Insights from Mobile World Congress

Insights from Mobile World Congress – Panel Discussion

Mobile World Congress — the world’s biggest and most influential mobile event, took place in Barcelona from 26 February – 1 March 2018. The event had 107,000 visitors from 205 countries and territories, and there was definite progress in balancing the gender ratio.

For those of us who weren’t able to make it to Barcelona, Women in Telecoms & Technology once again assembled a panel of experts to bring us news and views from the 2018 show.

WiTT Chair Audrey Mandela led our panel. She was joined by:

  • Dr. Mike Short, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for International Trade;
  • Louise Easterbrook, CFO, GSMA; and
  • Dimitra Simeonidou, Director Smart Internet Lab, University of Bristol;
  • Camille Mendler, Practice Leader, SoHo and SME Services, Ovum; and
  • Max Cuvellier, Head of Ecosystem Accelerator ,Central Mobile for Development Team, GSMA.

Louise Easterbrook kicked off the evening by welcoming everyone to the GSMA’s headquarters and providing an overview of this year’s Mobile World Congress. This year’s theme was”Creating a Better Future.” With more than five billion subscribers, mobile now connects more than 2/3 of world’s population. There was a focus on the UN’s sustainable development goals commitment. How mobile is creating a better future today.

In terms of stats, this year there were more than 107,000 visitors, and over 2,400 exhibitors; 55% of attendees were C-level, with 7,700 CEOs. There was record attendance of 181 countries at the ministerial program, up from 167 last year. Women made up 24% of total attendees, up from 23% last year. Twenty-eight percent of speakers were women, compare with 21% in 2017. A lot of effort goes into improving that stat.

But of course it’s not just about the numbers. The GSMA want to ensure it delivers a high-quality experience.

And it’s important to keep it new and fresh. This year 5,000 people gained access to the show through the use of facial recognition. The GSMA hopes to roll that out across whole event in coming years.

The conference themes were wide-ranging: 5G; AI; IoT; robotics, drones, blockchain; content and media.  It addressed key policy issues as well as sustainability and development

The exhibition featured the major brands you’d expect, but there was also a strong presence from the auto industry and consumer electronics as tech expands its reach.

Attendees could see cutting edge tech in Innovation City. And there was a great show at Four Years From Now (4YFN): these companies are currently too small for MWC but the exhibitors are looking for funding or advice; we had 600 investors, 600 start-ups, and 20,000 visitors to this part of the show. These will be the companies fueling MWC going forward.

This was the second year of the Youth Mobile Festival, or YOMO. There was great enthusiasm from the attendees.

It was also the second year of the Womenn4 tech program, which this year moved to centre stage.

One other aspect that may be less well know: the emphasis on giving back to the local community. The GSMA worked with Barcelona City Council to link up socially responsible entities in the local area with exhibitors, who donated things they used during show, such as IT equipment to local groups. And the GSMA received a carbon neutral certification for the event.

We then moved into the panel discussion. Audrey asked the panellists to tell us what they thought were the highlights of the show.

Max felt that it was difficult to pick out specific highlights as he probably saw a completely different show from other attendees. For someone with an interest in 5G, there was a great deal, and in fact someone could have spent four days only on 5G. However, Max’s focus is on start-ups, and he spent much of his time at Four Years from Now. This is no longer a small side event. As Louise said, it had more than 20,000 visitors and 600 start-ups. There were quite a few investors there this year. It’s a very important part of the show and the future.

Dimitra, on the other hand, only went to look at 5G, in all its aspects.  She’s not from the mobile world, but is the lead academic on a Phase 0 DCM 5G project with King’s College London.  The project has created an end-to-end 5G demonstrator, which was at the show. It may not be the world’s first end-to-end 5G service, but it’s a world first delivered by academics.

Dimitra was particularly impressed by Innovation City and spent quite a lot of time there. This year there was a focus on sport; one project featured a football net: people could kick a football into in real time, and the ball was kicked back by a robot in another hall, connected by 5G!

Last year at MWC 5G was all about new radio devices. This year Dimitra felt it was all about looking at full systems. Every operator was advocating full 5G solutions with some degree of readiness. Equipment companies like Intel or Huawei say they’ll have usable terminals by the end of 2018 or during 2019.

Also, this year the emphasis wasn’t just on technology, but also on 5G applications.  There were a number of transport demonstrations, particularly around cars which can use 5G’s low latency 5G, and also robotics, including robotic surgery.

