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Hybrid Mobile World Congress kicks off in Barcelona

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Mobile World Congress usually attracts large crowds each year.
Mobile World Congress usually attracts large crowds each year.

Mobile World Congress (WMC) began today in Barcelona as a hybrid event, which combines in-person attendance and virtual participation, with the organisers saying it heralds a new era of connectivity and collaboration for the mobile ecosystem.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt global events, the GSM Association (GSMA), which hosts WMC, says 35 000 in-person attendees from around the world are expected in Barcelona this year, while thousands more will participate online.

The congress normally attracts over 100 000 in-person participants and 2 400 exhibitors. Last year’s event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 restrictions.

"We are excited to be back to business, back in Barcelona and back together. This year's theme, Connected Impact, puts front-and-centre the power of mobile technology to effect meaningful change," said Mats Granryd, director general of the GSMA, in a keynote address.

“With arguably our strongest speaker line-up yet, innovative product launches, and the release of the GSMA Intelligence Global Mobile Economy Report 2021, we're celebrating the resilience and progress the industry has made despite a year of extraordinary challenges.”

The GSMA also launched the annual Global Mobile Economy Report, which reveals continued momentum surrounding 5G rollout.

The report says by the end of 2025, 5G will account for just over a fifth of total mobile connections, and more than two in five people around the world will live within reach of a 5G network.

“Since the industry last met in Barcelona in February 2019, the number of 5G networks increased from three in South Korea, to 165 networks in over 65 countries worldwide,” says the GSMA in a statement.

“The report highlights the crucial role mobile technology will play as governments look to reinvigorate their economies and build a better, more inclusive society. It outlines a series of policy recommendations for shaping the post-pandemic digital economy, from direct stimulus funds and balancing policies for personal data to removing barriers to network deployment.”

The WMC is the global telecom sector’s biggest annual convention and this year’s speaker line-up includes Pretoria-born billionaire Elon Musk, chief engineer of SpaceX and Tesla founder. He is also CEO of Neuralink, which is developing ultra-high-bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect the human brain to computers.

Other keynote speakers are Xu Ziyang, CEO of ZTE; Arvind Krishna, CEO of IBM; Stéphane Richard, chairman and CEO of Orange Group; and Timotheus Höttges, CEO of Deutsche Telekom AG.

This year, one-third of the 350 speakers attending MWC will participate virtually, with Microsoft Teams announced as the GSMA’s official video-conference and meeting partner.

As the event kicked off today, organisers also unveiled the "GSMA eBusiness Network" commercial readiness, a new private-permission industry-wide blockchain network.

The GSMA says the first suite of its applications hosted on the network aim to transform the wholesale roaming clearing and settlement process.

The move, it says, follows collaborative research between GSMA and six global mobile operator groups that were the founding members of the Blockchain for Wholesale Roaming initiative convened by the GSMA.

“Together with the GSMA, the six operators – Deutsche Telekom Global Carrier, CK Hutchison, Orange, Telefónica, Verizon and Vodafone – consolidated several successful proof-of-concept trials using blockchain technology into a minimum viable product. The effort successfully delivered an open source blockchain solution that automates the operations of the wholesale roaming settlement process.”

Previewing the event, John Strand, founder and CEO of Strand Consult, says MWC will likely change a lot this year.

“The question remains whether this unique event will be the place for buyers (mobile operators) and sellers (technology companies) to meet and create values which justify the large investments in attending. It will probably be a few years before this question is answered.

“All the same, technology companies come from all over the world to Barcelona to meet decision-makers in the telecoms industry. If fewer executives from mobile operators attend, the value of the event diminishes.”

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