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Huawei executive Li Peng spells out the impact of AI on telecommunications at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, while a sign language Interpreter translates. Pic by Arthur Goldstuck


MWC 2024: World gears up for 5.5G

The next mobile “standard” is upon us, Mobile World Congress heard from Huawei and industry bodies in Barcelona last week, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

The world of telecommunications has started a transition to 5.5G, the next widely recognised standard for high-speed connectivity. However, the industry is not about to ditch 5G, which still has a long runway a little more than four years after its launch, and represents a massive revenue opportunity for the rest of this decade.

These were two of the key themes that emerged from last week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, which drew 101,000 delegates to the planet’s largest technology conference dedicated to a single topic. Numerous new phones, laptops and connected devices were launched at the event, along with new software and services leveraging artificial intelligence and cloud computing.

The common factor in most of these areas was Chinese technology giant Huawei, which dominated MWC with one of the biggest show booths yet seen at the event. It launched new products and devices for sectors as diverse as mining, automotive, electricity, manufacturing and public services. However. It was on the subject of 5.5G that its voice was loudest.

During a summit conference titled “5G Beyond Growth” at MWC, Li Peng, Huawei corporate senior vice president Li Peng said that 5.5G would further unlock the potential of networks and create new growth opportunities for 5G.

“5G is on the right path to business success,” he said. “5G began commercialisation in 2019, and over the past five years, it has already gained 1.5-billion 5G users around the world. It took nine years for 4G to make this happen. Currently, 20% of global mobile subscribers are using 5G. These users generate 30% of all mobile traffic and contribute to 40% of mobile service revenue.”

Although 5.5G is not an official standard, much as 3.5G heralded 4G, it sets the agenda for the next version, and builds new possibilities, such as those created by artificial intelligence (AI), onto 5G. Rather than having a formal definition, there is widespread industry consensus on its capabilities. As a result, unlike 5G and its distantly awaited successor 6G, it doesn’t have to await formal ratification in order to be rolled out.

The GSMA, the global mobile industry body that hosts MWC, refers to it as 5G Advanced, in the same way that 4.5G became LTE Advanced.

According to Li, 5.5G is entering commercial use in 2024, and the telecommunications industry will see AI, cloud and 5.5G converge, allowing carriers to unlock the potential of new applications and capabilities. More significantly, it will allow them to improve the quality of mobile networks. This, in turn, would persuade customers to buy the latest phones that take advantage of high-speed connectivity. That, again, would result in the traffic generated by these users rising significantly, maximising the value of traffic to carriers.

Li gave the example of a Chinese carrier that launched a guaranteed uplink package to provide gamers and live streamers with smooth, high-definition feeds. The result? It increase its average revenue per user by more than 70%.

The new capabilities of 5.5G include technical business-to-business services like “deterministic latency”, precise positioning, and passive Internet of Things (IoT) connections. Consumer services include glasses-free 3D and New Calling, which allows users to communicate via virtual avatars.

Generative AI will come into its own as machine intelligence becomes widely and easily accessible.

According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), global AI mobile phone shipments this year will reach 170-million units – 15% of all smartphones – as all handset manufacturers build powerful storage, display, and imaging capabilities into high-end devices. Such applications, says the IDC, will generate hundreds of billions of Gigabytes of data and create new opportunities for carriers.

A Huawei Cloud Summit in Barcelona on the eve of MWC reiterated these opportunities. The Huawei Cloud division presented 10 AI-oriented innovations and extensive industry expertise, in an AI show of force.

Huawei Cloud chief technology officer Bruno Zhang said that today’s AI foundation models redefine production, interaction, service paradigms, and business models for traditional applications.

“AI for Cloud uses AI and foundation models to elevate your experience. Cloud for AI makes AI adoption seamless and efficient. Architectural innovation, AI-native storage, and data-AI convergence empower you to train and use AI like never before.”

Dario Betti, CEO of the Mobile Ecosystem Forum, which represents several hundred companies serving the mobile industry, ranging from mobile hardware and software to banks and service providers, told Gadget that 5.5G was critical for the mobile industry to leverage AI, as it would support low latency and short, sharp bursts of intensive data transmission.

Existing 5G networks are barely capable of handling the coming demands of AI, as they were often poorly implemented.

“True 5G implementation, what we call standalone 5G, or 5G SA, does not reuse any old 4G elements, but requires 5G on the core and the radio access network, and on everything in between. That wasn’t done. That’s where some of the big gains that we expected in quality and customer experience probably didn’t materialise, because the industry went for a slightly cheaper deployment solution, which tried to reuse as much as they could.

“It was a bolt-on network rather than saying, let’s build a network from scratch. If you compare the average speed of some of the standalone networks, they tend to have very fast speed, very good customer experience.”

As a result ,networks in some Asian and Middle Eastern countries are outperforming those in Europe, which tend to be a patchwork of 5G and 4G. The advent of 5.5G will help them make amends.

The GMSA says that, even as networks prepare for 5.5G, the continued roll-out of 5G must remain their priority. Its GSMA Intelligence (GSMAi) unit released new figures this week showing that 5G connections are expected to represent 56% of mobile connections by 2030.
 5G has been the fastest mobile generation rollout to date, passing one billion connections by the end of 2022, and expected to rise to 5.5-billion by 2030.

GSMAi head Peter Jarich said last week: “The early success of 5G was driven by enhanced mobile broadband and … related network traffic requirements. Yet, while consumer requirements will continue their trajectory, we’re now seeing use cases beyond that.

“5G SA brings home 5G’s early promise, particularly where slicing, low-latency and massive IoT capabilities tied to enterprise service needs can be met. 5G-Advanced will only extend that further.”

* A version of this story first appeared in The Sunday Times.

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