5G reaches an anticlimax at MWC 2019

After years of fooling around 5G finally arrived at this year’s big telecoms coming-together, but now a lot of people just feel disappointed and used, and are left asking “is that it?”

The hype cycle for 5G seems to have been especially prolonged and intense, arguably exceeding even the utopian fervour of the build up to 3G, which left the operator industry so over-committed and under-rewarded. 4G was mainly about doing mobile broadband properly, but 5G was supposed to revolutionise the telecoms industry. At this early stage, however, there is little sign of that.

In hindsight the build up to the show offered a strong indicator of the anticlimax to follow. The big kit vendor announcements were all about fine-tuning their 5G propositions and playing it safe. That was certainly the case with Ericsson and Huawei, while Nokia didn’t even have a pre-show event, contenting itself with just a webcast.

Nokia does have a major event in Barcelona on the Sunday of the show and, while it went big on 5G, the most it had to show for it commercially at this early stage was fixed wireless access. 5G offers the opportunity to provide high speed broadband to locations that can’t get a decent fixed-line service, for whatever reason, but even Nokia’s own forecasts aren’t especially bullish about the FWA total available market. So it feels more like an early way for operator CTOs to show some ROI from their 5G capex.

With the exception of a juicy bit of M&A action, Ericsson’s MWC event felt a bit flat. Meanwhile Huawei can’t escape the backdrop of the geopolitical spat it has found itself in the middle of, and almost seems ready to give up on some western markets entirely. At least one operator CEO reckons it would be disastrous for the industry if it did. A major theme of the show has been hacks trying in vain to get juicy quotes from anyone on the Huawei situation.

Aside from a bit of light FWA most of the 5G buzz has been generated by the arrival of 5G phones. The fact that some of them also come in a novel new foldable format just adds to the intrigue but those are far too expensive to be considered anything more than public prototypes and, anyway, where are the 5G networks for them to connect to?

To investigate why the arrival of 5G has elicited such a collective ‘meh’ from the industry we need to look at the three main technological subsets that are generally considered to comprise it. They are: Enhanced Mobile Broadband, Massive Machine-type Communications and Ultra-Reliable/Low-Latency Communications. These are illustrated in the slide below from a recent presentation given by Interdigital, which is already wondering what’s next for 5G, as is Qualcomm if the the photo taken of its stand above is anything to go by.

Interdigital 5G slide

EMBB is essentially more 4G, in so much as it’s essentially a fatter pipe, enabling faster data transfer rates. The problem is there is currently little need for 1 Gbps+ mobile broadband data rates and 5G cheerleaders are reduced to banging on about streaming 4K video, which is completely pointless on a mobile device anyway since the screens are too small to make use of it.

MMTC is otherwise known as IoT and, while it has massive potential, it’s debatable how accurate it is to describe it as a 5G technology. IoT has been progressing just fine without 5G and the standardisation process is largely independent of it. Furthermore some IoT applications can even be satisfied by 2G, so it’s not plausible to position IoT as the killer app for 5G.

The really novel, disruptive technology promised by 5G is the low-latency/ultra-reliable play. At first, talk of latency and reliability seems very technical and dry, but when you start to see some of the opportunities offered by removing the delay in transmitting a signal from one point to another, no matter how far apart they are, you get a sense of the full potential of this aspect of 5G.

On the Ericsson stand we bumped into our old friend Professor Mischa Dohler, who at MWC 2017 felt moved to defend the potential of 5G-enabled remote surgery, after we had used it as an illustration of how ahead of itself the industry had become over 5G. Dohler confirmed our suspicion that low-latency is where the real action is going to be, and pointed us towards the very cool video below of him duetting with his daughter over 5G while they were 1,000 kilometres apart.

