In Hall 1 at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, there’s a recurring phenomenon, where circular crowds of suited spectators form spontaneously at various points in the day, in random spots along the corridors formed by brightly lit stands showcasing networking equipment or introducing mobility startups. Following the gaze of the assembled onlookers directs one to a pair of shiny robot dogs chasing each other, rolling over, and begging.
At that moment it’s hard not to be moved to take stock of humanity’s indomitable drive towards ever more ambitious technological pursuits. It’s also hard not to wish the dogs made more noise — while cute, they are unsettlingly silent.
‘Velocity — Unleashing Tomorrow Today’
The world’s largest mobile-tech fair carries with it the theme of “Velocity — Unleashing Tomorrow Today.” It is very much meant to evoke imagery of the world’s businesses and consumers barreling into a digital-everything future, borne on superfast 5G connections or robotic quadrupeds.
But the robodogs from manufacturer Unitree are among the more tangible things unleashed at the MWC. There have been fewer global product launches in Barcelona compared to the last iterations of the fair, in some cases “global launch” here means launched for the first time outside of China.
Avi Greengart, an analyst at Techsponential, told DW:
Product launches vary; on the smartphone side we are seeing a lot of Chinese vendors globalize phones that were already released in China, which is increasing consumer options, especially for foldables.
Among them, are Xiaomi’s flagship phones, the Xiaomi 13 and Xiaomi 13 Pro. In this long-awaited period of post-COVID restrictions, Xiaomi is looking to go head-to-head with top-shelf producers like Apple and Samsung.
Battleground Markets in US-China Rivalry
But the real battle is the one that is not overtly present at the event. To say the US-China tech rivalry has hung over the MWC 2023 would be a mild exaggeration. The outsized presence of Chinese firms at a mobile tech fair in the heart of Europe is in itself a message to Americans about their preparedness to keep seeking markets around the world even in the face of competition and security-related tension with Washington.
The last years have seen Chinese tech giant Huawei subject to ever-tightening restrictions from Washington that cut it off from critical components like semiconductors and chip-making equipment. A few weeks ago, the US government stopped providing licenses to US companies allowing them to export to Huawei.
At the MWC, Huawei took pains to show it still has a very large global footprint and strong ties with international clients. A statement it released to highlight its participation at the event in Barcelona read:
Third-party test results show that 5G networks delivered by Huawei for customers in 13 countries, including Switzerland, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia, all provide an optimal experience. Huawei has already signed more than 3,000 contracts for industrial 5G applications, where they collaborate with operators and partners from various industries.
Germany alone relies on Chinese technology for close to 60% of its 5G networks, at least according to a study from Danish telecoms consulting company Strand Consult.
Founder John Strand was also at the MWC, and has long been vocal on what he feels is Europe’s misplaced willingness to allow Chinese components in its critical infrastructure, especially given its status as a systemic rival.
Strand told DW:
In the same way as we don’t buy Chinese fighter planes in NATO, I don’t think it is smart to build a digital infrastructure and be dependent on Chinese companies. You can say it has been easy to replace Russian gas with alternative gas, but it will take time to replace all the Huawei equipment you have in Germany. The reality is that Germany is more dependent on Chinese companies for vital infrastructure than it was on Russian gas.
For the moment, Huawei still looks to be like it is still ramping up its research and development, and it’s still in a position to expand its global presence, although the US is only going to ratchet up the pressure.
An event about a digitally interconnected world was always going to reflect real-life divides, also of the geopolitical kind. But perhaps the real function of the Mobile World Congress, beyond its role as a launchpad for new devices, is to push these discussions even more prominently in the public sphere.
Although the 80,000 attendees of the MWC are mostly made up of device manufacturers, network equipment providers, and telecommunications sector representatives, the future of connectivity and who gets to create it affects us all.