There were at least two giant tech conferences taking place this week in Barcelona. One was the Mobile World Congress you would expect, the commercial one that featured all the latest wireless devices and infrastructure advances.
The other one was all about putting those devices, networks and infrastructure to work for global good. This Mobile World Congress brought together some of the world’s leading government officials, influential NGOs, and giant commercial enterprises to talk policy in the service of global progress in general, and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in particular.
The star of both Mobile World Congresses was 5G, the next generation of network infrastructure. In conjunction with the Internet of Things (IoT) and “edge computing,” 5G has the potential to transform business in the developed world and bring life-altering improvement to the developing one. (Edge computing allows data produced by IoT devices to be processed nearby instead of sending it across long routes to data centers or clouds.)
While the commercial Mobile World Congress largely showed off 5G applications in areas like enhanced video and gaming services, connected vehicles, and robotics, advocates for social progress called for the mobile industry to consider technology’s impact, both positive and negative.
“We must rethink how connectivity and big data can create opportunities for all,” said Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank. “We have no time to lose.”
Kathy Calvin, President of the United Nations Foundation, echoed Dr. Kim’s point, saying inequality was the world’s most pressing problem. Forty-five percent of the world’s population is currently connected to a 3G or 4G network, she said, with about 45 percent connected to less-capable networks, and 10 percent not connected at all.
“The next challenges,” she said, “will have to be a leapfrogging, not incremental. We think there is a big prize at the end.”
Dr. Kim made a plea to mobile operators to “step up” to ensure they create new drivers of economic growth through accelerated access to broadband. And he pledged the World Bank’s support to help “de-risk” investment in the developing world.
“I am worried that the traditional path may be closing for developing countries,” he said. “We have no choice. We cannot fail.”
Judging by their antagonistic appearance at a different session, regulators in the U.S. and Europe do not share the same perspective about Kim’s call for more public-private partnerships.
Speaking about the recent revocation in the U.S. of net neutrality rules, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said “the market, not government, is best positioned to drive innovation in the wireless sector.”
He holds the same free-market philosophy for the development and deployment of 5G, saying that the United States “aspires to lead the world in 5G. We’ll let the market decide what the best use is.”
Taking a pointedly contrary position to Pai on both points, Andrus Ansip, Vice President of the European Commission, called access to the internet “a basic human right,” and said “it has to stay open for everybody. No discrimination.”
Mats Granryd, Director General of the GSMA, which hosts Mobile World Congress, said there will be six billion people connected to mobile by 2025, and that “we have an obligation to leverage the mobile networks to achieve the SDGs.”
Several advocates pointed out that the developing world offers a unique opportunity to deploy 5G. Such countries are largely unburdened by legacy infrastructure, one of the biggest and costliest hurdles to 5G deployment in more affluent countries.
In the developed world, Telecom operators racing to implement 5G are targeting the auto and manufacturing industries, for example, as rich opportunities to help justify the massive investments needed. According to a report by Arthur D. Little and commissioned by Ericsson, mobile operators can add as much as 36 percent to their revenues by 2026 from 5G-enabled industry digitalization. The report calls out real-time automation that ensures the increased data moving across the network is computed and gets to the right devices in fractions of a second as having the largest potential for operators. It forecasts a $101 billion market by 2026 — only slightly more than the opportunity presented by enhanced video, with revenue potential of $96 billion by 2026.
While Mobile World Congress showcased application after application that illustrated how 5G could be a transformative force, many industry insiders pointed to significant hurdles.
“The pieces are there, but it’s not simple,” said Dan Warren, head of 5G research at Samsung. Speaking at a session that was framed as a 5G reality check, Warren called 5G “the most over-used and over-hyped term in the industry today. It’s all things to all people.”
“We’ve seen great use case innovation, great demos,” said Stuart Revell, who is working with the 5G Innovation Center at University of Surrey on the definition, external engagement and adoption of 5G. “But the business models are complex.”
Revell cited policy and regulation questions, particularly around cross-border issues, spectrum challenges, and the need for “a common global ecosystem” as big open issues.
Stephen Buck, product director at mobile security firm Evolved Intelligence, added that security has not yet been addressed, calling it “5G’s Achilles’ heel.”
Mobile World Congress covered 2.5 million square feet of exhibition space stretched across eight halls and was host to 110,000 visitors. The juxtaposition of commercial aspirations with calls for tech to be in service of a higher purpose underscored the complexity of the 5G opportunity and the need for thoughtful innovations across both worlds. As Sue Siegel, Chief Innovation Officer at GE, warned in a keynote address: “The pace of change will never be as slow as it is today.”