Mobile World Congress: the ‘not-a-mobile-phone’ conference

I’m staring across a crowded conference walkway at a beautiful, bright blue concept car from Peugeot. It’s sleek and futuristic and is clearly designed to be autonomous: there’s no visible steering wheel or dashboard to speak of. The car screams ‘future tech’ and is being fawned over by all who pass it. Next door is a huge stand run by the credit card company Visa. They are exhibiting a motorbike, with their logo clearly emblazoned upon its flanks. The bike is a partnership with the automotive company BMW and is showing new ways of paying for goods and services without using physical cards. As I walk further down the line I come across a large stand by Bosch: it’s covered with concept technology, robots and people wearing VR and AR goggles. They also have an autonomous car front and centre of their stage and passers-by are climbing in and out of the seats.

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You’d be forgiven for thinking that I’d been to a motor show, but in fact I’ve just finished three days at the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona. The show is run and organised by the GSMA, the organisation responsible for coordinating the activities of the mobile phone industry. It’s a huge and impressive show – nearly as big as CES in Las Vegas and yet what is remarkable is that actually there weren’t that many mobile phones on display. Sure – there were the usual collection of identikit glass slabs that we now regard as essential communications tools, but in reality the show has become much more about general ‘connectivity’ than actual phones. If you were to squint, you could believe that you were in any mainstream technology conference in the world.

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And that’s why we, Nominet were there – meeting existing and new customers of our network analytics and cyber security tool – ‘turing’. It’s a relatively new market for us, and yet as we’ve found, there’s been a lot of interest in what we’re doing. If you look back 15 years ago, mobile telephony was all about voice connectivity (and perhaps a bit of ‘Snake’ on the side). The mobile internet was still a pipe dream and smartphones had yet to be invented. Yet now, ‘voice’ has been relegated to a tertiary function of our phones. Now that network speeds have got close to wired-line capabilities, the phone manufacturers and software companies are finding ever more inventive ways for us to consume data, whether it’s simple internet browsing, health tracking or even mobile VR.

This should come as no surprise – there are now over 7.5 billion mobile devices connected around the world: the market for smartphones is reaching saturation in most Western economies. We as consumers are being urged to make more our lives more ‘connected’ in some way, and the industry is finding new goods and services to satisfy that need. That brings me back to all the cars at the show. The automotive manufacturers realise that the car is going to be the next battleground for connectivity, both in terms of the car itself but also what we’ll do with our time when we’re no longer driving. I spoke to one of the organisers of the show and he said that the single largest area of growth for the show was that of the car manufacturers. He talked about how there was competing demand for the premium spaces within the show and that the car industry was vying for the top (and biggest) spots at next year’s show.

All this leads me back to a central theme of which I am becoming more and more convinced: the way in which we access the internet and the information we consume from it are going to fundamentally change. Qualcomm are the first hardware manufacturer to announce a mobile device chip-set that is capable of 1 Gigabit over-the-air data speeds: that’s more bandwidth than 99% of most fixed line fibre broadband connections. That data will be consumed by ever more sophisticated connected devices and our cars will be one of the main adopters of that capability.

Don’t be surprised if you find yourself streaming an 8k, stereoscopic movie to your VR headset whilst your car drives you to work within the next 10 years.

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