There were 5G demonstrations in most of the large vendors stands but often you could only get in by invitation

But there were also quite a few smaller companies demonstrating interesting technology. Cambridge Communication Systems (CCS) launched a self-organizing, self-healing network which was the first product in its roadmap toward 5G.  Another company was demonstrating amazing devices with high speed connectivity from light bulbs. The future is very exciting.

In the next year there will be six new 5G projects launched in the UK. Fifty UK companies will participate from a range of industries, from tech through to creative. Dimitra expects to see great outcomes around 5G.

As a former GSMA Chair, Mike has been going to the show for 25 years and in his view 2018 was one of the best ever. He recently left Telefonica to take on the role of Chief Scientist in the Department for International Trade and was therefore keen to see what impression the UK made on the show.  There was indeed good support, with 185 UK companies present representing strength and depth in UK mobile.

He was very proud to see a focus on international development, especially since the UK had been behind the invention of mobile money, which now handles more than $1 billion in transactions each day.

There was also a great deal of activity to do with other sustainable development goals. One example was eWaterPay, which places water meters in villages linked to a water supply from a local well.  The well is monitored for faults and cleanliness as part of the project.  The project is mobile enabled.  It results in clean water and an equitable supply. Mike was also impressed by IoT activities; UK companies tend to well here. This year there was more interest in how you connect everything, from cars to cities, to electricity meters, in both the developing and developed world. He praised an event run by Svetlana Grant of the GSMA (and a past WiTT speaker) that focused on bringing in narrowband IoT and different vendor standards. There needs to be more of this type of work in sharing knowledge.

Cecilia the IoT-connected seal was back at the show. She wasn’t being tested for her swimming ability, but for her ability find different areas of food. Some seals are threatened by lack of access to food; this is an example of IoT being useful for animals as well as humans.

Overall, the GSMA has done a great job of nurturing corralling a stronger catalogue of interests and case studies. In fact, the GSMA website has a huge number of case studies that have to do with sustainable development goals. Mike recommended that attendees look out for those, or take paper copies from the bookcases in the GSMA’s reception area.

Beyond IoT, investment is another reason why people attend Mobile World Congress: to get knowledge and then invest in relevant areas for their businesses. There’s always a lot of interest in high-capital invest areas. It’s true that some of this activity happens behind closed doors on the larger vendors’ stands, but there were also a lot of smaller companies this year with innovative offerings, such as software-defined radio, or solutions for enterprise requirements as well as big operator requirements.

Mobile World Congress is also now not just an event that takes place over four days in one location. Mobile World TV enables everyone to see video footage from the show all year round. The event yields some educational materials that are useful to share with colleagues. Every year the GSMA releases statistical materials, such as its Mobile Economy report. Mike lectures regularly and always uses these materials. It’s important to share this information with the industry and outside the industry. We don’t have enough engineers to move the mobile industry to the next level. Some of the most expensive people to employ are data scientists, or those who deploy IoT. Bringing in youth to Mobile World Congress is good way to increase interest, but sharing information in these reports can also help.

Camille‘s key interest is in Enterprise Services and particularly services for small businesses.  Many of them are not IT literate, but could they be transformed through technology. Camille looks at how concepts are being taken to market, and made a reality. Will this fly, is it positioned correctly? And are the service providers doing the right things to build trust?

Two areas gave her pause this year. The first is the conflict between automation, AI and customer engagement. For example, there were a lot of sexy demos of virtual assistants using AI, or really automation, since systems aren’t that smart yet. Camille’s view is if you look at how a telco like an Orange or Telefonica think about AI today, they appear to view it as a means of call deflection, so they don’t have to talk to the customer. And there’s some danger in that. You could say that younger customers only want to interact through digital channels. Many of Camille’s clients appear to be investing in means to become more remote from their customers, be them consumers or businesses. But actually, people want multiple ways to interact with service providers, both human and machine.

Others are thinking about this differently. Facebook, for example, had a large presence. They’re now evangelizing for the enterprise market with collaborative tools. But they’re not using traditional methods of selling into an enterprise, such as pitching to the IT manager. They’re engaging through the HR department. It’s fascinating and interesting. The Facebooks of the world are thinking about technology and the application of technology in different ways from historical telcos.

Mike has a slightly different view. AI offers all sorts of opportunities. Operators are perhaps not describing them well. And they’re not doing a good job because of trust issues. It would seem sensible that some customer care could be automated for consumer benefit. Perhaps a voice-based bill reader. Perhaps some recommendations based on AI. Or solutions that save you a trip to the shop to be credit checked for an upgrade.

Some of the best uses of AI Mike has seen from telcos have to do with suggestions, such as how the user can save money. Or how the telco can reduce costs. He’s also seen AI used in network design: how to automate around coverage, capacity, time of day. There are quite a few good use cases for AI; but perhaps we’re not describing them well.

