We all knew what the major talking point at this year's Mobile World Congress would be well before we even got on the plane to head out to Barcelona last weekend: the new venue.
We suspected the Fira Gran Via would be better organised, more spacious (of course), and generally easier to get around than MWC's old home, the Fira de Montjuic. ″But will it have the charm of the old place?″ We were all asking.
The answer was immediately obvious. No. Admittedly, my first impression was coloured by having to stand in the lengthy 'fast track' queue to pick up my badge for having committed the heinous crime of being organised enough to register in advance. It wouldn't have mattered too much, apart from the fact that the new venue is quite a way out of town and I was in a hurry to get to Huawei's press conference down by the water, which, incidentally, was in a very charming location indeed. Anyway...
The new venue is a little offensive on the eye, but on balance, the feedback was positive. Navigation was straightforward, although the distances to be covered were greater. It was easier to get a space in the press room, even though certain journalists still insisted on the 'towel-on-the-sunbed' approach to saving seats. And, most importantly of all, we had excellent connectivity, enabling us to bring you all the news and discussion from the event that I will round up below.
First though, a quick selection of some of my favourite overheard comments about the location of Mobile World Congress 2013:
″I'd better get going, I've got a meeting in Hall 7 in 45 minutes.″ (Admittedly, it's a big venue, but at least you didn't need your Boy Scout's orienteering badge to get around.)
″Thank goodness there are no cobbles.″ (Funnily enough, the show's limited female population and some of the better-dressed men did not miss the ankle-breaking trek between halls at Montjuic.)
″Who do you have to hump to get a biscuit round here?″ (What happened to the press room biscuits after midday was anyone's guess. I'm told there was some hoarding going on. If so, I suspect the aforementioned seat-savers.)
″Opposite the old Fira is a renovated bullring; opposite the new Fira is an Ikea.″ (Interesting parallel here: Catalonia was the first province in mainland Spain to ban bullfighting, and judging by recent press reports, animals of bovine extraction are fairly safe from Ikea's cafeteria staff too.)
″I gather a bunch of people accidentally went to the old venue.″ (Wow. I met some really smart people at MWC 2013, but it seems that some folks less blessed in the brain department were wandering around Montjuic wondering where all the stands were. Still, I don't think the venue itself can really be blamed for that.)
And finally, ″I just saw someone vomit in a urinal.″ (Nice. Although you probably can't blame the venue for that either!)
Something else we knew, or at least suspected, before the show started was that telco executives would use it as a platform to go on the offensive against the regulators.
We didn't have to wait long for that prediction to come true. The opening keynote saw Messrs Bernabe, Alierta and Colao call for more spectrum, less tax and for over-the-top players to have to pay their share. It's nothing we haven't heard before; Europe's telcos are still facing the same challenges they have come up against for the past couple of years.
The Telecom Italia, Telefonica and Vodafone executives weren't the only ones pushing that message out.
An impassioned Rene Obermann got a spontaneous round of applause from the auditorium for his views on spectrum allocation.
″[Spectrum] auctions are designed to maximise the outcome [for the state],″ the Deutsche Telekom CEO complained. Spectrum should be given to those who are willing to invest, so there is a benefit for everyone, ″not [used] to compensate for state deficits. It's the wrong thing,″ he said.
Obermann also picked up on the OTT theme. ″OTT: It means you invest, we take the profit,″ he said. ″We have to do something about,″ telco's falling share prices, he added. ″It's not sustainable that networks make all the investments and other parties get a free ride.″
One OTT player sharing the same stage didn't quite see it the same way though.
″No!″ said Talmon Marco, CEO of OTT messaging specialist Viber, when the GSMA's Michael O'Hara asked him if he was willing to pay for carrying its traffic over operator networks. However, he did throw the telcos a bone. In future, 30% of Viber's revenues will be up for grabs when it needs billing partners to help it charge users for certain services. ″Come and take it,″ he urged the telcos. Obermann said he was willing to discuss it.
Interestingly, this year's MWC showed that operators the world over are facing similar challenges when it comes to spectrum, regulation and taxation.
