MWC 2023 Shows a Mature Technology Industry Still in Search of the Killer Enterprise 5G Use Case

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By Dimitris Mavrakis | 1Q 2023 | IN-6882

As usual, MWC 2023 was home to many announcements, but contrary to previous years, there were no groundbreaking moments. Instead, most companies announced more efficient and improved equipment and devices, most of which were upgrades to existing product lines. There was a level of technical innovation announced, including satellite, silicon, and Open Radio Access Network (RAN) products, but the show still lacked enterprise use cases and some visibility on where enterprise 5G will be successful. The window is now closing for enterprise 5G in the enterprise domain and no open Application Programming Interface (API) initiative will be able to save it.

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Technology Announcements Show a Mature 5G Value Chain


MWC returned in 2023 with a busy show, almost to pre-COVID-19 levels. The official attendance numbers from the GSMA was 88,000 attendees, but the show felt busier. What was lacking were the high-profile technology announcements that occurred in previous years when new product lines, flashy new concepts, and ideas were launched. The show was full of announcements about enhancements to existing product lines, and incremental updates to established infrastructure, devices, and services. For example, Artificial Intelligence (AI)/Machine Learning (ML) is now pervasive through all parts of the telecoms value chain; infrastructure, Information Technology (IT) systems, devices, professional services and business processes now include AI/ML algorithms. AI Operations (AIOps) are considered an operational standard, especially in greenfield networks that will soon be deployed, as well as brownfield networks that will likely be retrofitted with new systems in the coming years.

All Tier One infrastructure vendors announced updates to their infrastructure portfolios, including their Massive Multiple Input, Multiple Output (mMIMO) Active Antenna Units (AAUs), which are now energy efficient, better performing, and lower volume compared to previous product lines. Silicon is also becoming a hot area of innovation for 5G radios, with companies like AMD, Intel, Marvell, and Qualcomm announcing chipsets, SmartNICs, and even software—vRAN Boost, in the case of Intel—that aim to stimulate the Open RAN ecosystem or make Tier One infrastructure vendor equipment more efficient.

As expected, Open RAN and RAN Intelligent Controllers (RICs) were big topics at the show, with both mobile operators and the Open RAN vendor supply chain reiterating their commitment to developing the technology. It was clear throughout the show that Open RAN deployments will not become large-scale in the next year or two, but will be vital for future networks. RIC/Service Management and Orchestration (SMO) are being positioned as both optimization and monetization engines, with companies like Juniper Networks and VMware planning to use RIC/SMO to enter the radio domain to enable new functionality. Some of these discussions are moving to a more advanced stage; for example, discussing RIC pricing and deployment models.

The Next Waves of Technology Innovation


The next waves of innovation in the industry seem to be coming from many different angles. A few areas the ABI Research team identified are the following:

  1. Satellites or Non-Terrestrial Networks (NTNs) are being used to communicate in uncovered areas, either through network or device integration. This feature can create significant value for consumers in remote areas, who will be able to communicate in emergency situations, something previously not possible. This feature can also introduce nearly 100% geographical coverage, alleviating the need for terrestrial network deployments in very remote areas.
  2. Network Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are coming back into the mainstream, mostly driven by the GSMA Open Gateway initiative, backed by 20 leading mobile operators and welcomed by the broader ecosystem.
  3. Virtualized RAN (vRAN) is now becoming the predominant deployment model for new networks, with vendors having different strategies. These range from virtualizing the baseband unit at the cell site, to centralizing both the Central Unit (CU) and Distributed Unit (DU).

Open RAN and RIC continue to evolve, and technology innovation continues in a linear manner, and as public network commercialization is slow, turning Open RAN vendors to the enterprise cellular domain, where short-term opportunities may happen sooner, albeit at a smaller scale. Overall, there were no groundbreaking Open RAN announcements at the show, just measured optimism about the future of open and disaggregated networks. However, the largest question still looms ahead: where will the next wave of monetization come from?

Enterprise 5G Success Still Uncertain


Current MWC 23 announcements and industry developments illustrate a continued focus on a “build it and they will come” ideology that is governing the 5G and broader telecoms environment. A key example of this is GSMA’s Open Gateway API announcement that came exactly 10 years after the GSMA OneAPI Exchange was launched at MWC 2013, focusing on similar business outcomes as the Open Gateway API and even promoted by the very same group of mobile operators and vendors. OneAPI failed to attract developer interest and it could also be said that Open Gateway API will suffer the same fate—as an open API initiative is not a guarantee that enterprises and developers will be interested in consuming them.

In fact, all technology announcements relevant to enterprises at the show assumed they will embrace them and use these new features, but in reality, enterprises only care about their own business priorities and challenges. Several System Integrators (SIs) are now attempting to use 5G technologies and adapt them in their products, rather than start from the solution (5G) and look for a problem to solve. This will likely become the predominant deployment model in enterprise 5G and mobile operators need to take a proactive approach to stimulating these kinds of relationships and not expect 5G-Advanced or 6G to improve their position in the enterprise space. If they do decide to wait, they will only become passive observers of the innovation other companies will introduce, including hyperscalers and SIs. This is not an ideal solution for telco operators because SIs and hyperscalers will likely take an opportunistic approach in the enterprise domain and may disintermediate the role of 5G and mobile operators. It is in their best interest to drive engagement and develop suitable use cases, but as we already discussed, this has been an ongoing process in the industry.

The window is now closing for mobile operator innovation, signaling that they should stop focusing on their network technical capabilities, but start from enterprise pain points and work backward. Of course, this is not a new finding or conclusion; this has been discussed repeatedly, but no mobile operator has taken a risk to implement new business practices. Time will tell if they will succeed in pivoting to a more lucrative business model or if they will remain a data pipe for the consumer domain in the future.



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