It was difficult to identify any novel themes at this year’s big telecoms trade show. Maybe it’s time to stop looking for them.

That the consensus buzzword for Mobile World Congress 2024 was AI epitomised the rut the telecoms industry finds itself in. Artificial intelligence, in some form or other, has been part of the telecoms mix for years, if not decades. But the enormous hype created by rapid advancements in generative AI has been latched on to gratefully by an industry desperately lacking compelling narratives of its own.

There’s always a strong sense of déjà vu at the event, as the annual ritual of meeting overload, renewing acquaintances, and consequent sleep deprivation takes place once more. But for those of us charged with encapsulating the essence of the show, it’s getting increasingly hard to find an angle.

We reflected on the telecoms identity crisis after the show last year and see little sign that it has been resolved. The root of it is the difficulty in working out what the point of 5G is and how to make money from it. As we do most years we started the show by visiting Ericsson’s mega-stand, which was made an even more attractive destination by the GSMA’s decision to downgrade the official media area last year (a move that was partially corrected this year).

An operator contact we met at the stand reflected that 5G is essentially the clustering together of a bunch of different technologies developed by engineers without any idea how to monetise them. The sense that 5G is a set of solutions looking for a problem persists. Meanwhile an analyst contact lamented that the show just feels like a massive ‘alignment call’ on which everyone checks in with each other mainly just to compare notes.

Ericsson itself is increasingly willing to concede what a hard sell 5G is and many of the use-cases demonstrated on its stand this year looked very familiar. Even the various applications of AI we’re apparently compelled to embrace with renewed zeal struggle to tell a compelling or even coherent story. Once more, part of this challenge is being addressed by the creation of yet another industry alliance.

But the ultimate point of the show is not to generate easy editorial narratives, it’s to do business, and there was every sign MWC has fully recovered its pre-pandemic pomp. The GSMA, which runs the event, revealed that over 100,000 people attended, which came as no surprise to all who had to ensure the excruciating game of human dodgems that blights any attempt to walk the show floor.

“MWC Barcelona embodies the energy and vibrancy of the mobile ecosystem,” said GSMA CEO John Hoffman. “We are honoured to host this special event which once again has delivered an exceptional four days of debate, thought leadership, inspiration and deal making.”

The only bit we would question about the above quote is the claim to deliver thought leadership. There is an extensive conference programme but, like other events run by trade bodies, you get the sense they are commercial set-pieces, designed primarily to pander to members and sponsors, rather than deliver compelling content. On the first day an impromptu session was unveiled featuring the CEOs of Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefonica and Vodafone. We gather they did little more, however, than reiterate their perpetual pleas for special assistance from the EU.

Our Groundhog Day theme seems to have been broadly reflected by the analyst community. It was anticipated ahead of the event by John Strand in an excoriating note, while Paolo Pescatore lamented the underwhelming keynote mentioned above. Richard Windsor reflected that MWC is now fully back in business and noted the especially strong representation from China and the Middle East. The AI robot – complete with facial expressions – on the e& stand was probably the star of the show.

Probably the single biggest reason it’s hard to generate novel narratives in telecoms is the very nature of 5G. We are currently in the middle of its presumed upgrade cycle, meaning there isn’t much profound innovation to talk about, but the generation itself has proven to especially underwhelming. 5G still has very little to offer consumers, the B2B use-cases are currently few and, let’s face it, quite boring, while the underlying technology offers thrilling concepts like efficiency and agility, the latter being something the industry is still struggling to exploit.

This isn’t anyone’s fault. Just as smartphones matured to a very stable form factor over a decade ago, mobile can now be considered to be a mature technology. This means that, from now on, innovation will very much be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. So much so that there’s now a very strong argument for abandoning the concept of the Gs entirely.

The current way in which we talk about evolving mobile technology was established by all the hype around 3G, which coincided with a general speculative bubble around the opportunities offered by the internet. When 4G arrived a decade later, to finally deliver on the promises made by 3G, that felt like a significant iteration. But 5G hasn’t introduced a major new paradigm such as voice or mobile data so, in a narrative sense, the label often felt unhelpful.

It was notable how little talk there seemed to be about 6G that the show this year. We hope that establishes a precedent and that the industry (especially American marketers) resist the urge over-hype the concept in the coming years. Otherwise the Groundhog Day sense of ‘new year, same stuff’ we observed at this year’s MWC will become established on a decade-to-decade basis too, which will serve no purpose other than to distract the industry from more substantial and profitable narratives.

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