Fresh from the much talked about Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, I’m struck by the sheer scale of this incredible tech conference, matched only by the breath-taking speed at which our digital world is changing. In this series of blogs, I’ll cover off some of the main topics and observations from the conference. I’ll also look at where Scotland is keeping up, leading, or falling behind in terms of tech.

There were a range of themes at this year’s MWC but no question what was at the heart of the so-called fourth industrial revolution: 5G networks.  A key enabler for the “connected everything”, there are plans for a range of pilots in 2018, and 2020 is being targeted for the start of commercial roll-out.  As Allison Kirkby, the CEO of Scandinavian telco Tele2, so eloquently captured in a comfortingly Scottish accent on the main stage: “no connectivity, no revolution”.

5G is not simply “faster 4G”. It will be comprised of a range of network technologies providing gigabit connectivity at very low latency – something that is essential for IoT, connected cars, smart cities… and so it goes on. This was entertainingly demonstrated on the main stage by Nokia in a tech demo at the day 3 keynote which involved 4G and 5G remote controlled cars running round a track at the Nokia stand in Hall 3. A roomful of addled and cynical techies from around the world held their breath, all having been touched by the “demo demons” at one time or another. But all worked smoothly and the step change between 4G and the power of 5G was obvious.

There are big challenges ahead for network providers – standards have to be thrashed out and investment required will be huge (global estimates were in the hundreds of billions). But I sensed a steely determination about the industry to realise the massive potential and avoid some of the issues which arose in the 4G network auctions. In the meantime, there is pressure on providers to “sweat” their 4G and 4.5G assets.

And where does Scotland figure in the 5G revolution?

With the advent of other networking technologies like third generation satellite, Scotland has an opportunity to be an early adopter, which will be a game-changer for rural communities struggling to make fibre-based solutions work. It would also be an incredible complement to smart cities work going on in Glasgow and other Scottish cities (I will cover this in a later blog).  Clearly, all this will require the Scottish Government and private sector to explore opportunities to take advantage of test (2018) and commercial (2020) pilots, and to monitor progress of development of standards, contributing to relevant forums and consultations where appropriate.

5G will also provide a platform for the continuing trend towards consumption of video content – another key congress theme. Whether in advertising, broadcasting or social media, it is heavily user-centric video content that millennials (and others) want to consume, and this came out in a series of the conference sessions.  As if to underline the point, Netflix – who were exhibiting and speaking – won its first Academy Award on the first day of MWC.