 

Another cool low-latency use-case was provided by Javier Polo, Luis Fernando Fernandez and Juancho Carillo of Spanish cloud gaming specialist PlayGiga. They had a demo showing how cloud virtual reality is made possible by the low-latency capability of 5G and spoke about its importance for mobile cloud gaming in general.

playgiga vr demo

In fact once you eliminate the delay you can bring the cloud into play in all sorts of new ways. Speaking to Alan Carlton of Interdigital, who delivered the aforementioned presentation, we explored a future in which every screen is effectively a thin client that anyone can log into and use as their own device, with all their stuff accessed instantly from the cloud. That could be truly disruptive, while at the same time massively commoditising the devices market.

So we have to concede that the 5G low-latency angle is exciting, but before you think we’ve completely contradicted ourselves over the course of this piece bear in mind that we’re nowhere near seeing it in a commercial environment. Meanwhile we’re even further away from the kind of 5G base station ubiquity you would need to make this low-latency driven all-encompassing cloud into existence.

The sense of antixclimax this year is a product of the telecoms industry’s usual vice of over-promising. Yes, 5G is finally here in its earliest form, but we’re probably still five years from having the kind of infrastructure that can support any of these utopian scenarios. So this year we have FWA and the first devices, but unless each subsequent MWC is accompanied by at least one major new 5G-enabled use-case they risk feeling as anticlimactic as this one. If we’re not careful, everyone will get bored and move onto 6G instead.

Lastly we should also give a special shout out to Nokia, who provide great facilities for us hacks at the show regardless of how much trouble we cause them, and from whose stand this piece was written, fuelled by excellent connectivity and miniature multi-coloured sandwiches. They give good press room.

PlayGiga aims to bring gaming-as-a-service to the telco channel

Operators have been obsessed with content for a while but that seldom means games. Spanish startup PlayGiga wants to change that.

The core premise is to offer a cloud gaming platform as a white-label solution to operators, for them to re-badge and then serve up as an additional, novel, product to their subscribers. The service is intended to be consumed in a similar way to Netflix: pay a subscription fee and get limitless access to a curated catalogue of games.

The business premise behind this is to offer operators a distinct new product that specifically targets markets below the affluent, hardcore gamer; namely families and developing markets. All the graphics processing is done in the cloud, so even relatively resource-intensive games can be played though a TV and there is minimal setup and load time.

To find out a bit more about PlayGiga and the thinking behind it we spoke to its CEO Javier Polo. He explained that the company was founded in 2013 with the backing of four VCs. The platform was in pure development for three years and Polo was brought in to oversee the go-to-market phase.

Polo’s background is in strategic planning and he spent nine years as Marketing and Commercialization at Orange Spain, so he seems like a pretty good hire for a startup looking to sell into the telco channel. The strategy is B2B2C – white-label to operators – which is presumably why he’s speaking to us rather than a gaming or entertainment title.

Before you can pick a market you need to have identified that market in the first place, and Polo explained that they saw an opportunity with non-hardcore gamers. Anyone that is prepared to drop £400 or so on a PS4 is already amply catered for but there are plenty of people who have other priorities for their cash.

In western markets PlayGiga has identified ‘families’ as an untapped gaming market. We interpret that as harassed parents being badgered by their kids to buy a gaming console and their attendant pricey games and subscriptions, but who are disinclined to blow the considerable cash involved. Gaming-as-a-service promises the majority of the experience at a fraction of the (up-front) cost.

Elsewhere, as you can see from the slide below, there’s the simple fact that in much of the world the latest consoles are simply beyond the reach of most punters. The rationale is similar to the western strategy, except in this case we’re talking about the inability, rather than unwillingness, to pay for the full console gaming experience.

Playgiga market

Since Polo came on board in 2016 things seem to be ramping nicely. Last year it scored significant deal wins with TIM in Europe and Turner in Latin America. The latter is intriguing as it goes beyond the telco channel and reminds us that the on-demand entertainment market is a battleground contested by many different, previously distinct industries.

Playgiga deals

To conclude his pitch to operators Polo stressed that he thinks gaming-as-a-service not only augments the communications service bundle to help with stickiness, but can encourage migration to more comprehensive bundles and even help with customer acquisition. Polo doesn’t reckon anyone PlayGiga has any direct competitors today and we wouldn’t be surprised to hear of more operator deal wins from them before long.