Analyst Q&A: MWC21 Hopes and Expectations

Kester Mann

Director – Consumer and Connectivity CCS Insight

Peter Jarich

Head GSMA Intelligence

Benjamin Stanton

Research Manager Canalys

Marta Pinto

Research Manager – European Mobile Devices IDC

Four leading industry analysts offer their take on the likely main headline-grabbers from the return of a physical MWC show in Barcelona and wider predictions for the year ahead.

Q: What will be the main themes at MWC21?

Kester Mann (KM) The pandemic will inevitably bring a fresh slant to this year’s event – and a host of new hot topics. These will include the role of connectivity in Covid-19 recovery, efforts to narrow the digital divide, the future of work, opportunities in remote healthcare and education, and changes to the retail environment. Other major focus areas for MWC21 will include vendor diversity and open RAN, the transition to standalone (SA) 5G, the battle for the edge, artificial intelligence, telco and hyperscaler collaboration, private networks, security, and efforts around sustainability and the environment.

Peter Jarich (PJ)

At year-end, we expect there will be more than two-fold the number of 5G connections compared with the end of Q1 2021. It’s not for nothing then that 5G will dominate the conversation at MWC21. But, it’s important to recognise the road to 1.8 billion 5G connections in 2025 will involve a myriad of near-term innovations (public cloud, edge networking, network virtualisation, spectrum sharing, AI) in support of myriad use cases (enterprise digital transformation, fixed wireless, mobile gaming).

5G may be the theme that unites these topics, but that’s only because so much fits under the 5G umbrella.

Ben Stanton (BS)

It might sound strange, but for me, technology will not be the central theme at MWC. Covid will be the focus, without a doubt. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. It brings a refreshing human perspective to our industry, and the best exhibitors will be ones which can use technology to solve contemporary problems caused by the pandemic. Whether those solutions are based around mobile devices, 5G, IoT, augmented reality, graphene, infrastructure or any other technology – the common theme is that they must all be applicable and effective in driving us towards a ‘new normal’.

Marta Pinto (MP)

This year’s MWC agenda is almost a status check on how technology is shaping the world. It was the year where industries and countries had to recognise connectivity as the critical commodity to support economic activities, learning and monitoring the evolution of the crisis.

Keeping the world connected and navigating supply chain uncertainties was suddenly a universal problem, and the cooperation between companies and governments to innovate and accelerate the deployment of tech-based solutions for lives improvement was key. So, at this year’s MWC all topics related to innovation in partnership, and how to accelerate the deployment of tech solutions across industries and borders, will be in the spotlight.

Q: How do you believe the hybrid format of the show will work and what is the importance of the return of in-person events?

KM It’s a shame we can’t all meet in Barcelona as there’s no substitute for an in-person event; the network opportunities, the hands-on demos, the impromptu meetings and the vibe of the exhibition hall all contribute to making MWC one of the most valuable weeks of the year. But a hybrid format is the next best thing; it’ll bring together tens of thousands of people from across our industry and offer access to a host of informative sessions and high-profile speakers to those who can’t make the physical event. We’re all pretty used to doing things online now, so I’m sure it will be a success.


There is no denying that the industry has been eagerly anticipating a return to in-person events; the combination of education, networking, and socialising has been critical to helping events like MWC deliver so much value over the years. But there’s also no denying that integrating virtual components into an event helps to grow its reach and engage a broader audience.

Having extensively supported MWC Shanghai earlier in the year, my team saw first-hand how well hybrid events can operate when well-executed. Given the lessons learned, and a global stage, I’m only expecting greater things from MWC21.


Firstly, hybrid events are not new, but they are significantly more common now. MWC21 is unprecedented, and I cannot predict how attendees will adapt. But I do know, from hosting the Canalys Channels Forums, that virtual attendees need to feel genuine engagement to feel a part of the show, and not just as if they are anonymously watching from afar. If the GSMA can achieve this, the show will retain immense value. Going forward, there will be some demographics which will always find it more valuable to attend virtually, if nothing else, just because it allows them to consume content on-demand and structure their time more efficiently. I hope future shows retain this and let attendees choose the best option for themselves.


