The Mobile World Congress Americas, while maybe a bit lite on attendance, offered several points of interest in the evolution of mobile connectivity. From tours on IoT to discussions on new spectrum, there are many positives to take away from the event.
5G is not just about radios: While there was a lot about how radios are getting smaller and faster with new chips, many equipment providers were also demonstrating 5G with edge computing to deliver real-time services on more than smartphones. In looking at the participants, you would expect the big equipment providers such as Ericsson and Samsung to be providing excellence in their booths, and they did. Ericsson’s tower-in-the-booth and climber along with many compelling 5G applications really stood out. Sprint and Verizon booths were very impressive with many 5G applications in action.
Applications Were Excellent: The 5G ecosystem was on fire, demonstrating lots of applications in action. There was immersive learning, computer vision-based public safety, digital virtual objects, retail alerting overlays, remote sonograms, connected submarines, connected traffic signs, cloud gaming…and if you asked for something else, I suspect someone would have pointed you to a vendor willing to create that application. A common theme across demos was 5G + MEC combined with other techs such as AR/ VR, Computer Vision, and IoT.
It was refreshing to see carriers such as Verizon and Sprint investing in enterprise application creation by working with individual partners and startups that showcase real word enterprise needs. Industry, in general, is recognizing that the 5G game is different – it’s an enterprise-applications play with no one killer app. Unfortunately, with the success in the development of the applications, it appears that there is still a gap: either the carrier nor the vendor appear to be taking ownership to bring enterprise applications to market. When asked of the equipment providers and service providers, the answer can be summarized as “we will let the enterprises build their apps…we will offer the connectivity and the infrastructure and will bring ecosystem partners.”
Ecosystem Production: First and foremost, in my opinion, the significant growth and discussion by network providers partnering with application suppliers to bring forth realistic applications by 5G is an excellent example of building 5G ecosystem. The applications were much more enterprise-focused, with some targeted towards consumers for immersive learning, gaming, and entertainment. Verizon might have been the leader in real-world demos with partners – their 5G solutions leverage collaboration with many startups who they are funding through their 5G Labs.
Another proof point of the growth of partnerships is with the OnGo pavilion. CBRS and private LTE was one of the key topics of discussion and demonstration by pretty much all RAN and small cell vendors. With more than 30 vendors in their pavilion, it is clear that this ecosystem is getting stronger. Some of these vendors claim to have live deployments in markets, while others touted multiple active trials. Interestingly, while CBRS/Private LTE was not the focal point for service providers though, the sheer amount of foot traffic at booths with CBRS solutions suggests that the interest for private networking solutions seems to be on the rise. FCC’s Public Notice of Approval for Initial Commercial Deployment (ICD) of CBRS has also helped drive the momentum and interest in CBRS based private network deployments.
Resurgence of RCS: RCS is appearing to be resurging in interest from providers of messaging and media-based applications that are targeting enterprises. RCS Business adoption by vendors stood out, as almost everyone with a solution around messaging/messaging as a platform, CPaaS, or digital engagement claimed to support RCS Business.
Other Telling Points: It was refreshing to see the impact of some relatively smaller companies that are providing products and services in the advanced LTE and 5G space. Cradlepoint, JMA Wireless, and Mavenir are examples of how the open nature of products and growth of the ecosystem is helping service providers outside of the traditional big guys. These companies, along with Live Person, Summit-Tech, and Synchronous all had excellent booth presence with intriguing demos.
In this show, the Open RAN, vRAN, and XRAN discussion appears to be an integral part of mostly all RAN vendors’ products, with the point being that the open architecture approach is no longer a leading message as it is more inherent in their strategies.
At Least One Missing Strategy: There is one thing that was glaringly missing from the show: inbuilding 5G products. From the empty discussions with equipment providers to missing topics in the MWCA agenda, 5G indoors has not taken any foothold with the equipment providers. The high-speed millimeter-wave base stations are fine for outdoor coverage, but there does not appear to be any consensus on how service providers or vendor community intends to solve 5G indoor connectivity, coverage, and capacity challenges that can support the low latency high throughput applications promised by 5G for enterprises and consumers. Service providers such as VZ acknowledged the gap and showed confidence in leveraging mmWave in indoor settings, while others reflected the need for a sub-6 GHz 5G solution with small cells or Distributed Radio System (DRS) systems. Many DAS vendors were displaying their 5G (or 5G-ready) DAS solutions but were struggling to find their spot in the 5G indoor strategy. They did not seem to have a clear answer to how their 5G DAS solutions will support high throughput low latency indoor 5G applications.
Optimizing Spectrum Competition: DARPA’s three-year competition concluded at the show, awarding the team from the University of Florida with $2M for their software-defined radio. Over the 3 years, the teams created AI-driven software-defined radios that operated in common spectrum with all other radios, setting the stage to possibly eliminate the need for dedicated channels for service providers. The competition results indicated that these radios provided better performance in the 3.5GHz spectrum than LTE does, as the AI-powered dynamic scheduling allowed these radios can stuff up to 3.5 times more traffic in the spectrum than the amount of traffic that dedicated spectrum channels enable for current LTE radios. The impressive booth included a live lab containing 140 software-defined radios. The question becomes, can these radio systems be made into commercially viable systems that meet the needs of service providers. Time will tell.