web analytics

Vodafone 5G MWC Barcelona 2019.jpegVisitors to this year’s Mobile World Congress were bombarded with messages emphasising that 2019 is the year of 5G mobile. At the giant Huawei stand and a mini-conference the day before the main event the slogan was 5G is on.

Many carriers announced they had either started their 5G roll-outs or will soon. Hardware and systems companies showed off the fifth generation mobile network kit they hope to sell to carriers. There was even a smattering of 5G enabled handsets.

At times it was impressive. Often the stories told were fascinating and informative, but the most important messages were not on any flashy displays or in any official press releases. The subtext to the conference tells a different story.

5G will bring changes, eventually

Yes, 5G mobile going to change communications… eventually. What we’re not going to see is a big bang. At least not in terms of service. We’re almost certainly going to see a big bang in terms of marketing.

The transition from 4G to 5G is, in effect seamless. Carriers installed the first 4G networks a decade ago. At the time and in the run up to the first 4G launches, many in the industry talked about LTE or Long Term Evolution.

That name is a clue about what is happening now with the move to 5G. I’m going to explain this without getting too technical.

The next generation

5G is the fifth generation of the mobile phone standard. About 20 years ago the mobile phone companies agreed to standardise technologies around the world. Over time networks have increased performance, call quality has improved. The amount of data shifted through the same amount of spectrum has increased.

Things kicked off for real with 2G. This was the start of digital mobile calling. 3G pushed more data through the air. 4G was, essentially a move to an all digital service. Its designers optimised the network for all digital, all the time.

Each generation upgrade from 2G to 3G to 4G mean the way data pushes though the air used a new basic technique. 5G didn’t do this. In the strict technical is really 4G with hundreds of small incremental tweaks to improve performance. There is no Great Leap Forward. Think of it as the next Long Term Evolution step.

More capacity, much more capacity

From a telco point of view 5G is more efficient. Over time it will make it cheaper and easier for mobile phone companies to add capacity. For now, that demand for more mobile capacity seems unlimited.

At first 5G will use existing radio frequencies. But it will allow carriers to add more spectrum at higher frequencies. The physics of wireless means higher frequency signals don’t travel as far, so there will be denser networks of smaller towers to add future capacity.

This will cost a fortune to build. The price of a tower is coming down, but the number of towers will go up. At the same time 5G should be cheaper to run… at least cheaper per gigabit of data. It also allows telcos to slice up their networks and sell them in different ways. They might sell services to driverless car companies or Internet of Things users.

Eventually 5G will use more spectrum. Last week the government announced it will auction some 3.5GHz spectrum. But some carriers, Spark would be one, Vodafone could be another, already have enough spectrum already to deliver a basic 5G service.

In recent years carriers have moved some sites from 4G to what is often called 4.5G. This is, in effect, an upgrade of 4G to offer faster speeds and greater capacity. Quietly, in the background, the technology has improved more than one since then.

We don’t generally use the terms, but there are people who talk of 4.6G, 4.7G and so on. This goes all the way to 4.9G and from there can go on to 4.95G or 4.99G.

Incremental

Marketing and industry hype aside, the move from here to 5G is incremental. Or, more accurately, it means lots of incremental steps. This is exactly what is happening overseas with some carriers rebranding advanced 4G networks as 5G purely for marketing reasons.

Most handset users are not going to notice the change. If your phone already downloads at 30 Mbps there aren’t many apps that need faster speeds. Even high quality video streaming will struggle to use all that bandwidth.

This is not to say there aren’t mobile phone apps that will one day need more bandwidth. We’re just not using them yet. As far as mobile users are concerned, it will be hard to spot much change as networks move from 4G to 5G. However, as we’ll see in a later post, phone users on the move are not the real focus for 5G networks.

Ken Hu Huawei cyber security

At Reseller News Rob O’Neill covers a speech by Huawei rotating chair Ken Hu. Hu says the world lacks a global, common understanding of cyber security.

… In Brussels yesterday, Hu said what the industry needed was a mutual understanding of security to build a trustworthy environment. Huawei was now operating on an “ABC” model for cyber security, he said.

The A stands for “assume nothing”, the B for “believe nobody” and the C for “check everything”.

“Both trust and distrust should be based on facts,” he said. “Facts must be verifiable and verification must be based on standards.”

Government and standards bodies needed to work with all stakeholders on developing such standards, he added. The implications was that a standards-based environment, would help defuse current tensions by creating a vendor-neutral environment.

Hu’s ABC is a beautiful, simple way of getting to the heart of a sensible security strategy at any level. 1

The speech was at the opening of Huawei’s “cyber security transparency centre” in Brussels. With the company under pressure to show that it is not a threat and not a puppet of the Chinese government, Huawei has gone on the front foot.

As the company’s top communications executive Joe Kelly told New Zealand journalists a week earlier at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, it’s hard to prove you’re not doing something.

