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MWC 19: 5G Operators Promise the Moon But Won’t Shoulder the Cost

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All sorts of promises are being made for 5G from underpinning tremendous worldwide economic growth to erasing the digital divide and therefore bringing millions of people out of poverty, but network operators are still putting a gun to government heads.

Their beef is that while they continue to pour billions of dollars into the infrastructure to drive the digital future, they are concerned about making their money back and want governments to ease back on regulation by making it cheaper for them to buy spectrum.

“Intelligent connectivity will bring significant economic and social benefits, but not if operators are burdened with debt,” warned Mats Granryd, director general of influential mobile operator’s trade body GSMA at Mobile World Congress. “So, the message for governments is don’t get short-term greedy to kill the long-term goose.”

A new GSMA report calculates that mobile operators worldwide are currently investing around $160 billion a year on expanding and upgrading their networks, “despite regulatory and competitive pressures.”

Stephane Richard, chair and CEO of Orange, said, “We have to invest massively in very fast fixed broadband and 5G mobile while facing real concerns about getting return on investment in the context of increasing regulatory pressures. There has always been scepticism about the industry’s capacity to generate value [from 4G and 5G] and increasing regulator pressure means very low growth.”

Vodafone CEO Nick Read took aim at Europe’s regulators, in particular, for hindering rollout of 5G—although he admitted that mobile operators only had themselves to blame.

“As an industry we have been too protectionist,” he said. “We don’t collaborate well enough and in terms of customer need we are not fast enough. For example, we were protectionist around text messaging revenues and let OTT players move in to take over the rich messaging space.”

He added, “Because operators didn’t move to address such issues it prompted regulators to moderate us and in Europe this ended up fragmenting spectrum and in turn reducing coverage and network performance.”

China Telecom said that 5G is costing three times more than any previous network rollout.

Singtel Mobile’s group CEO Cua Sock Koong said that the telco expects its annual revenue growth to shrink from 5% to 1% at the same time as it is investing billions of dollars on spectrum and infrastructure to enable this growth in traffic.

“Mobile data traffic will be four times as high in 2025 than it is today but revenue growth is stagnating,” she said. “Connectivity is saturated.”

With two thirds of the world connected to a mobile service and over 100% of users connected in some markets like Korea, the revenue from hooking someone up to the internet is marginal at best.

Singtel’s solution—in common with other operators—is to focus on “intelligent connectivity.” This is an industry-identified trend based on 5G, IoT, AI and big data.

“We’ve talked about this for years,” Koong said. “What has changed is that these technologies are now working together and the impact they will have is profound.”

Operators are moving into adjacent markets including streaming entertainment but with greater revenue opportunities in robotics, analytics, automotive, medicine, and smart cities.

“It is critical to move from just connectivity to intelligent connectivity,” urged Granryd. “The best way is to imagineer right now on 4G. If you direct your business needs to these opportunities operators will be first in line when the 5G lights turn green.”

Korean telco KT is already commercializing 5G. It has launched a VR/AR games platform served from the cloud over 5G. CEO and chair Chang-Gyu Hwang said the company was ready for mobile live personal broadcasting and 4K, 8K, and holographic streaming. It has a "5G factory as a service" pay-as-you-go network for Korean manufacturers to automate production line processes using cloud-based machine vision. It has brought latency down to just 5ms and is securing data over 5G with blockchain.

According to the GSMA’s report, the fifth generation network is on track to account for 15% (1.4 billion) of global mobile connections by 2025, as the number of network launches and compatible devices ramps up this year. The report reveals that a further 16 major markets worldwide will switch on commercial 5G networks this year, following on from the first 5G launches in South Korea and the U.S. in 2018.

By 2025, 5G is forecast to account for around 30% of connections in markets such as China and Europe, and around half of the total in the U.S. The number of global IoT connections will triple to 25 billion by 2025, while global IoT revenue will quadruple to $1.1 trillion, the report forecasts.

Looking further ahead, it is forecast that 5G will contribute $2.2 trillion to the global economy over the next 15 years, with key sectors such as manufacturing, utilities, and professional and financial services benefitting the most from the new technology.

Data “is like a dignity”

The amount of global data in existence by 2025 will be 160 zetabytes—the equivalent to 18 million years of streaming Netflix in HD. It’s a kind of meaningless statistic, but it prompted Telefonica’s chair and CEO Jose Maria Alvarez-Pallette Lopez to question the nature of data.

“Some companies would say data powers information into factories and that it’s a form of capital, others that people give data away free in return for services, that it is an infinite resource and that all the value is in the algorithm. We disagree. Data is like dignity. It has its own value.”

He called for a new bill of rights “one that lays down the digital future for all citizens”—taking account of whether consumers are in control of the value exchange of their data.

Image: Mats Granryd of GSMA speaking at MWC 2019, courtesy of @GSMA.

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