MWC Shanghai Begs for Cooperation in a Shattered World-news

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As dignitaries lined up to launch the first in-person, post-COVID tech trade show, I noticed one thing about this supposedly global event: everyone on stage was listed as coming from China.

Mobile World Congress Shanghai has always been a China-centric show, even though the GSMA, the trade organization that runs it, has tried to widen the appeal. China’s a huge market, with its own peculiar rules, and English is less of a lingua franca than it is in other countries.

But the all-Chinese, in-person array—with a mix of Chinese and other presenters appearing on a big screen from remote locations—just underscored how different China is from most of the rest of the world in the COVID crisis. That was brought home again by the one US wireless carrier presenter, Rima Qureshi from Verizon. While the Chinese tech leaders before her gave supposedly inspiring, actually confusing jargon-laden babble about future digital transformation, she thoroughly grounded her talk in how we changed to a work-from-home life last March. The implied message: China is through this thing; we’re still in it.


A Plea for Cooperation

A threat beyond COVID loomed over the beginning of this show. While GSMA Director General Mats Granryd danced around the details, he was clearly worried that the US-China trade war would result in standards fragmentation. We’ve had this before. China, the US/Korea, and Europe all basically had their own 3G systems, at least in part, but the LTE and Android eras brought the world together.

“We must resist the threat of a technological divide, a split ecosystem,” Granryd warned, stuck speaking over a video link through impassable international borders. “We, as leaders in the 21st century, should take the road for inclusion, for harmonization, for openness, for recovery and growth.”

Who’s the villain here? Granryd got vague. He warned of “bad actors with bad intentions” and “digital bullies” who are “anti-science and anti-truth,” but didn’t name any. At one point he alluded to “the internet giants,” but not in the same breath as the “digital bullies.” With no names, though, it’s not clear who he’s trying to fight.

One thing was clear, though: mobile technology lifts people up. One year of mobile broadband coverage reduced extreme poverty by 4%, and two years reduces it by 7%, he said. The slight disconnect there was explaining how people in “extreme poverty” pay for their mobile broadband coverage.


What We Don’t Understand About Huawei

The slides presented during the keynote were … a bit of a trip.

The Western media really don’t understand Huawei, which became clear during rotating Chairman Ken Hu’s keynote presentation at the beginning of the show.

Hu talked about how people are demanding wireless home broadband during the COVID era. He talked about improving network access in developing countries like Ghana. He told a genuinely interesting story about how people are eating more chili during lockdown (possibly to feel something?), so a chili producer that couldn’t hire more people needed a “smart chili picking solution.” And he discussed 5G AR solutions with a detail that will surely throw a chill into Huaweiphobes—network-based positioning that can locate a device to within a few inches.

You know what he didn’t talk much about? Phones. Android. Handsets. The stuff the consumer media tend to obsess over when they call Huawei a “phone maker.” Huawei was the world’s biggest mobile infrastructure company in 2019, and the company may be reducing its presence in the handset world because of US sanctions; it sold its youth-focused Honor brand in November. That sell-off is already reaping benefits for Honor, which can use Google Play again.

The South China Morning Post later reported that Huawei devoted plenty of space in its on-premises booth to its hardware efforts, including laptops and the new Mate X2 folding smartphone. But that’s only for the lucky folks actually able to enter China and see the floor: clicking on Huawei’s “exhibitor profile” on the MWCS virtual platform, even logged in, just gives you a link to Huawei’s generic website.

Several of the keynotes at this show focused on infrastructure, but consumer tech media, including myself, really have no idea how to talk about infrastructure companies. There’s no active consumer choice involved; you can control whether you get a Qualcomm or MediaTek processor, but not whether you’re connecting to an Ericsson or Huawei base station. Wireless carriers don’t like talking about or revealing the difference between their infrastructure vendors, and it’s nearly impossible for a consumer to know what infrastructure they’re connecting to. It’s an important but extremely opaque realm.


Does This Bring Us to Barcelona?

The GSMA has said that MWC Shanghai, with an expected 20,000 in-person visitors, will act as a proof point for this summer’s MWC Barcelona. But seeing how it didn’t appear many people were crossing the Chinese border—or in the case of several presenters, even Chinese provincial borders—for this show doesn’t give me much hope for Barcelona. Making the Barcelona show really happen will require not just widespread testing and vaccination, but widespread international travel. I’m having trouble feeling like that will happen by the summer.

The online conference platform, meanwhile, is as bad as all of these have been. It’s basically a gateway for livestreaming some, but not all, of the speeches at the conference. While there’s an exhibitor list, I found that clicking on many exhibitors just came up with blank screens.

GSMA pleads for oneness, and wireless connectivity may bring us together. But in person, we’re a shattered world.


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