Mar 02

MWC2012 – Reflections 1: where were the comms?

Mobile World Congress (or MWC for the initiated) is the premier annual gathering of those who have an interest in mobile communications.  Organized by the GSM Association (GSMA), the 2012 event was a monster (>50,000people spread across the sprawling if visually stunning arena that is the Fira de Barcelona). Ironically, and frustratingly, the one thing that was missing was decent mobile communications; in this regard MWC2012 becomes a poster for how not to perform.

For attendees who visited vendors at the>1500 booths in sheds, huts, tents, houses or pavilions, one occurrence was common: demos ran dismally if they needed an Internet connection (which, unsurprisingly, most did).  Time and time again vendors apologized for their slow demos.  Their embarrassment was clear and the apologies became a shared pain, with demonstrator and viewer suffering together.  If I had paid for space I would have demanded a refund.

So what was happening? For reasons that are unclear to me, there was no general WiFi coverage throughout the site.  Yes, there were occasional open WiFi hotspots in some halls but these were inevitably saturated.  You might be able to connect, but you could do nothing.  Looking back it seems incredible that the GSMA should host a communications show which had so many WiFi vendors (offering equipment and/or services) and not do some deal so that the Fira site was comprehensively covered.  Hopefully, the MWC in 2013 will learn from this…

If, however, the WiFi delivery was (being kind) indifferent, the 3G data performance of the Spanish units of Telefonica (Movistar) and Orange was worse. On Day 1 I thought I was well prepared with a local Movistar iPhone with authorized data access and plenty of data allowance to use.  On its home territory, my expectation was that Telefonica would deliver (if only to avoid embarrassment).

I was wrong.  Obtaining 3G data connectivity to the Internet was to all intents and purposes useless.  The data network was constantly saturated. I suppose I did save on my data allowance, but that was more than offset by missing meetings because I could not access data resources – including the GSMA site.  In an environment when information was presumed to be available online, information was not there because it was not accessible when moving around.

On Day 2 I thought I would do better by doubling my chances — and brought, along with the Movistar iPhone, a Samsung Galaxy Tablet with an Orange 3G data plan.  It made no difference.  Nothing changed.  3G data access was impossible.  Day 3 was a repeat (and then I left — obliged to depart early because an Iberia strike offered Iberia a new opportunity to maltreat its customers by forcing people onto flights they did not want, almost like a telephone company you might think).

Moving beyond the MWC2012 event itself, the performance of at least two of the three main Spanish carriers (one in its own home market) can only cause bemusement.  Irrespective of the revenues lost by preventing customers from connecting, the notion that they might fail to deliver a core product so manifestly can only astonish.  While Telefonica was ‘proudly’ announcing (and boasting) about its new high speed LTE/4G capability in some part of Barcelona, it could not deliver basic 3G data services to the assembled attendees at the Fira.  This is like your hotel showing you the view from balcony, but having forgotten to put a bed in the room.  Orange Spain was no better. (For reference, I do not know the position about Vodafone Spain and when I was more than a couple of kilometres from the Fira, then all seemed to work on both Orange and Telefonica 3G data.)

There is a lesson in this, possibly two.  The first is that it seems that we still cannot trust mobile carriers to deliver data over their networks when it is needed, even at the mobile world’s most communications event.  The second is that if you are attending an ‘event’ you should not expect connectivity; instead be prepared to be frustrated — and events include a football match, a pop concert, a royal wedding/coronation, the Olympic (or other) Games, etc. where more than 30,000 people are gathered who want to share.

In the late 1970s most airlines thought they were in the business of flying planes.  When Lord King Marshall and Colin Marshall arrived at British Airways arguably their key insight (that forever improved the airline) was that it was in the business of transporting people (customers), with the plane being merely a mechanism.  Most mobile telephone carriers still behave as if their core activity is running a network when really it is connecting people (and devices).

For whatever reasons Telefonica/Movistar and Orange failed spectacularly (even with advance notice of 50000+ attendees coming) to understand what customers want and will pay for.  Unfortunately the GSMA, its exhibitor customers and attendees had to suffer being MDD (Mobile Data- Disconnected).

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