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The Metaverse takes the spotlight at the MWC 2023 in Barcelona

Conference organizer, the GSMA’s, program pitched attendees into a smorgasbord of metaverse-themed discussions — most of which seemed designed to generate maximum FOMO, as a parade of tech evangelists took to the stage in Spain, armed with a new generation of acronyms and luridly colored slide-decks, urging the audience not to sweat the detail of whatever this metaverse thing is (or isn’t). And just focus on monetizing it before someone else does.

Europe’s carriers are fully onboard the technicolor hype machine. At MWC they sought to train the show’s global spotlight onto the role of network infrastructure — arguing their pipes-to-platforms will be essential connective tissue for all this sexy virtual world building, connecting “everything, everywhere”, as one overly-ambitious show floor slogan put it — and using that logic as a springboard to press EU lawmakers for a radical rethink of how connectivity is funded in the here and now.

The CEOs of Orange, Telefonica and Deutsche Telekom were among those taking to MWC’s keynote stage to sound off about the hard economic realities of running such critical infrastructure. The returns vs investment situation is becoming unsustainable, they warned. Especially if policymakers want them to deliver a truly immersive future and make this metaverse thing happen. Subsidize our network upgrades or the connectivity party is over, was the thinly veiled message to EU lawmakers.

The paradigm shift carriers are looking for is a new business reality under which they get to charge tech giants for piping data to popular apps in addition to billing consumers for their Internet access. They aren’t calling this double dipping — or even a Big Tech tax. Their lobbying brands the ask a “fair share” for building connectivity’s 3D future.

Telcos’ frustration at the relatively greater success of app makers, when it comes to monetizing highly scalable software running atop their fixed infrastructure, is nothing new of course. Nor is it the first time European carriers have used the MWC stage to try to lobby the EU for more ‘support’. But metaverse hype creates a fresh opportunity to bring out their begging bowl, dressed up in a new brand of distracting dazzle.

It’s too soon to say what will flow from an exploratory EU consultation on future network funding which was launched on the eve of MWC. But the current Commission does appear to have drunk some of the carriers’ Kool Aid. And the EU’s internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton, dropped into the conference in person — taking a turn on the stage himself, where he hyped a vision of “Web 4.0” as “seamless interconnectivity” powering “virtual twins” and “the copy of everything” — before making some encouraging noises about the case for rethinking operator business models — so this is, for sure, an area to watch.