It has certainly been a tough 18 months for the GSMA. Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2020 was cancelled due to an increasingly concerning global spread of COVID-19 and the inevitable withdrawal of the major exhibitors. And 2021 wasn’t looking much better with most of the world in hard lockdown for the first few months of the year. Many lacked faith that the GSMA’s ambitious plans to host a hybrid event at the end of June would be possible. Everything seemed stacked against their success.

So I was cautiously optimistic when I was asked to conduct a variety of speaking sessions at MWC 2021, moderating the 5G IoT for Industry 4.0 and End-User Showcase sessions, and presenting at the Delivering Scalability Through Partnerships session. With the ever-changing COVID-19 situation making solid plans nigh impossible, I hoped rather than believed that I would be setting foot in the Fira Gran Via in Barcelona this year. The planets aligned however and three weeks before the event, I boarded a flight from Portugal (my resident country) to London where I would have to isolate for 10 days before I could then meet my UK colleagues, some for the first time. A week later, I was walking the streets in downtown Barcelona which was buzzing with life in the 30-degree heat.

I worked out that my European round trip involved me taking nine separate covid tests, all conducted in a completely different way in each location. And there was more to come with the GSMA making it mandatory for every attendee to be tested every 72 hours at the onsite testing center, the My MWC event app even displayed a countdown so you could keep track of when your next test was due. Both the app and the testing process were extremely efficient, and it was clear that this event was acting as a test bed for major international events in this new Covid world.

Despite the standard lengthy queues for a very average €25 lunch, a hybrid Mobile World Congress 2021 appeared to be a resounding success. The GSMA revealed around 120,000 people accessed MWC21 across the virtual platforms and 20,000 attended in person from 117 countries and territories. GSMA’s director general Mats Granryd commented that “The pandemic has indelibly changed how we gather. We had to develop new health and safety protocols and a hybrid platform but, we did it. MWC21 created momentum and is helping us reimagine what events look like.” And I’m inclined to agree with him!

The real star of the show however was the quality of the content. The overarching theme of the event was ‘Connected Impact’, showcasing how the entire mobile ecosystem can transform our lives. This was broken down to seven sub themes including, Connectivity, Connected Industry, AI, Startup Innovation, Future Society, Creative Technology and Customer Experience. During the sessions I participated in, I was in great company with speakers from the likes of Telefonica, Airbus, Orange, Saudi Telecom, NHS, Vodafone and PepsiCo. It was great to hear the verticals share their voice on the impact that IoT and digital technology has had on their businesses and how they see this evolving through the coming years.

I was lucky enough to conduct a standalone presentation at the Delivering Scalability Through Partnerships session entitled ‘Ecosystem co-creation explained’. It addressed the fact that most telcos have failed to become Systems Integrators whilst seeing the resale of popular third-party solutions on an AppStore as too low margin. They need to carve a middle path such as using Infonova Digital Business Platform. It enables them to create sophisticated and high margin multi-partner solutions using an ecosystem of partners to genuinely solve customer problems and then easily orchestrates and monetizes them. And it was interesting to hear how many different words were used to describe this orchestration – co-creation, curation, aggregation etc. Everyone has their own word for it. I was delighted to hear that this message clearly resonated with Philippe Lucas, EVP Innovation Devices & Partnerships at Orange Group who regularly quoted us in his own presentation that followed on.

My aim really was to highlight that, when it comes to 5G, there is mismatch between what is being done to what actually needs to be done. In many ways, Covid has been described as the great accelerator, where the the pandemic has accelerated and magnified trends that were already underway. But sadly, telecoms has been going backwards since 2018 with the share prices of telecoms companies dropping on average by 20% in 2020 and their market share of 5G solutions falling by 5%. The reality is that CSPs will be forced to recognize the power of co-creation and that ecosystem orchestration with end-to-end automation of partners is the way forward. In fact, 95% of businesses believe that building a partner ecosystem to deliver solutions that better fit their needs is more important than IoT or 5G technology. The competitive threat also now comes on many fronts from organizations borne digital and with a laser focus on the customer.

In 2021, those looking to move onto new business models will need to change how they operate. They've historically been organized in a way that best suits how they want to sell with standard horizontal connectivity products and centralized decision making away from the customer. Decisions have been driven by short term internal and financial considerations rather than customer insight and needs. The more CSPs go into this and both see and organize themselves to sell 5G in the way customers want to buy, the more they will understand the importance of being bold in accommodating an ecosystem within a new operating and organizational model with a culture that enables a more experimental and agile approach to co-creating 5G-enabled solutions. 

When I wasn’t presenting or moderating, I had the chance to explore the Halls of the Fira and see what the exhibitors had to offer. Accenture’s stand was the one that really stood out for me with several big TVs streaming virtual content. Jon Bon Jovi randomly made an appearance on the TelcoDR stand (previously occupied by Ericsson) and Tesla founder Elon Musk gave a virtual conference on the Tuesday afternoon. Sporting a strong American accent, interesting given he’s South African, Musk really understood what he was selling and knew exactly how to captivate his audience. He had incredible grasp for detail discussing the challenges his company Starlink - SpaceX’s satellite internet network - faced on the road to commercial service deployment and providing global internet coverage. Impressively, Starlink should have roughly 500,000 users within the next 12 months but there have been issues with negative cash flow. Musk considers Starlink to be “complementary” rather than competitive to existing 5G providers, acting as a gap filler between 5G and fiber, providing connectivity to the most remote corners of the world.

I actually think mid-summer is a great time of year to do MWC and really enjoy Barcelona. The temperatures are balmy, there were plenty of taxis for once and you have more daylight hours to be able to enjoy the city at the end of a busy working day. But the GSMA has confirmed its 2022 edition would return to its traditional time of year with the conference set for 28 February to 3 March 2022. Many have questioned whether we still need these large-scale international that come with a sizeable price tag. And I think this answer is still, yes!

It’s been an unprecedented 18 months when most of us have been isolated at home and you find yourself on those long Zoom calls only hearing the same perspectives and insights. And let’s face it, it’s hard to concentrate virtually for hours and hours of different presentations. An event like MWC brings people together from all corners of the world, and from all areas of telecoms sharing a vast array of ideas, perspectives and content. I want to offer my personal thanks to the GSMA team for making this rich learning experience possible and giving me the opportunity to network with my peers. I for one look forward to returning to this wonderful city and its Fira in 2022.

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