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An annual highlight on the telecoms industry calendar, the Mobile World Congress (26 February – 1 March, Barcelona) brought together 2,000 exhibitors from 200 countries, and attracted more than 50,000 visitors to its stands.
DigiWorld Yearbook distribution during Mobile World Congress 2018

As it is every year, IDATE DigiWorld was on hand as a partner analyst. Below, we offer a summary of what stood out most for IDATE DigiWorld experts, through interviews with Florence Le Borgne, Lead ‘TV & Digital Content’ analyst, Frédéric Pujol, Lead 5G analyst, Samuel Ropert, Lead IoT analyst, and Deputy CEO, Jean-Dominique Séval.

Q: The Mobile World Congress always provides a good opportunity to take the pulse of the telecoms world. What are the main takeaways from this year’s edition?

What strikes me most about this year’s edition is the concrete confirmation – through the announcements and the demonstrations we saw – of an intuition that began taking shape at the start of the year. We really have the impression that the roadmap for the key technologies that are going to shape the digital economy in the coming years is speeding up. And in a way that is unusual enough to make it worth mentioning: as analysts we are more often used to hearing about successive delays between the initial, often optimistic announcement and the market actually gaining traction.

Today, however, we seem to be witnessing a reassessment of the roadmaps for certain key technologies. All of the technologies that made it to IDATE DigiWorld’s Top 10 (see below) were of course on display in Barcelona. But what’s new is the advances made by the most influential among them, both in terms of the momentum of the digital economy in and of itself, and of the economy as a whole: networks with 5G, software boosted by artificial intelligence and IoT applications with autonomous cars.

5G: First commercial rollouts expected in 2019… in Asia

5G was the real star of the show (as detailed in the interview with Frédéric Pujol further down). Unlike last year, the focus was not on promoting equipment suppliers’ product lines, but rather on conducting demos and announcing rollout roadmaps. We had been expecting 5G to arrive some time after 2020, but the first commercial rollouts are now being set for 2019, notably in China and South Korea, as emphasised by Ericsson CEO, Börje Ekholm, in his briefing to analysts.

A timetable that puts pressure on Europe. A European commitment that at least one major city in each EU country would be 5G ready by 2020 remains a pretty modest target for the region’s major countries. Which led France’s Secretary of State for Digital Affairs, Mounir Mahjoubi, to say that he hoped to see ‘livelier ambitions in France,’ even if trials are already being planned for mid-2018 in Bordeaux with Bouygues Telecom, and in Lille and Douai with Orange.

Every telco was talking 5G, trying to prove as imaginative as possible in the array of applications and benefits of 5G they were promoting – a good case in point being China Mobile with manufacturing (photo below).

Remote controlled robot based on 5G technologies, China Mobile and ABB Group.

Photo/Xinchua, Mobile World Congress 2018

Artificial intelligence making its way into the heart of every network and every device

As it has in every field, artificial intelligence has insinuated its way into telecoms apps. It can be found of course on devices, such as the latest addition to the LG line, the LG V30S ThinQ, which has an AI Cam smart focus feature (Google Assistant) that can recognise a type of setting or object (portrait, animal, landscape, dish, etc.) and adapt the pre-settings to take a perfect picture. From a more general perspective, AI has made its way to the heart of devices, since processor designers such as Qualcomm, ARM, Samsung and Huawei, are incorporating machine learning models into their chipsets to make smartphones even easier to use.

AI has of course also made its way into network cores. Ericsson took the plunge by tapping into the possibilities of machine learning for network management and to predict traffic flows, but also to get better control over costs and improve quality of service. They expect to see major gains, as underscored by Ericsson CTO, Erik Ekudden: ‘With automation and domain specific AI, the intelligence built into the network platform provides superior performance while optimizing use of scarce radio network resources’.

Telcos are not taking a back seat here and some, such as Telefónica, are working to increase their presence in subscribers’ homes. The Spanish incumbent introduced the Aura voice assistant at the Mobile World Congress, which was developed in partnership with Microsoft, as well as its Cortana person assistant. As the telco’s own Chief Data Officer, Chema Alonzo, clearly stated, the goal is to keep pace with internet giants in the six countries where Telefónica markets a wide range of services.