The online environment is the possible current solution. Some events might continue to be delivered in this environment as they provide an experience of a final product, but for business purposes and hardware testing it can become less friendly.

Companies showcasing their products will have to be creative to keep the attendee’s attention as the busy environment will continue online and the competition for attention will be the same (if not increased). Easy shifts from one hall to another will add to the challenge and the user experience will be critical.

In another perspective, the full access to content will allow attendees to diversify their information consumption and smaller companies to increase opportunities to show their work. It is, in a way, levelling the playing field.

Q: What are the industry’s main challenges at the moment and what can be done to overcome them?

KM Diversity in the supply of network infrastructure remains a major concern, exacerbated by Huawei’s well-documented exclusion from some markets. Open RAN potentially offers a gateway to alternative providers, but is a solution that will take time to gain scale and maturity. Escalating geo-political tension between China and the West is another worry; it could threaten the development of global standards and economies of scale – so vital to the mobile industry.


Let’s put Covid-19 aside; the pandemic has been THE challenge for nearly every business, government, and individual in the world over the past year. The mobile industry was no different, and as Covid-19 recovery efforts ramp in 2021, the mobile industry will continue to feel its effects.

Revenue diversification, however, represents a different type of challenge. An existential challenge. The search for revenues beyond connectivity is nothing new. Yet, in the face of growing investment requirements (driven, in large part, by 5G), it has taken on new importance. A continued push into enterprise digital transformation (and attending services) represents the greatest hope.


It is clear that supply of critical components, specifically silicon-based, will be bottlenecked until at least the end of 2021. At the production level, foundries are attempting to squeeze out extra capacity. But further down the chain, it will pose serious allocation challenges for vendors and channels. The devices and markets they choose to prioritise will have major ramifications for their performance. But unfortunately, prioritisation of lucrative countries will likely mean that emerging regions such as Africa will be particularly underserved for devices in 2021.


Security and privacy continue to be big topics. May it be at a corporate level, end-user level or in the operations space, these two topics will continue to be the main challenge for all companies in tech.

After the uncertainty created by the pandemic, companies understood their fragility and therefore working in cooperation/coopetition is no longer the alternative or an experimental project. The impossibility of predicting how the supply chain and operations will work and the need to push for the acceleration of the digital transformation requires all players to combine forces. This behaviour should stick to the next post-pandemic phase as companies see the untapped value that these partnerships can bring for their business and for consumers.

Q: What's the biggest lesson the industry can learn from the pandemic?

KM The telecoms industry responded admirably to Covid-19, with fixed-line and mobile networks standing firm despite surging and unpredictable demand, providing a lifeline to many households and businesses. The biggest lesson learned is the importance of flexibility across everything from network architecture to the service offering. Almost overnight, we saw a new need to dynamically control capacity, prioritise traffic, detect and predict new usage patterns, assist the most vulnerable customers and tailor offers to individuals or specific groups. With people now pretty much demanding reliable connectivity in all places and at all times, the need to be smart, adaptable and responsive has never been greater.


Only one? Let’s call it a tie between the importance of connectivity and the innovation imperative.

If we ever took the essentiality of access for granted, the vital role it played in keeping people productive, safe and connected to one another over the past year served as a very clear reminder. And, where many of us on the analyst front spent the past year explaining how a global pandemic accelerated social and technology changes that were already underway, we must all take away the lesson that moving early (and often) on innovation efforts is critical.


As Covid surged last year, the share price of almost every major technology company collapsed. But the industry has proved far more resilient than many feared, and the PC market in particular has seen a resurgence due to remote working. But this is not just an opportunity to sell more cameras and conferencing software. It is a chance for every company to reinvent the way it works. In the smartphone space, network operators are now comfortable running range review sessions virtually – a concept which was previously unheard of. As the world starts to overcome the pandemic, companies are reassessing their physical real estate needs and the nature of work may forever change.


The main lesson from the pandemic is the impossibility of controlling everything in a business. Accepting the level of uncertainty and the need to refocus to cater to the customer needs required a shift to a more flexible way of operating.