Camille agreed; she cited the example of Telecom Italia working with Cisco to embed security in its network so small businesses don’t need to worry about automating digital security themselves

Mike said the GSMA had compared AI use across operators around the world as a teaching engine to help operators get better at their use of AI. There’s a very high level of interest in doing it right.

This prompted Audrey to ask Max about other GSMA reports, including its Mobile Gender Gap study.

Max said this report is particularly important for the GSMA. The Mobile For Development team looks at business models that provide positive social impact using mobile, mostly in low- to middle income markets. Its Connected Women programme, which is currently funded by the Department for International Development (DfID), produced an update every year. Max was part of team when the first report was written 4.5 years ago. The numbers are getting better, but not as fast as they should. Overall, women in these markets are 10% less likely than men to have access to mobile phones. Although that may seem small, it adds up to tens of millions of women. And in South Asia the gap goes up to 26%.

Recently the GSMA went beyond must looking at access to mobile phones and researched the use of mobile financial services and mobile internet. Women in less-developed economies who own a mobile phone re 26% less likely than men to access mobile internet services. In South Asia it’s 70%. For every 10 men, only three women access mobile internet services.

This creates a gap. And its not getting smaller by itself. In the past two years the GSMA has worked with a lot of mobile operators to get commitments around access to mobile internet and financial services for women. Thirty-six operators in low and middle income markets around world have made commitments (this comes to a total of 51 commitments where operators work in multiple markets). Since the inception of the program, 22 million women have seen a positive impact. Originally, many operators might have been acting from a CSR (corporate social responsibility). Today, there’s a true commercial focus. No company can overlook half of its potential customer base and say, well, they’ll get access some day. These activities make sense from both a social and a commercial point of view.

Question: An audience member asked for more detail.

Max told us that when the GSMA started looking at the topic it gave grants to mobile operators and to NGOs to address the issue. They realized the first problem was quantifying the issue. It took a couple of years to develop the model and teach operators how to look at the situation and potential. They had information from customer registration, but in most markets it was patchy, and done on paper. In the past couple of years more is digitized, but five years ago it wasn’t. And there were a lot of cases where men were buying SIM cards or controlling women’s access. A lot of work has been done on the data to help mobile operators understand where they were. They need to know what the real gap was from the beginning.

Most operators start by looking at the data. Some will now say publicly, “Today we have 1.2 million men and 800,000 women using our services; we want to halve that gap in two years. Some prefer to share their data and goals with us privately. Everyone is learning about other markets; committing resources, and measuring quarterly or annually to see how progress is going. This is happening now in 36 markets.

Question: why are women not using phones or the internet? Is it culture? Control by men?

Max said there’s no one reason. In the report you’ll find examples of markets where the main reason is cost. Only one or maybe two people in a family can have access to a mobile phone. If they can afford a second phone it may go to a son. You’ll hit coverage for all men before you reach women. So that’s cultural norms, and costs. It’s not that easy.

There’s been more take-up of services that help to prevent violence or harassment. Five years ago the services that worked well were those where women could have black lists of callers. Today, services where women can report harassment anonymously are being developed. Also anonymous recharging services, where women don’t need to give the men in the mobile shop their number to top up their accounts. You need to look at the details in each market. It often comes down to cost, cultural norms, and security.

How can we solve this, then? By introducing cheaper packages for women?

Max said it depends on the barrier. One example from the past is Uninor in Northern India [it no longer exists]. They realized men weren’t comfortable with women having phones because they couldn’t control them. So the carrier created a package with two SIMs. The men couldn’t control what the women did with their phones, but they could control their spending. But when the woman’s phone was topped up, the man would get a bonus.

So it is about creating offerings, but a lot is around education. And also reducing adoption barriers. A lot has been done on KYC (Know Your Customer) — the info you having to provide to get a SIM card or mobile money account. Women often have less access to formal proof of ID. Companies are designing the process so they can rely on others, or on lower-level KYCs to lower the barrier.

Question: One attendee asked if the GSMA or operators were working with microfinance organisations?

Max said MFIs are examples of partners mobile operators can work with. They have a shared understanding that mobile operators won’t solve this on their own. They want to get the trust of the women, and rely on existing trusted partners. Community health workers are another example. Or rotational savings groups, which are popular in parts of Africa. They’re a good way to teach financial inclusion and introduce mobile financial services.

Audrey then asked the panel if any had seen new, and perhaps unexpected, companies among the exhibitors at this year’s Mobile World Congress?

