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From AI to open networks as a driver for innovation – the hottest topics from MWC Barcelona 2024

Posted 13 Mar 2024

By Sophie Weston, Senior Policy, Research and Engagement Manager, Digital Catapult

I was fortunate to be one of over 101,000 attendees at MWC Barcelona 2024 – one of the world’s largest and most influential connectivity conferences in the telecoms industry. It’s the place where we see industry trends for the year ahead – and this year was no exception, with a flurry of announcements, demos and insightful discussions demonstrating the future of connectivity – with artificial intelligence (AI) firmly taking centre stage.

Here are my key takeaways from the show:

AI is taking the mobile telecoms industry by storm

AI was undoubtedly the biggest talking point, with many speakers emphasising the role AI will play in helping to transform networks – including the panel discussions that featured Digital Catapult’s Dr Dritan Kaleshi on customer experience revolution in the AI era and Dr Robert Smith on the significance of data infrastructure and management. 

The AI-RAN Alliance was launched at MWC, with its founding members made up of some of the biggest names in mobile network technology and AI, including Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, Nvidia, AWS, and Microsoft. It’s a new collaborative initiative that aims to integrate AI into cellular technology to further advance radio access network (RAN) technology and mobile networks. The Alliance will undertake R&D on next-generation radio access network technology that has AI at its heart. Given Digital Catapult’s expertise in new digital innovation including AI, from our telecoms-specific work, such as authoring the recent UKTIN AI Market Insights Report through to our BridgeAI programme, this is a welcome industry development. 

Energy efficiency is a cross industry challenge

The rapid spike in global energy costs has pushed the drive for energy efficiency further up the priority list right across the sector. It was fascinating to hear more from Deutsche Telekom’s CEO Tim Höttges, who shared how the company is practically tackling this using AI in RAN efficiency. Switching off sites across Germany when demand is low  has resulted in energy savings of over 16 gigawatt hours (the equivalent average electricity use of 10,000 households) in the first year of using AI-automated steering to allow Deutsche Telekom’s mobile sites to be more cost-effective. This session really resonated, given Digital Catapult’s SONIC Labs has recently opened applications for its Technology Access Programme to address Open RAN energy efficiency challenges around RIC enabled sleep modes and optimising CU/DU power utilisation of server CPU cores. It will be fascinating to see how this new and exciting addition to SONIC Labs programme develops over the coming months. 

Collaboration remains vital for open networks to thrive

It’s still imperative to open up the telecoms ecosystem beyond the dominating companies for new companies to innovate. In the session “Is Open RAN living up to its interoperability promise?”, Maite Aparicio, Head of Open RAN, GCTIO at Telefonica highlighted that the ecosystem must align and work together, understand roles and responsibilities, and avoid repetition in order to reap the benefits and efficiencies.

This was echoed by SONIC Labs’ Director Paul Sludden, whilst participating in the panel “Driving Open RAN Forward with Global Collaborators” alongside representatives from testing facilities from ITRI, i14y Lab, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). “The telecoms industry should share best practices, joint test case developments, synergies, and the learnings gained through testing to support all players and organisations to maximise their role in the supply chain and innovate accordingly”, he noted, something that SONIC Labs is already undertaking by publicly sharing its Cohort Insights reports.

Other key announcements on collaboration include the joint venture, OREX SAI, between NTT DOCOMO and NEC to provide Orex-based Open RAN products globally. OREX SAI will locally source products and services from partners and perform system verifications to deliver mobile networks tailored to the needs of each overseas operator. In addition, NTT DOCOMO and NEC plan to strengthen cooperation with OREX partners through OREX SAI to promote the commercialisation and realisation of true Open RAN that enables the interoperability of equipment and systems from diverse vendors.

The dominant view around Open RAN during the show is that it’s a journey and not an end goal. There are still ongoing technical challenges that can be solved with time, financial commitment, and common testing facilities – emphasising the need that collaboration is critical and does deliver value. 

Showcasing UK opportunities

Once again, the UK was positioned as a leading innovation nation within the telecoms space. There was an incredible buzz around the UK Pavilion, hosted by the Department for Business and Trade and it was great to be part of this as an exhibitor. It gave Digital Catapult an amazing international platform to showcase SONIC Labs’ achievements, including the launch of our outdoor testing facilities, as well as being able to network at scale, meeting hundreds of people from across the telecoms ecosystem. The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) also released a guide to its telecoms research, development and innovation funding and opportunities, highlighting the work and investment that the UK Government is putting into the next generation of telecoms technology, which we are proud to be playing an important role in delivering.

SONIC Labs advocates the need for collaboration. It was fantastic to be able to have the opportunity to demonstrate this during the show, by partnering with VIAVI to showcase a live demo on its stand to showcase testing undertaken as part of the O-RAN PlugFest – and we will continue to raise awareness of the adoption of Open RAN and the challenges that need to be addressed in the telecoms ecosystem, ensuring that we must work together to achieve successful outcomes. 

Want to hear more? Join me and the SONIC Labs team for our Exploring key insights from MWC Barcelona 2024 event on 18 March

I’ll be participating in the Exploring key insights from MWC Barcelona 2024 event, delivered in partnership with Women in Telecoms and Technology on Monday 18 March from 6pm in-person at the Digital Catapult offices, as well as live streamed. 

During this interactive session, we’ll share more about the hottest topics discussed at MWC, as well as having plenty of time for informal networking. I hope you’ll be able to join us – it’s free to attend, but advance registration is essential. Read more and register here