Another big lesson was that more can be done if the right tools are in place. Operations that were thought impossible to continue online were reinvented. Are they the same? No. But neither are the customer needs or the required business outcomes.

The size of companies like Google or Amazon suddenly appeared as the big elephants no regulator room could avoid. This was another lesson of the pandemic: tech moves way faster than regulation and adapting to that pace will require regulators to work closer to the big tech corporates.

Q: What are your predictions for the mobile landscape this year – how will it change and what will be the driving forces behind the transformation?

KM This year will see 5G go mainstream in some pioneering markets as accelerating network roll-outs and affordable smartphones make the technology increasingly accessible. Already, total 5G traffic has surpassed 4G traffic in South Korea, while CCS Insight’s latest forecast predicts global 5G connections in 2021 will triple to 670 million. We’ll also see momentum for SA 5G, with up to 20 commercial deployments by the end of the year. Lastly, watch out for the emergence of new infrastructure suppliers, seeking to fill a growing void left by Huawei and capitalise on opportunities in open RAN.


At the start of the year, GSMA Intelligence outlined our expectations for the industry themes that would guide 2021. I’ve mentioned many already: enterprise digital transformation, operator revenue diversification, executing on the 5G opportunity, 5G era network transformation, navigating Covid-19 impacts, expanding the reach of the Internet.

My prediction?

We’ll see most reflected in the continuing development, and promotion, of private wireless. In one way or another, private wireless touches on so many of the technology innovations, business opportunities and structural challenges in mobile. This ensures it will be one of the most talked about, most impactful areas of market development.


Last year I answered this question in three words: “more connected devices”. For 2021 I can do the same: “5G for everyone”. On the network side, we are seeing densification of urban 5G deployments, as well as a drive into rural location and smaller towns. And on the device side, we will see a flurry of affordable 5G smartphones from established brands and challenger brands alike, which will pave the way to it becoming a de facto standard. And as the user base increases, and the developer opportunity grows, we are set to see a new wave of applications and use cases.


Resiliency (in networks, operations, as a mind-set) will continue to be a key word in the mobile landscape. And in this concept, I am including security, business continuity, delivering solutions that match the customers’ needs, being flexible and creative.

The world will not become less mobile, on the contrary: the acceleration of the mobile trend will expand to more industries and areas of life, bringing the need to rethink how businesses interact with their customers. At the same time, as some companies will be too stiff to adapt, a huge number of others will experiment new business avenues so it will be a period of innovation and creativity!

Q: What visionary application would you like to see come to life with 6G ten years from now?

KM 6G remains at an incredibly early stage of development and is years from commercial implementation, but it’s always fun to speculate. I’d love to see holograms move from concept to reality, offering genuine solutions to improve the wellbeing of people experiencing prolonged isolation. Covid-19 has shown just how much we rely on staying connected, and while there is no substitute for seeing people in person, future technologies can bridge so many divides. I’ve even heard that 6G could enable users to taste, touch and smell as well as to see and hear.


Is carbon-neutral connectivity an application?

The development of new technology generations isn’t about visionary applications. It’s about setting out foundational capabilities which will enable those applications. Lots of smart folks will ponder what we can do with 6G. Smarter ones (and me) will leave it to an ecosystem of innovators to uncover the best use cases.

In the meantime, what I’m encouraged by is an early 6G focus on sustainability. To be fair, we have seen the operators rally around sustainability with 5G, and they are truly leading on this front. 6G represents a chance for the industry to further show its leadership.


Before the network standards for 6G are set, any potential use case is pure speculation. But I do hope that its specifications are developed with environmental sustainability at the forefront of applications and deployment roadmaps, especially amid the increasing focus on corporate social responsibility in our industry.

I actually think it is too early to get excited about 6G, particularly when there is so much potential left in 5G – not just in terms of faster downloads, richer gaming experiences and more reliable video calls, but also in terms of security, bridging connectivity gaps, private networks for factories and offices, and access to advanced cloud functions and workloads.


That is a difficult one! I am still waiting to see the ‘killer’ application for 5G come to the market but for 6G (and for both generations actually), I hope it is a universally applicable solution that improves livelihoods as well as the environment.