressive and unready for broad and mass consumer consumption. It is not to say that there isn’t progress in key areas in the devices, content, and connectivity, but it is not enough to warrant the “metaverse hype”.
There are emerging applications, but the VR interface continues to be generally cumbersome and exhibits surprisingly little advancement since the last MWC. It continues to be more of a novelty than it is a practical modality of engaging with immersive content. In this sense, it is analogous to consumer drones. You might buy one but after a few flights it becomes shelfware.
From the AR (augmented reality) perspective, we are seeing some incremental improvements in form and fidelity, but the realization of consumer-grade glasses appears to be remote. There was a notable shift toward industrial and enterprise applications for the workplace and productivity, but many of the conceptual AR experiences entail significant behavioral change on the part of the user and a steep and tall learning curve. On the whole, I feel that the industry is viewing AR with the wrong lens. They need to take cues from Apple. Hint, it has little to do with glasses.
The bottom line, the idea of “metaverse” is not new. It is still in the protracted early phase of its evolution and belabored by traditional issues that stymie its progress. Certainly, hyping the matter will not move it past legacy issues and fanciful crypto hypotheticals any faster. The best thing to do is focus on the persistent challenges rather than piling on additional layers of inflated expectations on top of those that have already created years of disappointment.
TAKEAWAY 6 – Private 5G is Nascent and Tricky
In the run up to MWC 2022, great anticipation built up about private networks, especially the 5G flavor, for industrial/enterprise deployment. Surprisingly, it seemed more of a side note rather than a primary topic of interest. AWS, Cisco, and HPE grabbed their share of what seems like meager private network headlines with private 5G networks-in-a-box offerings that promise cheaper and easier deployments. I would argue that the more important factor to consider is “valuable”. That means the network provides differentiated utility and capabilities in terms of reliability, latency, and bandwidth versus Wi-Fi, wired, and non-cellular IoT connectivity options.
Despite the brewing hype and excitement, use cases for private 5G network remain largely hypothetical and tepid, and case studies of live production enterprise deployments remain rare. For the most part, private 5G network initiatives are predominantly in early trials and POC testing stages.
One of the commonly cited challenges facing private 5G networks is the paucity of 5G-capabile IoT devices that support the industrial features of Release-16. Until the more advanced features of 5G come to market, it looks like the adoption of 5G for private networks will be limited for the near future.
That being said, several of the private network vendors we spoke to indicated sizeable interest. The question is how quickly interest will convert into deployments in the coming year.
It was not all doom and gloom for private cellular networks. The one bright spot is LTE which, according to sources we spoke to, is experiencing much more than interest to try. Enterprises are buying. That’s a welcome start.
Mobile World Congress 2022 was a success. There is no doubt that in-person events provide the substance of real human experiences and interaction that we have craved as an industry since the advent of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking of pandemic, it had a distilling effect on the industry. No, not WFH (Work From Home) accelerating digital transformation by a decade. It is apparent now that on a global basis, the ambition of telco transformation have been tempered back to its roots, connectivity. For better or ill, this seemed to be the prevailing sentiment and direction of the industry. This might be a good thing.
While some claim that 5G is the ultimate platform for innovation, you can’t innovate if you can’t get the infrastructure right and it does not deliver on the promises of 5G. The important first step is 5G modernization.
Best we do not waste our breath on metaverse. There are more important fish to fry.
Many thanks to all the companies that spent time briefing neXt Curve at Mobile World Congress and contributing to our research and analysis:
- Rakuten Symphony
- Amazon Web Services (AWS)
- Samsung Networks
- Red Hat
- Spirent Communications
- Parallel Wireless
- Tech Mahindra
- Korea Telecom
- Deutsche Telekom
- SK Telecom
- Cohere Technologies