The Week in Review: Europe’s operators keep their heads firmly in the sand

5G manifesto, led by major MNOs, reveals old-school thinking on services, networks and neutrality, while Facebook changes the rules with OpenCellular

As with every new technology before it, 5G is at the stage where sensible statements are outweighed by self-serving hype by about 10 to one. The flurry of mundane announcements from vendors, ‘sexed-up’ (to use a topical phrase this week in the UK) with a 5G label, is to be expected. But the ‘5G Manifesto’, presented to the European Commission by the region’s leading operators this week, goes a step further.

Ostensibly, the Manifesto is a roadmap to accelerate testing and deployment of 5G in order to get new services to citizens and to put Europe back in the cellular driving seat. The operators – which include Deutsche Telekom, BT, Telecom Italia, Vodafone and others, as well as the large vendors – would commit to cooperating on multi-country trials from next year; to mounting user trials as soon as the standards are finalized in 2018; and to deploy a commercial network in at least one city per EU country by 2020.

The European MNOs always tend to get a rush to the head when they try to work collectively, but this Manifesto is particularly wrong-headed.

One, it does not reflect the real objectives of most of the operators, whose priority – outside the showcase 5G roll-outs to keep board directors and PR advisers happy – is to continue to squeeze more capacity, revenues and ROI from LTE for as long as possible. Deutsche Telekom itself said this week that it needed at least a decade of LTE evolution and coexistence after 5G appears, echoing a similar statement by 5G trailblazer NTT Docomo of Japan.

Two, the motivations are not as pure as the top line public statements suggest. There are significant strings attached to the operators’ commitments – not just the call for more spectrum and lighter touch regulation, but (the real agenda) demands for concessions on net neutrality. The draft neutrality guidelines are “excessively prescriptive”, warned the MNOs, and would be a barrier to 5G investment and the provision of vertical market services. The operators have legitimate points, especially when it comes to offering mission critical services to enterprises and public agencies, which will require priority.

And three, the thinly veiled bribes in the Manifesto just confirmed that, when thinking about 5G, most MNOs remain preoccupied with their traditional concerns – protecting their exclusive network and spectrum rights, competing in the same old way. While they repair the walls around their gardens, Facebook was announcing an open source approach to the mobile network, OpenCellular, one which could rip apart the cost base and the operators’ and 3GPP vendors’ cosy world.

This is the real promise of ‘5G’ – a flexible, scalable network, based on an open procurement framework like Facebook’s Telecom Infrastructure Project, and supporting limitless numbers of users and service providers – including those underserved consumers, and those long tail providers, which have never been financially worthwhile for MNOs to support.

The emergence of the old-school Manifesto, and Facebook’s massively disruptive announcement, in the same week, just highlighted the way that the 5G agenda is splitting between traditionalists and the new guard. If 5G is to deliver its promises, the latter needs to prevail, and the MNOs adjust to a new way of working.

And talking of the end of an era – BlackBerry finally abandoned its Classic smartphone, ending its support for the integrated physical keyboard form factor which made its name. Once, this would have been almost as seismic an event as Apple cancelling the iPhone, but the days when BlackBerry devices were an iPhone-like obsession for devotees are long over.

Indeed, the smartphone is increasingly just a commodity – the covetous glances of gadget lovers are turned elsewhere, to home hubs and virtual reality devices and, of course, driverless cars. These were the other major theme of the week’s headlines, from the tragic (the Tesla accident) to the over-optimistic (Alibaba’s attempt to resurrect its smartphone operating system, Aliyun, as a connected car OS). And the European Commission was active here too, bringing together a host of organizations to a super-club focused on connected and driverless vehicles.

The work program does not even kick off until next year, and the number of bodies involved almost guarantees this effort will spend plenty of money but completely fail to keep pace with reach change. The press release named the ACEA (European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association), CLEPA (European Association of Automotive Suppliers), ETNO (European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association), ECTA (European Competitive Telecommunications Association) and the GSMA, as well as individual operators and carmakers.

But while all those entities chew the fat, In the labs of Silicon Valley and Detroit, the real work will be done, leaving most of the traditional European operators left behind as surely as they will in other areas of 5G promise.

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