Picture: 123RF/Teoh Chin Leong
Picture: 123RF/Teoh Chin Leong

For years the annual Mobile World Congress (MWC) was where handset manufacturers unveiled their flagship phones, the industry debated upcoming trends and, often, launched technologies.

This year was slightly different as the long-simmering conflict over Chinese telecoms giant Huawei was thrust into the foreground. In the lead-up to what is the largest wireless conference in the world, there was endless speculation about the Trump administration’s trade war with China, and whether Huawei is indeed guilty of being a conduit for spying.

But the biggest talking point was the expansive growth predicted for 5G. These new fifth-generation networks are seen as integral to the evolution of services for the fourth industrial revolution, including automated cars, robotics, and next-generation manufacturing.

Like all previous technology upgrades, there is a fair amount of hype but also a fair degree of optimism about its potential. 5G offers wide wireless coverage with speeds that approximate fibreoptic cables, but without the infrastructure costs. And Huawei, which already connects a third of the world’s online users to the internet, has emerged as the pacesetter.

Huawei’s strategic advantage appears to be its impressive research & development, which had a $15bn budget last year.

It’s safe to say that Huawei won the PR war at MWC Barcelona (as the conference is now called), which had an estimated 100,000 visitors this year. Huawei’s branding was everywhere, including on attendees’ lanyards, as were its executives, speaking at high-profile keynotes.

Even its expensive foldable 5G phone, the $2,500 Mate X, won numerous best in show awards from tech publications.

As The New York Times noted: "For Huawei, the enormous conference provided a much-needed opportunity to make a show of force after months of being on the defensive about the American-led campaign. The company, accused of being an instrument of spying for the Chinese government, was ubiquitous in Barcelona. Huawei had the biggest and most popular booth, which looked like a sprawling indoor city that took up half of a convention hall."

Rotating chair Guo Ping gave a strident defence of Huawei in a keynote address last Tuesday and in a Financial Times opinion piece the next day. "There has never been more interest in Huawei, we must be doing something right," Guo joked during the address.

Though he conceded that "the past few months have been a challenge for us", he stressed that Huawei doesn’t operate networks or own carrier data.

"Our responsibility, what we promise, is that we don’t do bad things. Huawei has not and will never plant backdoors. And we will never allow anyone to do so in our equipment. We take this responsibility very seriously."

As The New York Times said: "The Trump administration hasn’t provided much hard evidence" to back its accusations against Huawei.

One of the big announcements was that SA’s data-only operator, Rain, has launched the first 5G network in Africa, built with Huawei technology.

"We are a small mosquito on a very big artery but can move the needle," Rain chair Paul Harris told the FM. "As you have seen at MWC, 5G is here! Rain already has a 5G network up and running and, while it is small at this stage, it is very important to our future plans. By the time devices become available from midyear we will have a reasonably sized network. People will then be able to experience the incredible performance of 5G, which we believe will be attractive to the segment of the market that demands very fast and reliable internet."

These new networks — though the GSM Association (GSMA) admits it "will take some time for 5G to hit critical mass" — are impressive. Huawei says its 5G networks can achieve download speeds of 1.3Gbps.

Rain — whose other major investor is celebrity banker Michael Jordaan, the former CEO of FNB — has 3,000 towers in major metropolitan areas and intends to expand to over 5,000 in the next two years. Unlike other operators, it does not offer legacy voice services on 2G and 3G networks, so it can be more agile.

The GSMA, the London-based umbrella body for the wireless network industry, predicts that 1.4-billion people (15% of all mobile users) will be using 5G networks by 2025.

Mobile is the primary way people connect to the internet: 5.1-billion people were online via mobile at the end of 2018 — or 67% of the global population, according to the GSMA’s "The Mobile Economy 2019" report, released last week.

Though coverage is important, "much more critical" is confronting the numerous other challenges that prevent people getting online or finding meaningful things for them once they are, the organisation’s director-general, Mats Granryd, told the FM. These include digital skills, the affordability of handsets and data, working with governments on regulation and taxation, and safety and security.

For the internet to truly blossom in various regions, he believes, it needs to offer services and content that are culturally relevant and are in local languages.

"We need to get local innovation and local drive to establish a content-driven ecosystem," he said.