Cyber security as part of a bigger picture

Which explains why Huawei is stepping up its rhetoric to argue against accusations while at the same time maintaining a charm offensive and investing in projects like the Brussels centre.

It was clear at Barcelona that there’s enough high quality business selling communications network to the rest of the world outside of the US and allies like New Zealand who express fears about security issues.

Yet Huawei knows, in the long-term, respectability and trust will get it further. Pushing a cyber security agenda is a good way to get attention. Building centres like the one in Brussels will help build trust.


  1. It is also a great summary of the basic tenants of good journalism. Reporting also needs to be fact based. ↩︎

Huawei Mate X

Huawei’s foldable Mate X was the highlight of this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. At the show it eclipsed Samsung’s Galaxy Fold.

It even outshone the event’s main message: that 5G mobile networks are now ready.

Foldable phones are the most innovative take on mobile hardware since Apple’s iPad.

Until now phones and tablets have been distinct devices. Sure, there is a point when big phones are like small tablets1.

Yet the moment a phone is big enough for serious tablet work, it is too big to fit in a jacket pocket.

Pocket-sized

Mate X gets around that. While some might see it as a phone that folds open to become a tablet, you might equally see it as a tablet that folds shut to fit in a pocket.2

Phone makers love to talk about innovation. Most of the time they use the word to describe small improvements. In the world of marketing hype, bigger screens, faster processors, more camera lenses are improvements.

It’s all good. Today’s phones are a huge improvement on earlier models. But there has been precious little innovation.

For the last decade or so phones have been monolithic slabs of glass and metal or plastic. The Mate X and its kind break with that model.

Huawei Mate X — first generation

This year’s foldable are the first generation. They are expensive. More about that in a minute. Impressive as the Mate X is, you can see a line on the screen where it folds.

I’m concerned that the screen is on the outside where it might get scratched. It’s a little bulkier than a non-folding phone. It feels heavier in the hand than you might expect.

Yet for all these shortcomings, it is impressive. In your hands it feels almost magical. That’s an acid test for exciting innovation.

By the time the Mate X reaches New Zealand it could cost the thick end of four grand. That’s a lot for a phone, more than twice the price of a non folding Android phone and considerably more than the most expensive flagship phone from any brand.

Phone prices have climbed faster than inflation in the last few years. Much of the extra you get when you spend more on a phone is more of the same old features, more screen, more memory and so on.

Expensive, but could be worth it

Folding phones may be a lot more expensive again, but you are getting something significant and different for the extra money.

It is also more expensive than any tablet. The price seems especially high when, at first sight, it can’t do anything that can’t already be done with other, cheaper devices.

Even so, there are many people who can justify the expense because it opens new ways to work. Looking at documents while sitting on a train no longer means squinting at a tiny screen.

Travelling on business no longer means lugging a laptop. You can carry one less thing. There is less to charge, fewer cables to think about. And so on.

There will be a market for folding phones and not just among the geeks who have to buy every new toy.

The start of something bigger

If the idea takes off, it could be that most premium phones will have a similar folding format within a year or two.

Soon the difference between folding phones and everyday phones could be like the difference between smartphones and so-called featurephones.3

There were other foldable phones at MWC. I spotted a TCL model on the Alcatel stand. If the as-yet unnamed Oppo foldable phone was on show, I missed it as I ricocheted pass the company’s comparatively dull-looking stand. It features, with others, in this long report on foldables that debuted at the show.

Huawei’s Mate X is the first of its kind. If you’re old enough, think back to the first iPhone. That wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t cheap. And yet within a few years it evolved to become the must-have device of our times. This is the next generation.


  1. We don’t welcome words like phablets around these parts ↩︎
  2. I say pocket here because I’m a bloke. It also fits into a handbag. ↩︎
  3. It’s daft that phones with no discernible features are given that name, but there you go… marketing. ↩︎

Certain western governments might be uneasy about buying Huawei kit, but phone buyers flock to the brand.

The latest phone sales data from Gartner shows Huawei has won market share from Samsung and Apple. In the fourth quarter of 2018 Huawei sold a shade over 60 million phones. This compares with Apple’s 64 million and Samsung’s 71 million units.

The fourth quarter is usually the most important period for phone sales.

Huawei growing fast

Huawei sales grew nearly 40 percent compared with the same period a year earlier.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Huawei’s success is that it is, in effect, locked out of the USA.

Gartner senior research director Anshul Gupta says; “Beyond its strongholds of China and Europe, Huawei continued to increase its investment in Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Middle East, to drive further growth”.

Much of the company’s success came from lower price phones. Gupta says: “Huawei also exploited growth opportunities through continued expansion of the Honor series in the second half of 2018, especially in emerging markets, which helped Huawei grow its market share to 13.0 percent in 2018.”

Both Samsung and Apple sold fewer phones in the period than the same time a year earlier. Both companies had falling market share.

Samsung, Apple stumble

Apple suffered a year-on-year fall in sales of almost 12 percent. The company previously said this was largely due to falling sales in China, although numbers fell everywhere except North America and the wealthier parts of Asia-Pacific.

