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.

6 Oct 2009

Hope for broadband access in Central Africa

I wasn’t able to make it to the opening day of the ITU summit in Geneva, but I am keeping an eye on the various press releases sent so far before visiting the event tomorrow.
The main one attracting my attention is the announcement by the World Bank of its endorsement of the $215 million, ten-year Central African Backbone Program (CAB Program). According to the release, “this program will support the countries of the Central African region in developing their high-speed telecommunications backbone infrastructure to increase the availability of high-speed Internet and reduce end-user prices. The CAB Program will also help countries harmonize the laws and regulations that govern the ICT sector to increase private sector investment and improve competition.” The programme is supported in its initial phase by 3 Central African countries (Cameroon, Chad and Central African Republic - CAR) and will be followed by another eight countries - the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Niger, Nigeria, São Tomé and Principe, and Sudan.
Central Africa includes some of Africa’s least developed telecoms markets. The landlocked countries in particular are experiencing difficulties in benefiting from the various submarine cable projects being launched, connecting West and East Africa to the rest of the world. Hopefully the CAB programme will support Central African telecoms markets and help them develop broadband services, a key factor in the region’s economic development.
This will continue to be a major topic of discussion at the African events in the Com World Series, with AfricaCom coming up in Cape Town next month, and the sub-regional events in 2010: East Africa Com in Kenya in April, West & Central Africa Com in Senegal in June, and the new Nigeria Com in Lagos in September.