7 Oct 2009

Big ideas for world telecoms but not much excitment at ITU in Geneva

It’s day three at the ITU summit in Geneva and this year’s event has its ups and downs. While the exhibition is rather small and quiet (with some big industry names shining by their absence), the Forum is well attended and generating the expected mix of self-congratulation, wishful thinking, big ideas and complaints about the missing/misdirected regulation, investment, technology developments etc.
The big talk of today was climate change, and its impact on the telecoms industry. On the one hand, operators and vendors need to work on more eco-friendly ways of running networks, while on the other hand telecoms technologies can help reduce carbon emissions. Emerging markets have a different position on the issue from developed economies. Poorer parts of the globe are the main victims of climate change, without enjoying the benefits of what caused it, as was reminded by the Vice-President of Sierra Leone. But on the other hand, emerging markets are where some of the most innovative ecological solutions are tried, not for their green credentials but because they are cheaper to build and run (solar power for base stations has been pioneered in Africa and India for instance).
Talking of emerging markets, the infamous digital divide is still a big discussion point, particularly in what concerns broadband access. The ITU’s Telecommunications Development Bureau released new statistics that showed that while mobile access is growing hugely in emerging countries (now overtaking subscription numbers of developed countries), broadband access is severely hindered by costs. The average monthly cost for broadband access in the developing world is ten times higher than in developed countries, and represents 300% of monthly gross national income compared to just 2% in the developed world. With such shocking statistics, it’s no wonder the ‘Broadband for All’ session was so well attended today, with people standing at the back of an overheated room. The debate went over the usual challenges unfortunately without providing any new solution: lack of backbone in emerging countries, inadequacies of universal service provisions, lack of funding, insufficient initiatives from the major players, and of course the state of the global economy putting projects on hold.
Other topics of discussions included the evolution of the telecoms ecosystem and business models within it. In particular, the relations between vendors and operators, and between vendors themselves, are changing. From a position of client/supplier or competitor, many major players are developing partnerships, or calling for more to be developed. For example, Paul Excell (Chief Operating Officer – Innovation at BT) called today for a global open ecosystem for innovation for instance.
I haven’t heard a lot of mentions of the economy, but I'm hearing some reassuring 'feelgood' phrases such as "let's be proud to be in this industry" (courtesy of Stephan Scholtz, CTO of Nokia Siemens Networks), the kind of phrases we heard at Mobile World Congress earlier this year and I remember hearing when I first started in telecoms in 2001.
Thankfully, the mood about our forthcoming AfricaCom event is rather upbeat, and I’m expecting a livelier mood among the audience.