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Mobile World Congress 2018: A Preview by John Strand, Strand Consult

Each year Strand Consult previews the Mobile World Congress. MWC 2018 will likely attract even more people than last year, but it is no longer the event that defines the industry.  That award goes to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas which attracted 184,000 attendees and 3900 exhibitors last month and demonstrates how mobile technologies have become ubiquitous and integrated. MWC has lost its edge and has become the politically correct event. Last year I observed, MWC has been clinically cleansed of bad news and negative stories of the many political, economic, and regulatory challenges mobile operators face every day around the world - challenges that have a detrimental impact on operators’ finances and their ability to invest in the infrastructure on which society depends.

MWC’s 83 paged brochure features 8 elements: Innovation, Content & Media, The Network, Applied AI, Future Service Providers, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, The Digital Consumer, and Tech In Society. There is little to no focus on the growing regulatory challenges for telecom operators around the world which negatively impact investment and innovation. The word “regulation” appears just 5 times in the whole brochure in connection with 3 presentations. “Roaming” is mentioned 4 times with 2 presentations; “GDPR” 4 times with 2 presentations; and “net neutrality” once with 1 presentation. Effectively conference organizers have opted out of the opportunity to use the event as a burning platform for addressing the industry’s greatest challenges. GSMA’s lack of results to optimize regulation demonstrates how this important area has been deprioritized. One need only look at the grotesque situation of overregulation with net neutrality in the EU and the €150 billion gap in investment.

The Program: It’s easier to copy than create your own vision
MWC would be the perfect place for the industry to present its unique and compelling agenda to address the key

regulatory challenges. The telecom industry has global scale, size and significance, and should set its own meaningful goals and objectives. But unfortunately it chooses to parrot the 17 goals of the United Nations, “Bringing the Sustainable Development Goals to life”, a three year old message from a government organization.

The reality of governments in 2018 is that they exert increasing control of telecom infrastructure to monitor citizens, political opponents, and enemies. Companies such as Vodafone, Telenor, Telefonica, Verizon and others have been fighting back through transparency reports to show consumers and citizens just how much governments want to surveille. If GSMA had a backbone, they would promote these companies and their efforts to defend people and their rights, rights which are enabled and furthered by the creation of infrastructure.

Among the 17 UN goals, GSMA has decided to play the female gender card and create Women4Tech, programming around women and the industry. Events include the Women4Tech Summit, Women4Tech GLOMO Awards Presentation, Women4Tech Keynote with a focus on “Women Empowering Technology”; gender equality and career development; “Women Encouraging Technology”, mentoring and youth education; “Women Transforming Technology”; women in communication and vertical sectors; and “Women Innovating in Technology”. The stated goal of Women4Tech is to create more gender diversity in ecosystem in the mobile and tech industry.

Strand Consult has long promoted the need for more women at top levels in the industry. But GSMA does not practice what it preaches:  women are a small minority of the top management of GSMA itself. GSMA´s board has 22 men and just 3 women. GSMA´s management team consists of 7 men and 2 women. Among MWC’s 108,000 attendees in 2017, less than a quarter are women. This is disappointing particularly when two-thirds of the event’s attendees are from Europe, a region that has had focus on gender equality for a long time. GSMA’s efforts amount to virtue signaling, the conspicuous expression of moral standing.

These figures also reflect poorly on GSMA’s CEO, the Swedish Mats Granryd, whose country is a leader in gender equality. The Swedes would not tolerate a company like GSMA that had just 12% of its board members being women. In 2016 in Sweden, 32% of board members of listed companies were women.  Granryd’s results for his 2½ years at the helm of GSMA are as lackluster as those for his last job as CEO of Tele2 in Sweden. While Granryd will feature himself as a speaker in the Women4Tech, there are just 3 women among the 9 speakers.

Women fighting for gender equality will likely recognize that getting effective women in top positions requires more than GSMA’s window dressing.

