Mobile World Congress is the ultimate 5G hype machine

More than 100,000 people are attending this year's event in Barcelona, which is now underway.

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Credit: Mobile World Congress

When it comes to the fifth generation of mobile tech, Mobile World Congress is the wireless industry's biggest, loudest hype machine.

More than 100,000 people are attending this year's event in Barcelona, which is now underway, and it's here that mobile technologies such as 3G, 4G and, soon, 5G are born; MWC is the epicenter for how wireless will transform communication, connectivity and even entire industries. And in the case of 5G, there is talk about how it will do everything from make driverless cars a reality to deliver the internet of things revolution in which everything—clothing, kitchens and entire cities—will be connected.

Although there's legitimacy to such big ideas, marketers, agencies and brands have also caught wind that the tech is far from reaching fruition, with many experts (and telecom executives) predicting that 5G won't roll out at scale for at least another two or three years in the U.S.

"5G was a massive theme at MWC over the past two years," Ian Bearcraft, VP of digital strategy at Epsilon, says. "Given how much smoke the carriers blew at CES [this year], we're likely to see them do more of the same at MWC."

Still, Bearcraft says there's tremendous value in attending MWC, which features some 2,400 vendors. And while 5G will surely dominate the conversation, it will also revitalize interest in technologies such as AR and VR, autonomous vehicles, IoT and AI, as faster speeds open up more possibilities.

"MWC is all about the underlying infrastructure and technologies that will power the next generation of devices, enable new functionality and, ultimately, shape consumer behaviors," he says.

Mobile World Congress focus on the next generation of mobile technology and its standards differentiates it from CES, which focuses on tech that's likely to hit the market in the next several years, as well as SXSW, which takes place in April, and is all about the application of creative technologies that will be deployed in the next one to 18 months, according to Bearcraft.

"More than other trade shows, MWC requires thinking through one or two layers of integration before those use cases become apparent," Bearcraft says.

Thomas Husson, a VP and principal analyst at Forrester with a focus on CMOs, says that MWC is a good opportunity for brands and agencies to anticipate innovation and make sure they are at the forefront of technology.

"If you step back from the hype on 5G and foldable phones, there are still some good reasons to get excited about mobile this year," Husson says. "Mobile is like electricity after the second industrial revolution, it will power a new disruptive wave of innovations. To make the most of it, marketers need to think context—not content."

Staying ahead of the curve

Many in the industry are banking hard on 5G because it's perhaps the only technology that can bring the sort of disruption not seen since the smartphone. If 5G is going to change everything, it's at MWC where the absolute latest in big ideas are on display.

"We're moving toward a post-keyboard-and-clicks world, where we use gesture – such as LG is rumoured to be readying – or just our voices to interact with technology," says Jim Cridlin, global head of innovation at Mindshare Worldwide. "Microsoft is back at MWC, too, but this time with version 2 of its Hololens AR headset. Augmented reality and virtual reality, alongside voice and gesture, will have a big role to play in the future of mobile."

Companies such as LG, Samsung and Huawei have all launched 5G handsets at MWC.

"The world should finally see what a 5G device is and what it can actually do," Cridlin says. "As 5G begins to be built into more devices and used on a wider scale it will push not just mobiles adoption forward but the smart automotive, smart home, smart cities – everything."

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