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MWC 2019: Foldable phones distract from 5G politics in Barcelona

Mobile World Congress saw the usual plethora of smartphone device launches, but this year’s show is more politicised than ever before

The advent of the foldable smartphone gave gadget lovers plenty to talk about over the opening weekend of Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2019, but away from the show floor in the bars of Barcelona, political concerns over the future of 5G mobile networks will dominate, both in terms of the regulatory steps that need to be taken to make them a reality, and in terms of concerns about their exposure to China-made hardware.

With the first commercial 5G networks set to go live towards the end of 2019, worries that European regulators are failing to act fast enough to release appropriate amounts, and frequencies, of spectrum to support them – Ofcom being a notable exception to this – are surfacing more frequently across the industry.

John Strand, of Copenhagen-based Strand Consult, said: “The GSMA wants this year’s programme to focus on 5G and the usefulness of mobile technologies to modern society. Indeed, the GSMA would like to boast that 5G is live and launched by almost 100 mobile operators by the end of 2019.

“Seasoned professionals who remember the hype around 3G in the year 2000 know the downside of hype; as the roll-out was a bust for operators which spent billions on spectrum licences only to find that customers would not pay extra for the 3G value-added services.”

Strand said he expected the major network operators, such as France’s Orange, Spain’s Telefónica and the UK’s Vodafone, to use their presence at MWC to criticise their governments for failing to provide a regulatory framework that supports investment in 5G.

However, he also hit out at the European Union (EU), suggesting that it was obstructing the development of 5G in Europe through over-regulation.

5G waiting in the wings

Erwin van Rijssen, head of 5G core at Ericsson, said that in terms of technology, operators are essentially ready to deploy 5G now.

“Where Europe is lagging behind is in terms of frequency auction,” he said. “There, Europe is slow compared to some of the other regions.

“We would encourage regulators to make decisions as to which operators get what frequency bands so that they can actually start deploying 5G.”

Van Rijssen echoed the idea that in many countries regulators had focused on extracting the maximum amount of money from spectrum auctions during the roll-out of 3G, and said that this time round they needed to give operators more of a chance to invest in and monetise 5G.

Ericsson claims that at this point it is essentially ready to start rolling out such networks as and when its customers tell it that they are ready to pull the trigger.

Huawei’s role in question

Worries about the development of 5G in Europe are now also being compounded by a growing storm of controversy surrounding the actions of China’s Huawei, which has now been openly accused of colluding with Chinese intelligence services – something it strenuously denies.

Just last week, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo told Fox News that countries that did not dial back their use of Huawei equipment in critical national networks risked jeopardising the US’s future cooperation in intelligence and military matters, a thinly veiled reference to the UK, where the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) is taking a more pragmatic approach to Huawei.

Strand said that Mats Granryd, director general of the GSMA – which organises and runs Mobile World Congress – had a “tough job telling regulators that the industry needs better conditions while defending his members’ purchases of Chinese network equipment and not alienating the vendors that compete with the Chinese”.

He added: “He will probably say that the challenges with Huawei will slow the roll-out of 5G in Europe, but he probably won’t divulge the inconvenient truth that the Americans, which have opted not for Chinese equipment, are almost two years ahead of the EU.”

Breaking technology boundaries

However, Granryd himself steered clear of both regulatory concerns and Huawei as the show got underway, focusing instead on the as-yet unrealised potential of 5G.

“Attendees can expect to see actual 5G applications and devices, experience how AI [artificial intelligence] and IoT [the internet of things] are making us redefine the boundaries of technology, witness the impact of mobile in addressing environmental and social issues, and much more,” he said.

“MWC Barcelona will show the world that 5G is here and it has the power to change the world. I’m eagerly awaiting the anticipated 5G device launches. 5G will herald a new era for smartphones, bringing people instant access to artificial intelligence, immersive reality and a range of data-rich services that will enable us to rethink what a smartphone can do.”

Foldable screens reinvent the smartphone – or do they?

Sunday 24 February saw China’s Huawei and Xiaomi and South Korea’s LG unveil their new models, and following in the footsteps of Samsung, which launched its Galaxy Fold device earlier in February, Huawei’s Mate X is also equipped with a foldable screen, measuring 8in when fully unfolded, compared to the Galaxy’s 7.3in. The Mate X is also noticeably thinner than its rival.

However, with price points hovering between £1,500 and £2,000, analysts observed that for the majority of consumers, their first experience of live 5G services will probably be on a more traditionally styled smartphone.

“Today, the announcement of the Mate X clearly shows that Huawei is a technology innovation leader. The new device has nothing to envy to Samsung’s latest Galaxy Fold announcement,” said Forrester’s Tom Husson.

“That said, no matter how innovative and technologically advanced the new device is, it will take a lot more time for a critical mass of consumers to experience the benefits of foldable phones and 5G technology.”

Some of the more off-beat launches on the opening day of MWC included the Electroneum M1, an $80 smartphone pitched at developing countries which makes its owner money by mining cryptocurrency – approximately $3 per month – which can be spent on airtime or data top-ups and apps. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s Nuva Robotics showed off Kebbi, a domestic assistant robot that its makers claim has the ability to understand human body language and teaches children to code.

Read more from Mobile World Congress 2019

  • Vodafone connected three 5G-enabled smartphones to a live network during trials in Spain ahead of MWC.
  • At a pre-MWC event in London, Huawei’s Ryan Ding shared details of the firm’s rapidly expanding 5G mobile portfolio, and laid into his competitors.
  • Aricent’s Ben Pietrabella outlines four critical trends concerning connected cars that will emerge at MWC 2019 in Barcelona.

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