The Party-Crashers of MWC21

This week’s MWC Barcelona 2021 had several themes; the most important was that several outsiders to the telecom industry were ever-present.  The new entrants – the party-crashers – included Starlink, Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services, Google Compute, and NVidia.  These new players are forcing change either through economics, new technology, or new regulatory frameworks, or combinations thereof.  We’ll touch on the importance of these crashers and then circle back to a few other ongoing themes that continue to remain relevant in this article.

Satellite broadband, while not exactly a mobile technology, will catalyze significant changes to the mobile industry.  Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite services, evangelized today by SpaceX-owned Starlink, announced plans to spend as much as $30B in building out its constellation over its lifespan. Yet, it will reach users across the globe.  Elon Musk said Starlink is in beta in 12 countries, and it plans to have ½-million users in the next 12 months.  The billionaire highlighted that Starlink’s ability to reach rural populations is unlike that of terrestrial players.  We think the rural reach of LEO broadband is precisely why Starlink will be so important.  Musk’s pitch to the mobile industry was that of a partnership – he said that Starlink is partnering with 5G MNOs to offer satellite backhaul and rural broadband services.  We view satellite broadband, and later 3GPP satellite, as critical components in the telecommunications industry, and therefore we chose to write about satellite first in this article.

All three hyperscalers, Azure, AWS, and GCP, made a splash at MWC21.  As a group, these infrastructure providers have already changed the way telcos operate.  In fact, the hyperscalers’ architectures were the inspiration behind the decade-old telco push for Network Functions Virtualization (NFV).  But, these days, hyperscalers’ operations are more than an inspiration to the telcos.  MNOs are now moving some of their workloads to hyperscaler infrastructures.  The evolution of these workload migrations to hyperscalers is moving in three phases, phase 1, the back-office, then phase 2, telecom core, and last, phase 3, the access layer. In the weeks leading up to MWC21, we’ve seen progress on all three workload migrations, including that on Mobile RAN.  Incoming AWS CEO Adam Selipsky said at MWC that AWS is talking to “virtually every telecom operator.” 

​Some examples of announcements made surrounding the MWC show include:

With Open RAN capabilities come the possibility that MNOs can source various RAN components from multiple vendors.  Rakuten has already technically demonstrated multi-vendor sourcing (Altiostar baseband and Nokia and NEC radios).  In addition to system-level multi-vendor interoperability, in previous years, multiple semiconductor companies had been bolstering their RAN offerings (Marvell, Qualcomm, EdgeQ).  Marvell had previously crashed MWC (MWC19 and MWC20) and is now a RAN supplier to Samsung and Nokia.  For MWC21, we saw yet another entrant to the RAN chip market, NVidia.  NVidia has received pubic endorsements from Ericsson, Fujitsu, Mavenir, and Radisys.  NVidia’s current chip offering is called “AI-on-5G,” and the company’s offering starts in 2021 as an “on a server.” NVidia’s next offering is expected in the 2022-2023 era and will be an “on a card” offering.  Then, after 2024, NVidia will offer its “on a chip” offering.