Four Days. Four days is what is takes for 108,000 technologists to gather in the enchanting city of Barcelona to tell the world what they can expect to experience in the future of mobile communications. Four days is also about the number of days it takes to recover from sleep deprivation, work backlog, and the general buzz that one experiences by being part of the spectacle as grand and electrifying as Mobile World Congress.
The nice part about reflecting on MWC 2017 is that it is very easy to select a handful of themes that permeated throughout all the exhibition halls, keynotes, and hallway chatter. For me, this is the list: IoT, 5G, Virtualization, and Artificial Intelligence.
IoT (Internet of Things)
Whereas last year there were many IoT demonstrations attempting to describe the “what-if” scenarios in different vertical markets (from smart cities to smart farms), 2017 brought hard-and-fast applications to the forefront. Among these was the connected car concept (see “Beep beep at MWC17”) that featured an ecosystem including large automakers such as BMW and Ford, operators such as Verizon and SK Telecom, and building-block vendors such as Intel and Qualcomm. Security in the era of IoT now becomes an important consideration. With ubiquitous connectivity comes a complex obligation for Service Providers – namely, to protect all the net-enabled devices from malicious security attacks, as well as protecting the network itself from all those devices that can act as the attacker – independently or as an army. Vendors and Carriers alike discussed how to actively monitor and manage security in a completely connected world where billions of IoT devices dwarf the number of connected humans.
MWC would hardly be worth its splendor were it not for a large component of the show focused on 5G mobile technology and the show’s annual mainstay – the new releases of mobile gadgets and devices. 5G is still a work-in-progress from a standards perspective, but with plans to handle data speeds up to 100 times faster than 4G while offering lower latency and higher capacity, carriers cannot afford to stand on the sidelines messaging their 5G product and services readiness, assuming mass rollout takes hold within the next couple years. NTT in fact said they will have 5G deployed in 2020 at the Olympics in Tokyo. In fact, the Tier 1 North American Carriers, Verizon and AT&T, made noise about pre-commercial launches in the U.S. for 5G based fixed wireless broadband service.
Years ago the vendor community responded to the Carriers’ demand for networks to become virtual – including everything from the Radio Access Network (RAN) to the Evolved Packet Core (EPC). This year, many vendors have done a good job addressing second-level problems beyond ditching the proprietary hardware – problems like how to orchestrate and secure large scale virtual networks. Radware featured the concept of using the Network-as-a-sensor, with the main tenet being distributed, virtual DDoS attack detection components pop-corned (it’s my blog so I can use a made-up word) across the network to provide a rich telemetry set, from which the network can learn and apply policy. This concept bleeds into the next MWC theme, artificial intelligence.
AI is not new – arguably it has been around since the mid-20th century, and at least as long as we’ve seen automated robots in manufacturing and in our homes (if mom is reading this, I’m still waiting for the Robie Junior from Radio Shack that I didn’t get for Christmas in 1986!). In the context of MWC, most of the AI messaging was around machine-learning or intelligent assist for things like smartphone apps, big data network analytics for performance monitoring, problem isolation, and network recovery automation. From a security angle, it means that if a network attack causes a performance problem or full outage, there is a cyber control plane crunching data to take the appropriate healing or mitigation response.
In all, MWC2017 felt different than previous years because there seemed to be a shift from what were nascent and nebulous technologies to what now are promising and pragmatic consumer products ripe to change the way we communicate.