The mother of all shows

Mobile World Congress in Barcelona really is quite the event. This year saw somewhere in the region of 110,000 attendees cram the halls, bars, and restaurants of what is a marvellous city. The crowd in the 90k-capacity Nou Camp stadium for Barcelona’s league game on Wednesday was small compared to the show – and it was easier to get onto the Metro train afterwards as well.

I wrote in a Facebook post that you have to praise the event. It is a commercial runaway express train. I’ve never seen the halls as crowded on the first morning of the show as they were this year. And although it is a very different show to the one I first went to in Cannes 22 years ago, some things don’t change – but more of that later.

The Cannes event, with its few thousand delegates, was a place were the mobile infrastructure vendors looked to meet and seal deals with network operators, and where smaller innovative companies in the same space tried to sell to the bigger players – other vendors, integrators or the operators themselves.

These days the headlines at the show are usually grabbed by handset vendors launching new devices, or by driverless cars, or keynote speeches by star names from the Internet – this year it was the CEO of Netflix. The exhibition halls are awash with smart toys from Swiss watch companies or drone manufacturers, and with video glasses, and Virtual Reality headsets; most of which have very little to do with real mobile infrastructure.

But despite the high profile nature of the event these days, I actually felt this year’s show was a little light on headline news. Blackberry’s handset launch garnered some attention, but in a relatively young industry the wave of nostalgia that surrounded the return of Nokia to the handset market with its retro 3310 was in some ways as disappointing as it was fun.

When the innovation on show is a return to past glories, that does seem at odds with an industry that is constantly looking forward. Having said that, the warmth and goodwill that accompanied the launch was fun to see. Of course, sales will be the final arbiter of its success, but it would be great to have a strong European brand back in the handset market.

On the conference stage, the news that incoming GSMA Chairman Sunny Mittal of Bharti Telecom intends to scrap roaming charges during his time at the helm will be welcomed by businesses, consumers, and regulators all over the world. However, not all operators will be smiling and the move will throw up some interesting commercial as well as technical challenges – especially for subscribers living close to land borders.

And while on the giant booths of the big infrastructure vendors and operators, the talk was all 5G; in the corners of the booths and halls, and in small meeting rooms, the old show still very much exists. One relatively small UK start-up I chatted to had held eight, one hour-long, meetings every day in its cubicle-sized meeting room in Hall two. They had been back-to-back without a break and often had to send one or two of the team to have parallel meetings in the coffee bar.

Which means, that despite all the glitz and the glamour; at its heart, MWC remains THE place where the mobile industry comes to do business. After more than 20 years, that’s quite an achievement in itself. And next February, we’ll gather to do it all again.