What to expect at this year’s Mobile World Congress

For one week, the home of 5G.
For one week, the home of 5G.
Image: Reuters/Albert Gea
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More than 100,000 telecom execs, equipment vendors, and smartphone enthusiasts will descend on Barcelona for Mobile World Congress next week. Much like the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, tech companies use the four-day event, which starts on Feb. 26, as a backdrop to launch their latest products and discuss their visions for the future. The focus in Barcelona this year is 5G, 5G, and more 5G.

Quartz is sending a team of reporters and editors to Barcelona—a real hardship posting—and the best way to keep up with what they see and hear is to sign up for the pop-up MWC Quartz Daily Brief, running from Sunday, Feb. 25 through Thursday, March 1.

Here’s a rundown of what to expect at the event:

5G from Pyeongchang

The just-concluded Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, were dubbed the “5G Olympics” because just about every carrier, equipment vendor, and government body wanted to showcase the next-generation mobile technology during the games. Chief among them were KT Corp (formerly Korea Telecom), which developed various 5G gizmos at the Olympics village, and Intel, a major sponsor of the event.

Both KT and Intel will be eager to bring their 5G demos from the slopes and rinks of Pyeongchang to the warmer climes of Barcelona. KT will showcase virtual-reality headsets that streamed live video feeds from Pyeongchang’s bobsled track and cross-country courses, made possible by networks that are up to 100 times as fast as existing 4G networks.

For Intel, 5G is its shot to be a major player in the mobile device boom, which it has mostly missed out on. The company sees itself as an “underdog” in the mobile arena, its chief engineering officer told Techcrunch. The Olympics, featuring Intel’s 5G-connected drone light display, sent the signal that the venerable chip-maker was ready to make the leap from desktops to smartphones and the myriad devices that 5G promises to connect. Indeed, it’s holding an Olympics showcase for the media on the day before the conference begins.

5G for the rest of us

Here’s one thing no one in Barcelona wants to say out loud, save a few pesky analysts and journalists: 5G doesn’t really exist yet. For one thing, the set of technical standards that describe 5G is still being drafted. The body that’s in charge of it is called 3GPP, which consists of basically every major carrier and equipment-maker in the world. It coordinates development using a system of “releases” which set technical standards across a slew of technologies.

3GPP has been working on 5G tech since Release 14, which began in 2014. Last year, Release 15 hit a key milestone when the specification for the radios that will be used in 5G devices was approved—an event that was hyped as the first approval for a 5G spec. In truth, Release 15 is only due to be completed in September, and it’s not even the final 5G specification. That honor goes to Release 16, which is due to be completed by December 2019.

So what’s all the stuff that KT and others are bandying about as 5G tech? They should properly be called pre-commercial 5G trials. KT’s networks at the Olympics weren’t based on a global standard, but on a homegrown version called the “Pyeongchang 5G Specification.

Apple and chips

Qualcomm has been one of the chief beneficiaries of the smartphone boom, thanks in part to the success of one key customer, Apple. But the two firms are now locked in litigation, and Apple is said to be preparing future mobile devices that will replace Qualcomm chips with Intel, and other rivals. This puts Qualcomm in a tough spot, since 5G—and the attendant boom in handset upgrades—is just around the corner.

This also comes as Qualcomm fends off a takeover bid by rival Broadcom for north of $110 billion. To complicate matters further, Qualcomm itself is trying to buy Dutch semiconductor firm NXP, a deal which could scupper the Broadcom acquisition. Conference goers will look for any signals about how the increasingly frenzied consolidation in the semiconductor industry will play out, and quiz device makers about where they are placing their bets.

The S9, XZ2, and V30, oh my!

Samsung is expected to release the latest version of its Galaxy flagship smartphone, the S9, at its press event Sunday evening. The Korean electronics giant often debuts a new device at MWC, but skipped last year’s event after the combustible Note 7 debacle. Since then, it’s shipped the well-received Galaxy S8 and Note 8 without issue, so expectations will be high that can build on last year’s success with another phone that does not tend to explode.

Other manufacturers, including Sony, Huawei, LG, Asus, and (what is left of) Nokia are expected to release new or updated devices at the show. And good news for dongle fans: Many will ditch the analog audio jack.

A nitty-gritty keynote lineup

Last year, MWC’s keynote speakers featured tech luminaries like SoftBank’s CEO Masayoshi Son and Netflix’s Reed Hastings. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has given wonderfully dystopian talks at the event before, and recent keynote speakers have also included IBM’s Ginni Rometty and Ford’s former CEO Mark Fields.

This year, there aren’t any really heavy-hitters in the pack. There will be myriad talks from telecom company CEOs, as you would expect, including China Mobile, Ericsson, British Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, and NTT DoCoMo. Perhaps the most interesting person to the wider world is two-time Formula 1 champion racer, Fernando Alonso. What he has to say about mobile technologies, we’re not sure.

Also on the lineup are the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, the UN Foundation’s CEO Kathy Calvin, and the governor of the disaster-stricken state of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló. The chair of the US Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, who recently spearheaded an initiative to effectively kill net neutrality in America, is also slated to speak. If he takes questions, they are sure to be pointed.