Camille had the first example of companies coming out of nowhere and potentially dominating show. If you go to the show a lot you get used to where companies are. She stumbled across the enormous Alibaba stand. Alibaba is an e-commerce marketplace which we think of as having a focus on start-ups and entrepreneurs. But it also has a fast-growing cloud business. And at MWC it was on a massive charm offensive to sell those services. Camille believes the industry is still recovering from the presence of Amazon in this space. She anticipates more and more cloud wars to come. Telcos are not investing in some of these assets themselves for a variety of reasons, so cloud players like Alibaba and also Tencent are making investments. They have the infrastructure to be massive players. We thought there was one wave of cloud wars, but there’ a new one to come. It’s an interesting dynamic. They’re supporting both large and small businesses.

Mike focused his remarks on start-ups he saw at the show, many of which were at 4YFN, which he considers a great initiative. It brings in new people every year, and plays well with VCs, who are keen to invest. Today in the UK we have more than 200 accelerators and 160+ incubators. The UK takes companies from there to bring them to 4YFN. Mike believes the transition from start-up to scale-up still needs some work: how to scale up to be ready for the global stage? There are a number of players working in advanced 4G and 5G that complement or go beyond the network space. Also quite a few working in key verticals, such as madtech (marketing and advertising), medtech, edtech, and fintech. On May 17th the UK Tech Nation report will be launched; it will list key cities in the UK that are strong in this digital and innovation space. That has government support; there’s an interest in on-going trade in a post-Brexit world.

Dimitri focused on new trends at the show, rather than new players. She was impressed by the overlay of social responsibility that she saw in some of the smart cities stands. There was quite a lot of focus around cities. Operators made significant announcements of investments in cities, or solving critical problems in cities. There were announcements of advanced mobile technology in transport, health care, public safety, and the environment. One example: Barcelona City Council entered into a public/private partnership for Smart Cities. There was no government funding, just a number of companies that got together to co-fund work to make the city better. This trend is important. Mobile evolves not just to make it more attractive to get mobile phones, but to solve critical problems.

Max said, as he noted at the beginning, that we all see a different Mobile World Congress. His focus was on a GSMA program that looks at relationships between start-ups and operators in low- and middle-income countries. It can be harder for those start-ups to find their way to MWC. The GSMA has done a big push to invite them. This year there were start-ups focused on energy, water, and sanitation from Egypt, Nigeria, and Indonesia. There was a great deal of interest in discussion how they’re solving problems in their countries. They had stands at 4YFN, and also pitched to ministers and regulators, as well as to the GSMA board. The GSMA is a member association and its 25 board members represent four billion mobile users. It was very exciting for these companies to have the opportunity to show them how mobile payments for energy for example can change people’s lives and do so in a commercially sustainable way.

Question: One audience member asked about AI: Did the panel feel the show reflected what she sees as a key problem with AI? Because it learns from the past, we’re unable to stop it having unconscious bias. There are many examples of how that’s gone wrong.

Mike said the simple answer was no, it wasn’t well reflected in the show. However, he referred the audience to the GSMA’s work to share AI examples across operator boundaries. To look at good uses of data, not bad use of data. The UK’s new Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, Margot James, attended MWC for the first time. She was shocked by the scale of the show, and variety of things there, and will return next year. Her department launched a £1 billion AI sector deal last week. There are discussions about this topic all the time: how to ensure you get the best bits of AI and not the worst.  Last week the UK also announced the creation of the Centre for Data Ethics.

Camille agreed; collaboration is best thing we can do. But it needs to be across different industry boundaries and perceptions of the world. We don’t want to define the world in a narrow way.

Question: What does the panel think will be the effect of regulation on future trends? In particular, data protection. There are rules that restrict the sending of data EU citizens to the US or elsewhere. How will it affect growth of digital global economies?

Max mentioned the ministerial program at MWC. This topic was top of the list in terms of questions for them. Of course 5G and spectrum were important, but there was a great deal of discussion around privacy, cross-border data transfers, and what kind of regulations you need to enable new technology while controlling the impact on people and society. This is definitely top of mind. There was also a session on how governments and regulators can keep educating themselves to be able to move fast enough. It remains a question to be addressed.

Mike again drew people’s attention to the GSMA publications on this topic.  Large operators have been working hard to become GDPR ready and have shared lots of knowledge. Of course, regulation alone doesn’t solve problem; it provides useful guidance.

