Nothing travels faster than the speed of hype. Not at MWC anyway.
Over the years we have grown accustomed to inflated headlines informing us of the latest new thing to change our lives forever, whether it was Samsung’s first VR headset, or Facebook announcing their acquisition of WhatsApp.
For 2019 there were few major announcements and fewer attention-grabbing demos. Indeed, many stands appeared to have the same demo as 2018 but with a “5G” label stuck on. One piece of news that did get hyped was Huawei’s folding phone. Like thousands of others I went along to have a look, and like thousands of others I was bitterly disappointed to find it out of reach behind a thick piece of glass. (I think we all wanted to see how many times you can fold it backwards and forwards till it breaks … but we were not allowed).
But behind the noise, significant trends continue to gather pace. Here are three that received attention for all the right reasons at MWC, and one or two that received attention for all the wrong reasons.
AI – less artificial, more intelligent
“The only place I have seen AI working is on a PowerPoint slide” – overheard at MWC.
And yet some aspects of automated intelligence are already integral to our everyday lives. For example, the way many of us have our health monitored with fitness trackers, or our fatigue levels while we are driving, or the ability to do language translation on the spot. These are all examples of the trend to embed intelligence in objects around us, as well as generating huge quantities of personal data – with obvious privacy and security implications.
MWC’s overarching theme for 2019 was “Intelligent Connectivity”, so unsurprisingly AI and Machine Learning (ML) were hot topics.
In a discussion on “AI and Ethics”, the use of AI and ML to augment human work rather than replace it was discussed. Done well, AI and ML can help humans make predictions and come up with new suggestions, from the doctor’s surgery to the shop floor. One concern, however, is that with AI we can “codify” human biases and even exaggerate them. For example, a loan company where employees tend to refuse loans to minorities can unwittingly train an automated AI system that attempts to learn from them, formalizing this bias – a kind of automated discrimination.
One speaker from an operator commented that we as an industry need to eat our own dog food; in other words, we need to become experienced in utilizing AI and ML internally to automate or augment our own processes first – and we are way behind with this.
Someone once said that “intelligence is knowing what to do in a situation you have never been in before”. AI is not there yet.
Isn’t 5G just another G?
At MWC, the big vendors, including Ericsson, Cisco, Huawei, and Nokia made multiple announcements naming specific mobile operators with whom they will deploy 5G in 2019.
But the question remains: isn’t 5G just another “G”?
Yes and no. What is becoming clear is that 5G will certainly change the way we use mobile services, but in two, overlapping phases. Firstly, 5G will be “another G” bringing about a more pervasive mobile broadband with higher speeds, greater volumes, and lower latencies. That will enable some new uses of mobile broadband including potentially VR and AR, as well as the ability for example to watch more video in High Definition (HD) with less buffering.
But the second phase is certainly not “just another G”. Here 5G enables a platform for new services that impacts many facets of public life. For one thing, the definition of customers and devices will change so that they are no longer only ‘human subscribers’ on a mobile connection, but any intelligent or dumb device placed in vehicles, businesses and on every street corner. 5G will stimulate new user experiences while applications will be chained together to create new services, especially around the much-discussed Internet of Things (IoT).
Someone once said that when a new technology comes along we overestimate its immediate impact, but underestimate its long-term impact. That will surely be the case here.
Video is the next data tsunami
Video continues to underpin much of the content and new services being launched worldwide, since it makes up around 65% of all mobile data traffic, and is growing at 50-60% or even faster year on year in many regions. This presents issues of how to manage traffic and ensure subscriber Quality of Experience.
Video-enabled devices are nothing new at MWC – especially VR/AR devices — but their diversity and widespread prevalence is new. Two years ago you had to queue for half an hour to get to play with one of these headsets at MWC; now you just walk right up. The headsets at MWC are slowly becoming more affordable and, more importantly, slightly more wearable. The most recent evolution of VR/AR is something called Mixed Reality, offering a system of front-mounted cameras that provide either real-world objects in a virtual world, or virtual objects in the real world. (Microsoft announced their Mixed Reality HoloLens 2 headset just ahead of MWC).
Other video-enabled services are also emerging, such as giving consumers the ability to switch camera angles at a sporting event using their handset. Most sporting events utilise say 20 different camera angles, but only one is broadcast at any one time. High bandwidth connectivity makes it possible for consumers to select the angle they want – effectively curating their own content.
Consequently, operators will need to look carefully at how they manage traffic on their networks. Video can cause traffic to spike – one operator said they consume 80% of their volume for the day in just two hours. As new services that use video become prevalent, this variance in traffic will grow – peaks could be many times the average, and very often unpredictable.
Driverless cars are “so 2018”
Aside from the serious nature of this event, some companies do try to bring a spark of humor, with varying success. Among these, ZTE featured their “driverless band”, a kind of autonomous robotic duo on keyboard and drums. The musical experience was poor, but they did make us smile.