The European 2019 edition of the Mobile World Congress – now just ‘MWC’ – hit Barcelona last week, with thousands upon thousands of telecoms and mobile industry professionals descending on the Spanish city.

One of three MWC events, alongside others in Los Angeles and Shanghai, the show is run by GSMA, the body that represents the mobile industry. The body, its website says, works on “projects and initiatives that address the collective interests of the mobile industry, and of mobile operators in particular”.

It is currently in the process of carrying out “strategic initiatives across several key areas including Spectrum, Connected Living, Personal Data and Digital Commerce” it says. The importance of these areas has been quite clearly demonstrated in Barcelona this year.

The Tech

But before getting into the difficult issues of the future of the industry and some of the challenges it faces, it’s worth taking a look at some of the tech on show at this year’s event.

Something that’s hit all the headlines this time round is the unveiling of foldable phones, including from major players Samsung and Huawei. Huawei’s offering, the Mate X, boasts a 6.6-inch front screen and a 6.3-inch back display which fold together to form an 8-inch 2480 x 2200 screen.

One of the ways in which it differs from Samsung’s release, the Galaxy Fold, is that its fold doesn’t have a gap – thanks, Huawei says, to a patented hinge which contains more than 100 components. Though Samsung’s Galaxy Fold comes in a little cheaper than the Mate X, and it chose to announce the product before MWC, Huawei appears to have come off a little better, with one Wired reviewer saying: “Basically Huawei seems to have trounced Samsung on this front.”

Other notable releases include Samsung’s S10, which although familiar, wowed audiences with, Mashable noted, “larger and sharper screens, bigger batteries, faster performance, more cameras, and reverse wireless charging”. Nokia’s 9 PureView also grabbed a few headlines, mostly thanks to the five (that’s right, five) cameras on the back of the phone.

As well as the phones, there were a couple of fairly spectacular tech-based stunts: a man decided to have an RFID chip implant put under his skin live on stage. Apparently it lets him enter his house, while another man who had already had a chip implanted made a payment with it.

Not the tech

But perhaps surprisingly for what is ultimately a technology show, many reports argued that the most important talking point at the show was not really tech-related. As we’ve already seen, GSMA, the organisation behind the show, has a series of priorities in terms of what it promotes. It also created a theme for the show – “Intelligent Connectivity”.

That sounds a bit like marketing fluff, but what it says is that this is just the term it uses to “describe the powerful combination of flexible, high-speed 5G networks, the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and big data.”

Intelligent connectivity, GSMA says, “marks the beginning of a new era defined by highly contextualised and personalised experiences, delivered when and where you want them. This is the future of our industry and our world”.

Serious stuff, then. As that passage hints at, a lot of what it is referring to comes down to data and connectivity, much like the rest of the tech world and, arguably, every industry, depends on. But, this being the mobile industry, one thing that is particularly important is 5G.

With every new generation of mobile connectivity, there seems to be increasing controversy. There are always difficulties in how governments handle it, with various disputes between competing companies, particularly as the smaller operators argue that the current system unfairly advantages incumbents.

But there are other issues, too. Computer Weekly quotes John Strand, of Copenhagen-based Strand Consult, as saying: “The GSMA wants this year’s programme to focus on 5G and the usefulness of mobile technologies to modern society. Indeed, the GSMA would like to boast that 5G is live and launched by almost 100 mobile operators by the end of 2019”.

“Seasoned professionals who remember the hype around 3G in the year 2000 know the downside of hype; as the roll-out was a bust for operators which spent billions on spectrum licences only to find that customers would not pay extra for the 3G value-added services.”

Huawei, way into the future

And as Quartz points out, Huawei’s foldable phones and headline sponsorship of the event is not the only reason the company is being spoken about. The company is under fire for allegedly creating backdoors into telecoms systems to help Chinese spying operations.

The Quartz article adds: “America’s attempts to enlist European allies in blacklisting the Chinese firm appear to be faltering, though, and Huawei will seek to win converts in Barcelona by trying to focus on technology, not geopolitics.”

That’s Huawei’s tactic, and it may well be a good one. But the MWC show is as good an example as any that even with all the most exciting tech in the world, it’s hard to get away from the practical realities of regulators and global politics. As the tech industry continues to ascend, that will become more true than ever.

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