Executives from two of Africa's biggest telcos MTN and Bharti Airtel debated whether most operators in Africa are profitable, given the impact of regulation on the market and high taxes. ″Whatever we do in Africa we have to avoid what is happening in Europe,″ MTN CEO Sifiso Dabengwa pointed out. Meanwhile, established operators in Latin America are struggling as regulators attempt to boost competition by shaping spectrum auctions, 4G Americas' Erasmo Rojas told us.
KT chief executive Suk-Chae Lee took to the stage to warn telcos of a bleak future should they fail to capture a slice of the ″virtual goods″ market currently dominated by OTT players like Google and Amazon. He was also one of a number of executives to mention the failure of GSMA-led telco apps initiative the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC) that was launched in Barcelona three years ago.
But the South Korean telco's biggest rival was in a more upbeat mood. Talking to Total Telecom on Wednesday, SK Telecom talked up the positive impact LTE has had on its ARPU and predicted that 60% of its customer base will have upgraded to LTE by the end of this year. The telco also said it is talks with handset makers regarding its first LTE-Advanced phone; its LTE-A network will go live later this year. Meanwhile, Asian powerhouse China Mobile talked up its plans for TD-LTE, noting that it will cover 100 cities and sell more than 1 million devices this year.
The message from the U.S. was also positive. Verizon Wireless explained how focusing on the network will enable it to stay ahead in 4G and address any consolidation in the U.S. market; handset refurbishment specialist eRC told us it has helped Sprint to save $1 billion over the past three or so years; and AT&T made a number of announcements in the machine-to-machine space, including a deal with General Motors to equip new vehicles with LTE connectivity, and a partnership with cargo-tracking specialist OnAsset.
Other telco news saw Vodafone discuss the importance of automation to its M2M strategy; Cable & Wireless Communications shared its views on how providing a good customer experience is not all about technology; EE chief executive Olaf Swantee warned that there are big egos to be managed when it comes to forming partnerships between industry players; NEC advised telcos not to rely too heavily on big-name cloud services; and Fujitsu pointed out that mobile operators could unlock a significant revenue stream by helping the over-55s join the smartphone world.
MWC always includes a number of new device launches and this year was no exception. But this time the biggest headline-grabber was not a device-maker, but a new operating system. Mozilla used the event to launch its open-source Firefox mobile OS, which found strong backing from the operator community.
The first Firefox device made by ZTE will come to market in Spain and Latin America, through Telefonica, later this year. ZTE also presented its latest high-end smartphone the ZTE Grand Memo at the show, but failed to tell us when or where it will be available, other than the fact it will launch in China.
Cross-town rival Huawei also presented a new smartphone, the Ascend P2, which will go on sale in markets worldwide from the second quarter of this year. ″This is the world's fastest smartphone...It's much faster than our competitors',″ said Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei's consumer business. It is an LTE Cat 4 device, which means it can reach speeds of up to 150 Mbps, networks permitting.
At the other end of the scale, Nokia bolstered its budget phone line-up with four new devices including the Windows Phone-powered Lumia 520, which comes with a price tag of €139. ″We're taking innovations like the ones seen in our [flagship] Lumia 920 and bringing those capabilities down to lower price points," said chief executive Stephen Elop.
Finally, my highlight from this year's show was attending the telco-formerly-known-as-Qtel's star-studded press conference (at the old, more charming Fira, by the way) to unveil its new brand identity: Ooredoo. The rebrand, which will unify the Qatar telco's overseas investments, including Indosat, Wataniya and Tunisiana, came at a presentation featuring Cherie Blair, Hamadoun Toure and Lionel Messi, amongst others. Better still, on exiting the event I discovered Ooredoo had projected its new red brand identity onto the iconic Montjuic fountain. It was just like the old days!
So there you have it, Mobile World Congress 2013. Look out for a more considered view of the show's main developments in the March issue of Total Telecom+ in the coming days, once we've had chance to digest several notebooks' worth of information...and a lot of tapas!