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5G focus is shifting to infrastructure, as seen at MWC 2021

A prevalent trend at this year’s show: software-based solutions and platforms meant to drive the transformation of cellular networks away from the traditional, proprietary hardware-based network equipment of yore and toward software-based, virtualized networks running on standardized enterprise server hardware.

Most people didn’t have particularly high expectations for this year’s Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona. After all, vendor after vendor pulled out several months back, and attendance was predicted to be (and now proven to be) very light compared to the large crowds of previous years.

Nevertheless, several big companies associated with the telecom market have been using the convention’s time frame to make announcements about new products, technologies, and partnerships relevant to the mobile industry. To no one’s surprise, the vast majority of those announcements have to do with 5G.

However, whereas much of the big news from past shows focused on 5G-enabled devices or discussions of far-reaching 5G-driven services, this year’s news is primarily focused on the network infrastructure components necessary to power 5G networks. A prevalent trend at this year’s show: software-based solutions and platforms meant to drive the transformation of cellular networks away from the traditional, proprietary hardware-based network equipment of yore and toward software-based, virtualized networks running on standardized enterprise server hardware.

Still, there were some developments on the mobile device front. Samsung generated some of the only non-5G news from the show with the debut of its One UI Watch. Details of the forthcoming hardware remain uncertain—though it will likely not support 5G—but the watch’s software will feature a new user interface called One UI that’s designed to run on top of Google’s WearOS.

The announcement is noteworthy, because it marks Samsung’s exit from running Tizen on its wearables. It also shows a further tightening between the company’s Galaxy phone software efforts, for which it has One UI, and its wearables. Equally important, this move gives the Android ecosystem an example of interface and experience consistency across devices, something that Apple currently has cornered with the iPhone and Apple Watch.

Qualcomm also had some device-related news with the debut of its speed-bumped Snapdragon 888+. The new SoC, which is expected to arrive in devices by the end of the year, kicks the main CPU speed up to 3 GHz from 2.8 GHz and offers a 20% improvement in AI performance.

The other news from Qualcomm highlights the network infrastructure focus of the show, as the company debuted a second-generation FSM200xx line of chips designed to power Open RAN (Radio Access Network) platforms in mmWave-capable 5G small cells. What’s interesting about the chip is that it’s touted to be the first to support all the latest 3GPP Release 16 standards.

These are essentially the second-generation extensions to the original 5G standard and include such things as Enhanced Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communications (URLLC) for industrial applications. The support for O-RAN is also notable, because it is yet another example of the growing range of technologies designed to power the software-defined infrastructure mentioned earlier.

IBM made several announcements regarding its 5G software efforts, including the new IBM Cloud Pak for Network Automation and enhancements to its existing IBM Edge Application Manager. Part of the promise for software-defined network platforms is the ability to manage and automate them, and that’s exactly what Cloud Pak for Network Automation is designed to do both more easily and more quickly than existing hardware networks.

Edge Application Manager, on the other hand, allows service providers to manage and distribute network-based applications to edge computing devices. Enhancements for the new version include support for 4x the number of edge devices and collaborations with over 30 partners. The company also discussed an expansion of its partnership with Verizon to power certain elements of its 5G network. In particular, Red Hat and IBM’s Global Business Services (GBS) division plan to help Verizon create an open, cloud native, containerized platform for the carrier’s 5G core network using Red Hat’s OpenShift hybrid cloud platform.

On the topic of cloud technology-based partnerships, Amazon’s AWS made a series of announcements around its efforts both with a new carrier partner (Dish 5G in the US) and a traditional one (Swisscom). More than driving towards software-defined network infrastructure that might run within a carrier’s private cloud, Amazon highlighted the possibilities of running carrier networks on public cloud resources like AWS offers. Not surprisingly, that’s a goal being targeted by Microsoft’s Azure and Google Cloud as well.

Through its online AWS Virtual Village, the company hosted a number of speakers that laid out the details of both its software and hardware offerings, like running cloud-native virtualized network functions in Kubernetes containers within the AWS environment.

Given the wide geographical reach that any cellular network needs to support, Amazon talked about not only its major computing zones (i.e., data centers), but also local zones and even private zones enabled with its Wavelength and Outpost onsite offerings. In other words, you could even run these network functions in a single rack server AWS Outpost box at the base of a 5G cell tower. Interestingly, the company also discussed how those Outpost devices could be powered by traditional x86 CPUs from Intel and AMD, but also by Amazon-designed, Arm-powered Graviton2 CPUs.

Of course, the theory of what’s possible with these advanced network infrastructure-focused technologies, and what carriers will actually be willing to adopt, are often far apart. Indeed, one of the big challenges in making the transition is the huge investment in traditional network infrastructure that most telcos already have. Even if the software-based, virtualized, and O-RAN initiatives are all demonstrably much better than traditional hardware offerings, it’s still going to take a long time (and a lot of money!) for most carriers to make that transition. Given that fact, the AWS event highlighted both the opportunities that a new entrant to mobile networks, like Dish, can quickly enable by adopting its cloud-based model completely (because it has no existing infrastructure), as well as the more tempered, step-by-step approach a traditional carrier like Swisscom needs to take. The end results can be positive for both, but the income streams back to a cloud-based provider like Amazon will be radically different.

Although this year’s trade show won’t likely amount to much, it is interesting to see that MWC can still serve as a catalyst for driving the news cycle of the mobile industry. The increased focus and attention on 5G network infrastructure coming out of this year’s event clearly reflects an important shift that will likely grow as the networks’ demands for 5G services also grows. Here’s to hoping we can see how it continues to develop in person at next year’s show.

Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.