Folding phones, the metaverse and connectivity were all high on the agenda of Mobile World Congress (MWC), as the telecom industry’s biggest annual gathering returned to almost full capacity.

Almost 90,000 attendees from more than 200 countries and territories travelled to Barcelona, with the event inching its way back to the 109,000 attendance figure that the event hosted in 2019. GSMA chief executive John Hoffman said the event was back “in full force”.

Among the gadgets, robots and smart glasses, there was a serious undercurrent to events, taking place as it did in the post-lockdown world where the importance of digital networks is clear. The theme for the year’s event was “Velocity”, covering everything from 5G and developments in artificial intelligence to public policy.

Not everyone was positive about the data-driven world in which we now find ourselves

“As digital technologies continue to develop, there is new excitement in the air… The transition to Web 3.0 will trigger a new explosion in network traffic and it is critical that we work together to prepare,” said GSMA director general Mats Granryd. “Consumers living in a data-driven world need increasing amounts of capacity at the edge of the network to extend the capabilities of cloud computing and our industry is well placed to do it.”

But not everyone was positive about the data-driven world in which we now find ourselves.

The fair share debate between the networks and the tech companies was back on the table. Industry representatives used the event as a platform to call on national governments to take action to force big tech companies to invest in mobile infrastructure, warning that falling retail prices coupled with increased data consumption and the cost of upgrading networks were leading to a “perfect storm” for telecom firms in Europe.

The head of Telecom Italia, Pietro Labriola, also pointed to rising interest rates and the fall-off in economic growth as a threat to the sustainability of the network operators.

There was some support from authorities. Speaking at MWC, internal market commissioner Thierry Breton said the EU may have to tap Big Tech companies for cash to invest in networks, something the telecoms industry has been chasing for some time. Arguing that companies such as Netflix benefit from the infrastructure provided by the telcos, they want Big Tech to put its hand in its pocket and contribute to the cost of network expansion and upgrading.

“We will need to find a financing model for the huge investment, fairly distributed, that respects and preserves the fundamental elements of our European acquis [body of law],” Breton said at the event.

How quickly that comes about is anyone’s guess. The industry has been pushing for this for more than a decade, but some national authorities have already pushed back on the plan. The Dutch government has warned against imposing tolls on tech companies, citing net neutrality rules.

For his part, Breton denied it was about putting the interests of telecoms companies over tech firms, that it was not a choice between network providers and those who feed them with traffic.

“For me the real challenge is to make sure that, by 2030, our fellow citizens and business on our streets across the EU … have access to fast, reliable and data-intense gigabit connectivity,” he said. “And for that, we need the connectivity networks — highways — of the future. That is the vision. It is not about whether one vested interest should prevail over another.”

The debate may be about to get even more pertinent with the metaverse still lurking. The next generation of the internet was being touted everywhere, echoing CES in January, when the metaverse shifted its attention to the industrial metaverse instead of aiming solely for the consumer space. The experience of Facebook owner Meta — all-in on metaverse but with Mark Zuckerberg’s lofty ambitions being tempered by reality — is still looming over would-be entrants to the market.

Nokia was one company that was vocal about the potential of future networks

The metaverse was the topic of several discussions at the conference, ranging from industrial applications for the metaverse to how the technology, combined with artificial intelligence and augmented reality, will help facilitate education.

But to facilitate the growth of that metaverse and connect everything in this new immersive world, the telcos argue that 5G and other future connectivity will be essential.

Nokia was one company that was vocal about the potential of future networks. The company is poised to take advantage of the future, positioning networks as the underlying fabric of everything digital, where traditional networking will be required to integrate with the flexibility and scalability of the cloud.

“We see the potential of digital to transform business, industry and society with an opportunity for significant gains in productivity, sustainability and accessibility,” said Pekka Lundmark, president and chief executive of Nokia. “We see a future where networks go beyond connecting people and things. They’re adaptable, autonomous and consumable. They are networks that sense, think and act, and they maximise the opportunity of digitalisation.”

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Its future plans include a refreshed brand to position Nokia as a business-to-business tech company, with a new strategy to help it deliver sustainable, profitable growth. That will be built on the back of increased investment in research and development, and a new technology strategy that outlines how networks will need to evolve to meet the demands of the metaverse era.

It wasn’t all networks and metaverse though. MWC has traditionally been the platform for mobile manufacturers to showcase their latest smartphones and tablets. Things have changed a little, with some of the key announcements — Samsung’s new Galaxy S22 flagship devices, for example — now taking place in advance of the show.

But there were announcements, with China’s Xiaomi kicking things off on Sunday unveiling its latest devices, the 13 series of smartphones, along with a host of wearables including the S1 Pro that point to the company trying to slot neatly into the void left by Huawei in the mobile market.

And if you thought folding phones were a gimmick that would disappear as quickly as they had come, you would be wrong. Folding phones are still very much a thing — although a work in progress for some companies. While Samsung had already unveiled the new generation of its Z Flip and Z Fold devices, it is clear competition is coming.

One Plus is also venturing down the folding phone route, firming up plans for the flip phone’s launch on the show floor

Oppo announced that it would be bringing its flip phone, the Find N2, to international markets, after an initial launch in China last year, while another Chinese brand, Honor, was also touting a foldable phone, the Vs Magic. Like Oppo, the company has already had the device on sale in the Chinese market; now it is planning to bring it to European and international markets.

One Plus is also venturing down the folding phone route, firming up plans for the flip phone’s launch on the show floor. The bad news is that you will have to wait until the second half of the year.

The Barcelona gathering is just the start of a series of events that is expected to set the agenda for the coming year in the mobile space. Next up is MWC Shanghai, scheduled for June, followed by Las Vegas in September and Africa the following month. All are sure to bring further debate and highlight innovation in the sector.