MWC: GSMA CEO Conway Says Telecom Industry Will Weather Economic Downturn

By Nathan Eddy  |  Posted 2009-02-17

MWC: GSMA CEO Conway Says Telecom Industry Will Weather Economic Downturn

BARCELONA, Spain-- In addressing the crowd gathered before him at Mobile World Congress's keynote speech, "Sustaining Growth in Challenging Times," GSMA's CEO Rob Conway wasted no time illustrating the severity of the world economic crisis.

"We gather today in the face of an economic tsunami," he said.

However, despite frozen credit markets, massive government bailouts and bankrupted companies, Conway said the mobile industry is in a position to weather the economic downturn."Which sector is noteworthy for not being part of the bailout crowd?" he asked. "Telecoms, and particularly the mobile industry."

Conrad said the crisis must be viewed as an opportunity, and that governments should look to the mobile industry as a way out of the crisis, through the industry's innovation, infrastructural improvements and job creation. "We are the best answer to the downturn and we can do so in a more environmentally sensitive way," he said.

In the United States alone, he noted, substitution of landline phones with mobile phones has doubled since 2004. "Smartphones are creating their own unique demand," he said. "There will be a 22 percent growth in smartphones in 2009, according to the IDC, and they will feed mobile social networking, the next big wave in our industry."

Beyond infrastructural improvements and job creation, Conrad said that exploiting opportunities in new markets--most notably China-coupled with increased deployment of mobile broadband capability across handsets and territories, is the future of the mobile industry. "Mobile investments create jobs that are six times more productive [than other sectors]," he said.

Thus began Conrad's pitch for the essential importance of the mobile industry's share of spectrum bandwidth, referred to as the Digital Dividend. Conway asked Europe's regulators and governments to put aside a quarter of the radio spectrum freed up by the switch to digital television. "One hundred million Europeans are beyond the reach of fixed broadband," Conrad said. He advocated for a "low-band harmonized spectrum" which reduces cost of deployment and power consumption and improves coverage.

"The tremendous success of mobile broadband means we will be out of capacity without new spectrum," he warned. "Mobile must get its needed share of the digital dividend; how many TV channels do you need?" Because operators invest for the long term, Conrad said regulatory stability is essential, and mentality must extend to LTE (Long Term Evolution), which he termed "our future." He said GSMA embraces operators' decision to embrace LTE. "You can talk about WiMax, but it is a sideshow to this event," he said.

Conrad used the keynote to lay out a swath of environmental initiatives as well, including initiatives for efficient base stations. "We can see solutions emerging for a more efficient industry," he said, describing wind- and solar-powered base stations and the promotion of a "green power for mobile" alternative energy program. "Mobile and ITC in general can reduce total emissions by 20 percent by 2020," he said.  

Emerging Markets, Universal Charging


Embedded mobile broadband, more than any other initiative, however, is the key goal of GSMA. "Growth is up even in the face of the downturn; we have 286 operators committed to the deployment of HSPA broadband," Conrad said. "We now have 127 companies churning out 1,100 mobile broadband devices, and we have only begun the journey. We are convinced the embedded mobile broadband market can grow dramatically."

He said in order to grow apace, chipmakers will need to price products according to new market growth areas, and construct business models based on higher volumes and lower margins. The industry must also keep better track of its customers, which led Conrad to outline a new initiative focused on mobile audience measurement.

"This is essential for brands, agencies and content owners," he said. "Consumers can benefit from having more targeted, relevant information, with the due consideration of the privacy of our customers." The GSMA worked with five British mobile operators to develop a pilot program to aggregate the volume of mobile broadband users.

"Did you know Facebook is the top mobile site by time spent browsing; that users spend 24 minutes per day on the site, a similar time spent on the site by PC users?" he asked, citing a statistic uncovered by the pilot program. The survey also discovered Facebook visitors access the site more often than PC. Conrad said the commercial program would launch in the second half of 2009.

Among the other initiatives under way is a developing nations program, Mobile Money for the Unbanked, created in tandem with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which gave the GSMA a three-year, $12.5 million grant that will concentrate its focus on 20 projects across Africa, Asia and Latin America. "By the end of 2012, we hope at least 20 million previously unbanked people will be connected to some form of financial services via mobile," he said.

Despite the avalanche of far-reaching announcements, there was only one striking enough to elicit a round of applause from the audience: the Universal Charging Solution. "We have a plan to do away with what I call the scourge of inoperable connection devices," he said. "A single, energy-efficient charger to fit all new mobile phones, which will result in a 50 percent reduction in standby energy consumption."

The cost savings to the consumer, and to the industry, which no longer has to sell millions of chargers each year, along with the environmental impact improved by the end of energy and materials used in producing them in the first place, should have a momentous effect on both the industry and the planet, he said.

The device, a micro-USB interface coupled to an energy efficient plug, was decided upon in an agreement made the Friday before the conference began, Conrad said. The founding companies in the agreement include industry heavyweights such as Orange, Telefonica, Motorola, AT&T, Vodafone, Nokia, Samsung, LG and Sony Ericsson, to name more than a few. "By 2012, we predict the majority of phones will be shipped with support of a micro USB interface and meet the energy-efficiency targets set out by the OMTP [Open Mobile Terminal Platform]," he said.

Conrad ended the speech on a positive note, recalling earlier references to the Chinese economy's potential to drive the mobile industry to new heights never before contemplated. "Yes we are in an economic crisis. In Chinese, -crisis' is made up of two characters, challenge and possibility," he said. "And this year, we are in the Year of the Ox. And the ox can bear a heavy load."

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