5G, foldable phones and big plastic tigers: what we learned at this year's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona

A semi-deep dive into the mustering of minds that is MWC.
MWC, Mobile World Congress, Barcelona, Tech, 5G, Technology, Huawei, Ericsson, STC, VMware, ETISALAT, Society, Future, Culture, Enablement, Empowerment


It's safe to say MWC left a lot to process.

5G. 5G. 5G. Have we mentioned 5G?

For those that weren’t there (and it seems like everyone was, what with more than 100,000 attendees from all over the world over four days), it seemed the 2019 edition of the Mobile World Congress (MWC, or El Congreso Mundial de Móviles en español) in Barcelona was about little else. Sure, there were foldable phones and a whole slew of other cutting-edge gadgets (as well as our friends at Red Hat, in a bloody brilliant stroke of marketing genius, giving out actual red hats. It should be noted, as this writer is quite the aficionado of fine millinery, they are of a high quality). One could also hear a smattering of conversations about the cloud, check out some eye-popping stands (one of our favourites had, for no apparent reason, an entire zoo full of large plastic jungle creatures, from lions to tigers to… you get the idea), meet the odd robot or 15 (including our friend Sophia, who we first met at GITEX 2018 in Dubai; kia ora again Sophia if you’re reading this!), and encounter enough telecommunications industry executives, government officials, media members (and even one fringe media outlet walking around filming videos proclaiming, at least according to them, that 5G will apparently usher in the literal apocalypse… somehow), and public relations people to sway an American presidential election or UK referendum.

But the topic on everyone’s lips, in every brochure or pamphlet shoved in your face, plastered on every giant billboard or video screen overhead, and the only thing being discussed in official MWC media interviews blasting from speakers throughout the cavernous Fira Barcelona Gran Via, was 5G.

How operators are deploying 5G around the world (including the Middle East and Africa). Various 5G use cases, like 5G-connected ambulances being trialled in Britain (showcased at Ericsson’s gargantuan stand). Ways in which 5G can make people’s lives better across the globe. Even ways 5G can make gaming more fun, or let you beam into a meeting kind of like those holograms seen in Star Wars (also at the Ericsson stand). Ways 5G can help you heat your toast in the morning and feed your cat while you’re away… maybe or maybe not literally. You get the point.

About as unsurprising as hearing there’s drama this year with the Los Angeles Lakers (much to the continued delight of this die-hard Portland Trail Blazers NBA basketball fan), 5G was the main topic of most of the deals and partnerships that were announced, too. Huawei was especially active, announcing deals with Etisalat in the United Arab Emirates, STC and Mobily in Saudi Arabia, Zain and VIVA in Kuwait, VIVA Bahrain, and many, many more. Heck, you’d probably have a harder time finding a company that didn’t announce a deal with Huawei – they were really that active (and also, it should be noted, the number two topic of conversation, though admittedly what seemed to be a rather distant second). Oh, and Huawei also won no fewer than at least 47 major “Best of MWC” awards and top lists at the show.

But rivals Ericsson and Nokia were no slouches, either. They, too, announced a bevy of new partnerships, such as Nokia’s deals with Telecom Egypt to bring 5G to the North African nation, or their deal with rain to launch South Africa’s first commercial 5G network. Like Huawei, Ericsson also announced a UAE 5G deal with Etisalat, a mobile money partnership with MTN, and a whole host of deals with Saudi Arabian operators like STC and Mobily (which makes sense, since it was revealed at MWC that Saudi Arabia is planning the largest 5G rollout in the entire Middle East and North Africa).

Ericsson also had a whole host of press conferences and question-and-answer sessions. One of them, about the release of the Middle East and Africa regional edition of the Ericsson Mobility Report, featured none other than Ericsson Middle East and Africa president Rafiah Ibrahim (who just so happened to be on the cover of our February issue that we brought a whole box full of to pass out. Lesson learnt: carrying around a box of magazines all day can be… tiring).

With the report claiming 5G is expected to reach 30 million subscriptions for enhanced mobile broadband in the Middle East and Africa by the end of 2024, representing 2% of total mobile subscriptions, Ibrahim said 5G isn’t some far-off, pie-in-the-sky pipe dream to get consumers (and, admittedly, journalists) excited. “It is not hype. It’s happening,” she explained.

She said more. “We’ve taught the world the Middle East can do [5G]. Success stories are everywhere. Everyone in the GCC is going from the old ways to a digital economy or a knowledge economy. You see what’s being done to address the challenges in the industry. To me, technology is an enabler.”

As the days (and nights… to say Barcelona’s nightlife is scintillating would be an understatement. Those playas are bloody distracting) wore on, it became clear enablement was a common – if a bit understated – theme, circling about the edges of many a tapas-fuelled discussion just like how soon, exactly, 5G will be available at an affordable price to the masses or when (if ever, though one can dream!) foldable phones won’t cost more than US$1,500 per device.

Enablement was evident from many of the technologies being showcased at STC’s stand in Hall 2, which was probably the coolest stand of any of the Middle East operators. There was a VR immersion tour of Saudi Arabia that was so real, one could almost smell the desert air and feel the wind; in other words, one could experience the kingdom without having to spend lots of time and money to get there. There was the traditional art from women in Saudi Arabia’s south on display, enabling the world to be exposed to a unique regional culture and enabling the women producing the art to have that exposure. And then there was STC's efforts to use technology to make the Hajj and Umrah safer, by tracking crowd movements via mobile signals and providing seamless, fast, reliable coverage – enabling a safer experience for the millions upon millions of pilgrims that visit Saudi Arabia each year.

Over in Hall 3, Palo Alto, California-based cloud infrastructure and digital workplace technology company VMware (sharing a stand with parent company Dell) was busy telling visitors how its technology essentially enables other companies’ technology. VMware highlighted innovations that can help communications services providers (CSPs) capture the 5G opportunity and break into the cloud economy. As Shekar Ayyar, executive vice president for strategy and corporate development, discussed, the best way to think of VMware is as the “plumbing” required for networks – but plumbing that’s secure, flexible and adaptable depending on a company’s needs.

As Ayyar said, given the ever-increasing complexity and interconnectedness of technologies, companies simply have to work together to survive. “Everyone is now a service provider.”

Lots (and lots, and lots… has lots been mentioned) of other stuff happened at MWC, too. So much so, this writer has decided even if the event were extended from four days to 40 (or possibly 400), it still wouldn’t be enough time to get to everything and properly report on it. In fact… yeah. Let’s extend it out a bit. To boot, Barcelona’s nightlife will never get old. Nor will large plastic tigers stalking booths in exhibition centres.

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