Samsung’s high-end phones failed to turn buyer’s heads. The company strengthened its mid-range models during the period.

Chinese brand Oppo, also enjoyed growth. It is now the world’s number four phone brand by unit sales. It has a market share of 7.7 percent.

The phone market has stopped growing. In the fourth quarter sales were 0.1 percent higher than a year earlier, essentially flat.

Gartner says the mature Asia-Pacific markets (which includes Australia and New Zealand) declined 3.4 percent.

While raw unit numbers excite many phone industry observers, the more important question is which brands are making money.

Huawei at Mobile World Congress 2019All over Barcelona banners advertise the city’s 2019 Mobile World Congress event. The slogan is “intelligent connectivity”. The phrase is about generic as things can be in this business. What is it supposed to mean?

There are answers in the eight giant exhibition halls and the numerous conference theatres that dot the event’s site. Everywhere you look, you’ll see the term 5G. Then the penny drops, fifth generation mobile phone technology is meant to be intelligent connectivity.

Judging by Mobile World Congress, 5G must be at the peak of Gartner’s Hype Cycle. It’s been front and centre for the last three years. Now carriers are building 5G networks and tentatively switching them on. 5G phone hardware is here. It’s all ready to fly except for one thing, practical business applications for 5G are still few and far between.

Huawei everywhere at Mobile World Congress

If it’s hard to avoid 5G hype at MWC. It’s also hard to avoid Huawei. The company’s logo is everywhere. Huawei has the biggest stand in the largest exhibition hall, although the word stand is not the best way to describe a hectare or so of space showing 5G network hardware, end-user kit and even the occasional practical business application.

One user case is a Norwegian salmon farm that uses 5G. Almost all part of its operation would work just as well with 4G or even 3G. However, the fish farmers use 4K television to monitor fish health. They can’t see the lice that attach themselves to salmon on a lower resolution screen and 5G is the only practical way to transmit that much data from the fish pens to the land-based monitoring stations.

Travel for about kilometre on the showground travelator and you’ll get from Huawei’s carrier exhibit to the company’s consumer device stand. There you can see the Mate X, a folding phone handset. It looks like any other 2019 Android handset until you open it out. Then it turns into an iPad-like tablet.

Tablet or phone?

It’s not entirely clear if the Huawei Mate X is a phone that can double as a tablet, or if it is a tablet you can fold up and put in your pocket. Either way, it feels a little like magic when you first get your hands on one. Also magic is that no-one seems to want to use the awful term phablet to describe the device.

The likely NZ price will be the thick end of $4,000 which seems a lot, but for a lot of people this is going to be a valuable hardworking device. Like every other phone is has cameras and all the smartphone trimmings, unlike every other phone it does 5G straight out of the box.

Other phone makers also showed folding devices. Huawei appears to have the edge over Samsung and Alcatel who both displayed folding tablet-phones.

Politics

Huawei’s Mate X was the most talked about phone at Mobile World Congress. The company was also seen in a less flattering limelight. Huawei has been locked out of some markets and is on the receiving end of negative attention from the US government.

The fear is that Huawei is either already using its network hardware to pass secrets to the Chinese government or that it will soon start doing so.

Huawei fought this on two fronts at Barcelona. On the positive front it showcased its products and services aiming to woo telecoms executives with its superior, in some cases outstanding products.

Billion dollar charm offensive

The charm offensive was huge. Off the record I was told Huawei spent getting on for a billion dollars on MWC. Thousands of employees attend. Plane loads of journalists, including myself, were flown in from around the world to see the company in its best light.

Huawei appears to have fed a large proportion of the 100,000 or so people who turned up to MWC. The catering budget must run into many millions.

There was a day zero event. In effect, a mini-conference held the day before MWC was officially open. Huawei used MWC to show the world it is the leader in the technology needed to make 5G happen.

Huawei’s second front was more aggressive. On the second formal day at MWC, Huawei chairman Guo Ping hit back at US claims in a measured, but angry keynote speech. In effect he said what Huawei officials have been telling journalists for months; that the company doesn’t do bad things and that there are no backdoors in network kit.

Nothing yet

Well, he would say that even if Huawei was up to its eyeballs in espionage. But no-one has any evidence of anything untoward to date. While that doesn’t mean nothing is going on, given the scrutiny the company is under, you might expect a whiff of evidence by now.

Those of us who aren’t in Huawei’s inner circle or who work at a high level in intelligence can never know for certain. MWC 2019 debated the questions, it didn’t resolve them.

In hindsight we should probably have guessed that a telecommunications industry event would find itself on the geopolitical front line. From a journalist’s point of view, it’s definitely more interesting that writing about a phone maker putting an extra camera on their back of their hardware.

Disclosure: While Huawei flew me to Barcelona and was a gracious host, the company was MWC’s biggest story by a long shot. I’d have written the same as above if I had paid my own way.