Today data flows, cyber security and fraud prevention are three key areas of importance, and many carriers have strengths there, and are well positioned to minimize fraud and the use of malware, to protect their customers. There is a concern that some uncertainty in this area may have slowed down attention to areas such as health and wellness because of privacy and liability concerns. It would be a shame if these solutions were unable to take full advantage of the mobile possibilities because of privacy issues.

Dimitri: It always takes time for the regulations to catch up with the practice. You go to a smart city environment and expect trusted entities to handle your data. But who owns the data? Things are happening at the boundaries of agencies, and this is where regulation is not happening. Many times the answer is reactive. You have to launch a service, which is critical, and you’re trying to open that boundary, and that’s where regulation fails. In terms of data sometimes we’re in a very grey area between ownership and usage

An issue we have looked at is that of the trusted organisation.  For example in the NHS how do you get over the boundaries surrounding agencies.  If you are to treat a patient through a spectrum of agencies then data sharing is vital, but should this be done through a trusted agent?

Camille said we need to take steps to prevent any dampening effect of these concerns around security and compliance where we could use tech in transformational ways. In the UK almost 40% of small business say the lack of digital skills has harmed their businesses. We need to give them more education about what is safe and what is not. But who’s responsible for that? The GSMA’s members have a large opportunity to train and build trust in that area. This is not a time to stop thinking about potential.

Question: What do the panellists think about the recent auction of spectrum in the UK?

Dimitri: I have a very personal view. This was a very classical example of an auction. When we look at 5G, I think it will be big failure if the 5G allocations do not address spectrum sharing. If all the spectrum is owned by the big operators it will restrict the possibilities that 5G provides. We need to look at new businesses around enterprises. Other parts of the world are looking at that. She said she would expect to see a new framework that allows stadiums, arenas, airports, cities, shopping malls, etc. to control spectrum to provide new services in their cities. I’m not on the side of making money out of spectrum.

Mike said people are talking about different licensing conditions, how long can it be held for, what are the rights to pull it back into government? In the U.S., operators have licenses for much longer than here in Europe, which allows them to invest, borrow money, etc.

Conditions are also an issue: how many licenses do you need? Some of the models may not require multiplication of licenses to enable diff business models. Landlords could take control without transferring licensing arrangements. What are the business models?

How much you pay for spectrum has been debated for many years. Equally, the cost on the balance sheet is affected by the availability of sites for base stations. Some cities won’t be smart unless there’s a new approach to sites, using street furniture, etc. That dialog isn’t as advanced as it should be. I would raise siting policies along with spectrum policies.

And the resilience of networks. Look at the Lancaster floods. The water rose, the energy was knocked out, the telecoms networks went down. The resilience question is rising up the agenda, not from pure spectrum angle but how to get critical infrastructure to be resilient. That may mean we fewer players, but we still need choice.

Audrey:  Final question: what was your most memorable moment this year?

Max: There was a big announcement of the GSMA’s Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation programme with DFiD. This builds on work that we used to call disaster response. The situation in the past two to three years has forced us to look at man-made disasters as well, such as the refugee crisis. The GSMA is committed to this space and the mobile operators are engaged with helping the millions of people pushed out of their countries.  Mobile can help to reduce the burden of a disaster, connect, educate and reunite families. It’s a shame we have to work on this topic, but it’s good that we are trying to contribute to this situation.

Mike: The stand-out for me was the awards.  I started the awards 22 years ago when I was the chair and pleased they continue to go from strength to strength. I was impressed by the energy and enthusiasm among the entrants. The variety of winners this year was huge; we probably don’t publicize the winners enough. What was notable for me was number of winners from Asia and winners from a very strong set of entries from Huawei in particular. I was chair when the Chinese operators joined the GSMA. Huawei gave a stunning performance in several categories.

Dimitri: The awards were good for me as well, in particular the Glomo award for Smart City, which Bristol won. I had contributed to this project, and it was up against serious opposition from much larger cities, such as Dubai, Shanghai, and Barcelona. We didn’t expect to win. It was extraordinary.

Camille:  Like Audrey, I judged an award. The diversity was great. My memory, though, is when you stop running around and realize there are people who are directing traffic at the show to ensure people don’t run into each other. It makes you realize how vast and profound this event is. It is no longer just about mobile and mobility; it is so much broader and all-encompassing.


WiTT would like to thank our panel for speaking, and the GSMA for hosting. We would also like to thank Yulia Spytska for the event photographs and organization.


The GSMA has also very kindly provided us with links to the reports that Max mentioned in his remarks:

The 2018 Connected Women Mobile Gender Gap report

The Mobile Economy Reports

Theblog link to the launch of the M4H programme at MWC

The Ecosystem Accelerator start-up portfolio