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Mobile World Congress 2024 — Fantasy and Reality

I had expectations of what might be different this year at MWC, including hope for a visible pivot from back-end network jargon to a focus on the digital customer experience. I wanted to see proof of innovation, and I was especially excited to see how many companies whose brands had never been associated with “telecom” might be participating. Of course, I did expect an explosion of AI promotions, claims and messaging because every new and innovative technology goes through the mandatory hype cycle. Still, I was not expecting the magnitude of what I saw.  

Here are my key takeaways from Mobile World Congress 2024: 

1. Most "5G" was replaced by "AI" on signage and messaging — EVERYWHERE!

Last year, the focus was on 4G, 5G and network slicing and dicing. But this year, 5G was in the shadows compared to AI and GenAI. Practically, not a single booth from an exhibitor didn't have some form of spotlight on AI and GenAI.  

It proved that marketing teams know AI, especially GenAI, is guaranteed to capture attention. However, the most exciting part of this shift for me was the recognition that while network capacity is an important enabler, it is not a game changer in and of itself. In fact, without the underlying network capabilities, much of AI's life-changing potential would not be possible. 

Now, the key will be to see how the telco industry moves up the stack and focuses on supporting and developing the next generation of personalized services and packages, especially as we enter the "Invisible Network Era." 

2. 50% Fantasy/50% Reality

With the hype cycle for AI barely reaching its peak, it was clear that 50% of the focus at MWC was fantasy — because there was no reality behind it. But the good news is that fantasies are vital to innovation. Ultimately, if executed correctly, fantasy can become a reality.  

We all need to see GenAI's potential for new revenue opportunities and personalized customer service experiences — as well as automation, faster time to market and cost savings. We also need to be cautious of moving too quickly without validating the truth behind the hype and code behind the demos. Similar to some of the wild devices spotlighted, like Lenovo’s transparent laptop and the Motorola bendable concept phone, some companies at MWC touted software that was impressive onstage but still in fantasy mode (before actual safe and tested usage and production). 

Many CIOs I spoke with are concerned about the quality of the code generated due to the early stage of model training and technical debt that could pile up as a result. So customer references, analyst feedback and market experience are essential before leaping forward too quickly.  Optiva’s CTO, Matthew Halligan, also reminded us during an insightful interview with TelecomTV that while new revenue opportunities are a key part of the GenAI potential, we need to focus on profitable revenue. That is where GenAI-driven process automation and cost savings can have a big impact.


3. A noticeable pivot from back-end network bandwidth, operations and management to digital customer experience

I was excited by the strong pivot from back-end network jargon to a strong focus on delivering personalized, intuitive and digital customer experiences. The pivot from the backend to the frontend will define the industry's success. Let's be clear — there are two ways that companies can achieve this. They can do it themselves or partner with new market entrants (e.g., MVNOs, IoT device manufacturers, embedded mobile connectivity, etc.) and generate new (and shared revenue).  

I was impressed to see many booths and companies that would never have been considered part of the telecom industry’s largest conference previously. These included AI demos featuring smart cars that I can turn on and off just by looking at buttons on a screen (how’s that for a new level of contactless transactions?) and devices like Humane’s AiPin, which eliminates the need for the multitude of apps we have to download, update and manage on our devices.  

The power of innovation built on the gold mine of customer and network data that the telecom industry now can monetize made this year’s Mobile World Congress one of the most inspiring for me.


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