Aura, Telefonica’s voice assistant presentation by Chema Alonso, CDO

Photo/Nic Fildes, Mobile World Congress 2018

Pushing the connected car to pave the way for autonomous cars

In a great many Internet of Things demos (see interview with Samuel Ropert below on this topic), the car was, unsurprisingly, front and centre.

The first such cars were a major event just three short years ago at the Mobile World Congress, gracing the stands of a handful of telcos like AT&T. This year, automakers were out in force, Seat, BMW and Mercedes all unveiling their latest innovations. While waiting for autonomous cars to become a commonplace sometime around 2020 (we can already see around a hundred autonomous Uber-Volvo taxis in the streets of Pittsburgh!), the current aim is to bring connectivity and apps into the connected car.

Seat was no doubt the carmaker that attracted the most attention, with its announcement of the future development of 5G in its vehicles. Mercedes unveiled an iOS app (with the Android version due out soon) that will replace user manuals in its new Class A, Class C, Class S, etc. cars and which, when combined with a chatbot, can answer users’ questions. BMW also unveiled the Digital Key for unlocking a BMW using a smartphone, and which could be shared with up to five users.

Q: What else stood out for you at the Mobile World Congress 2018?

Smartphones are of course always in the spotlight at every MWC, even if this year we saw very little that was truly new. While all of the market leaders, like Samsung or Huawei, unveiled their new lines, the biggest trend is still manufacturers’ positioning with respect to the iPhone X from Apple, which was conspicuously absent once again this year. To give just one example, a great many suppliers have replicated the notch at the top of the screen. MWC was also an opportunity to discover a great many Chinese brands that are little known in Europe, such as GooPhone, Doogee, Oukitel, Ulefone…

If it is unlikely that these brands will make real inroads in Europe, the same cannot be said of Xiaomi which made a big splash at the Congress for the first time this year. Already the world’s fourth largest handset supplier, with a 7% market share in Q4 2017, the Chinese manufacturer is on the offensive, opening its first retail outlet in Spain, while rumour has it that it will also be setting up shop in France in April 2018.

If the stars of previous years, smart watches and virtual reality headsets, were absent this year, there was no shortage of innovation on display. Among the many examples, I will cite just two.

As a member of the Jury for the Business France Awards, I had the pleasure of celebrating a promising start-up: Biggerpan. This company has developed a predictive artificial intelligence engine for mobile phones that anticipates smartphone users’ needs, to then suggest relevant content, services and items to buy in real time. Regardless of the application, as you continue to browse, the predictive engine proposes direct access to the most relevant content, using the smartphone’s deep data. A technology that interests telcos looking for innovative services, and ones that will enable them to differentiate themselves from the omnipresent Android standard.

Even though autonomous cars are not yet on our roads, we are already looking ahead to flying cars, which will take our roadways into the third dimension. Chinese manufacturer Ehang had everyone pulling out their phone to snap a shot of its prototype of a personal drone taxi. If Uber had made headlines by unveiling a flying taxi developed with Bell Helicopter at CES 2018 (first trials scheduled for 2020), Ehang – which had announced its version back in 20016 – performed its first test flights this year, travelling 50 kilometres at an altitude of 500 metres, with an hour of autonomy.

Prototype du Flying taxi EHang 184

Photo/Séval, Stand Innovation City, Mobile World Congress 2018

To conclude, I’ll mention the series of announcements from Rakuten, which took advantage of MWC and the fact of having recently had its name emblazoned on the jerseys of the very prestigious Barcelona football club, to launch a new phase in its international conquest. A strategy worth keeping an eye on as global offensives intended to go head to head with American and Chinese titans are few and far between. For the Japanese heavyweight, which has over 100 million customers at home, the goal is to add a large series of acquisitions to its brand, thanks to a war chest which, in recent years, has enabled it to purchase: the Viber pioneer messaging service, since renamed Rakuten Viber, Spanish VOD site, Wuaki, now Rakuten TV and French e-commerce site PriceMinister, now called Rakuten PriceMinister.

In addition to this new slew of properties carrying its brand, the company wants to take the recipe that made its success in Japan and create a complete ecosystem of services, which are bound together by a system of points that act as a sort of internal currency. Also worth noting is that, in Japan, Rakuten is hoping to shake things up by becoming the country’s fourth mobile operator, provided it obtains a licence in the coming weeks, and to start a price war.