The theme of this year’s Mobile World Congress is ‘Creating A Better Future’ – and according to the traditional opening keynotes by top cellco executives, creating that better future will involve fairer regulation, public-private cooperation and transforming corporate social responsibility from a publicity stunt that looks good in annual reports to the foundation of the mobile business model.
Marie Ehrling, chair of the board for both Securitas and Telia, said in her keynote that operators need the right skillsets and corporate culture to compete and survive – and a key component of that is embedding the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into their business.
In fact, she said, they’ll have to if they want to remain competitive.
“It’s no longer just about operators being socially responsible, but building sustainable countries,” she said.
Ehrling added that telcos need to take leadership of this issue because it’s going to make a difference to their business if they get it right (or wrong). “Making this the defining purpose of your organization makes a profound difference to society and your commercial success.”
Vodafone chief Vittorio Colao didn’t go quite that far in his keynote, but he did say that the mobile sector needs to focus more on addressing the needs of citizens, to include engaging people’s concerns about the possible negative impact of advanced technologies, such as worries over AI replacing human jobs.
Colao said that operators must deploy such technologies with the goal of creating demonstrable ways they can serve the needs of citizens.
“There is an opportunity to create alliances of operators, entrepreneurs, start-ups, governments and other organizations to use the power of this technology for citizens,” he said.
Colao called for a public-private approach, pointing to Vodafone’s current 5G trial in Milan, where the operator is working with over 35 partners to leverage the 5G network to create services that improve the lives of citizens. “We need a strong, local, managed innovation process where citizens can see the benefits of these technologies.”
Adopting such a model comes with three prerequisites, he added: (1) accelerated deployment of gigabit-level infrastructure enabled by cheap spectrum with a longer lifespan – but not to the point of adopting public shared-infrastructure networks, (2) a level regulatory playing field for operators and OTT players, and (3) a willingness to experiment in terms of both physical infrastructure and digital services.
Colao’s comment on public shared-infrastructure networks was at odds with GSMA chairman Sunil Mittal, who said onstage that independent third-party “netcos” are the most effective way to connect the unconnected.
Mittal pointed to India’s experience, where too many parallel network buildouts have resulted in massive consolidation and a lot of wasted money. Mittal said a netco approach made more sense economically.
Mittal’s comments are also at odds with his own organization – last year the GSMA published a report stating that wholesale mobile infrastructure models generally flop, and that competitive network buildouts are better for operators and their customers. Mittal admitted that many operators aren’t keen on the idea and prefer to keep network quality as a competitive edge, but said he would continue to promote the idea.