More than 100.000 people will probably have a great week in Barcelona. Let the show begin
GSMA excels at creating events to stimulate hype. Just as the waiter in the classic film “Dinner for One” repeats the line “same procedure as last year” with each course during a 90th birthday party dinner for a dowager who has outlived all the guests, GSMA says the same lines about future technology.  The word “future” is mentioned 100 times in the brochure, along with many mention for 5G and Internet of Things.  But the difference between MWC and CES is that while MWC talks about what you can do with the networks in the future; CES shows you those things on the network today.

MWC features many of the keynote speakers you’ve heard before, speakers that can be described as ”safe choices.” Moreover the speakers are overwhelmingly male, just 9 out of 37 keynote speakers are women.

Here are some of the top speakers and what they are likely to say.

1. Börje Ekholm, President and CEO Ericsson, The Foundations of The Digital Economy. He will likely discuss new opportunities for 5G. It will be interesting to hear whether he expects CAPEX to grow in relation to 5G or to be a continuation of 4G rollout without any growth.  If he sees growth, it could be good news for Ericsson shareholders who have had some difficult years.

2. Shang Bing, Chairman China Mobile, Creating a Better Service Provider. He will likely describe that it’s easier to invest in a country with a handful of operators and how China fast-tracks the rollout of 5G and why he believes they’ll be in the lead.

3. Timotheus Höttges, CEO Deutsche Telekom, The Future of the Industry: Transatlantic Digital Policy and Regulation. He’s one person who puts regulation on the agenda and will likely discuss his frustration that Europe can’t get its act together while things are speeding ahead in the United States. TMO's business has developed very positively in the US, where there is political and regulatory understanding of what should be in place to stimulate investment.

4. Ajit Pai, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission, The Future of the Industry: Transatlantic Digital Policy and Regulation. Pai will likely report on what the US is doing to stimulate investment and innovation in the United States. He deserves a prize for doing what he said he would do last year. 5G will become a reality in the United States long before it happens in Europe.

5. Brian Behlendorf, Executive Director, Hyperledger, Investing in a Better Future. He is one of the wolves in sheep’s clothing, a speaker cloaking himself in the do-gooderism of open source and sustainability. He has longtime leadership in the Mozilla and Electronic Frontier Foundations which have been at the forefront at destroying value for the telecommunications industry by turning their business into dumb pipes.

6. Jeff Zucker, President CNN Worldwide, Creating Better Content & Media. There is irony in this keynote as Zucker is in an open war with Trump and whose network has been exposed for bias by Project Veritas. CNN's brand is bigger than the number of views it has on a good night in the US. It will be interesting to see whether CNN can resurrect the credibility of its past life.

7. Sue Siegel, CEO, Business Innovations, GE, The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Companies such as GE are at the cutting edge of connectivity using a combination of Wi-Fi, 2G, 3G, 4G and NB-LTE to get their devices communicated. They are not waiting around for 5G.

8. Marie Ehrling, Chair of the Board, Telia Company, Creating a Better Service Provider. At 63, Ehrling is a veteran in industry, but rather than complain about things not being fair for women, she will focus on what Telia is doing in Sweden, its investment in technology, and its focus customer-oriented enterprise.

9. Berit Svendsen, CEO Telenor Norway, Women4Tech. While it appears that GSMA selected Svendsen as the token woman CEO to speak on the women’s program, there is no doubt that she is a skilled and effective leader who has earned respect not because of her gender, but because of her results.

10. Andrus Ansip, European Commissioner for Digital Single Market, The Future of the Industry: Transatlantic Digital Policy and Regulation. While there is nothing wrong with inviting Ansip to speak, this year marks his 4th address at the MWC without results. While he has big ambitions, he can’t execute. And he never gets the critical questions on why the EU continues to fall behind. Put simply, the race for 5G is between two racehorses, the US and China. The EU is the donkey, and Ansip is the donkey jockey.

There are many powerful women in the industry, but it’s too bad that they have not been invited to MWC, not the least of whom is Allison Kirkby who has done a great job at Tele2 after Granryd’s departure. Cristina Stenbeck of the Swedish investment company Kinnevik could describe the convergence of telecom and media. Maureen K. Ohlhausen, Acting Chair of the Federal Trade Commission of the US would make a powerful case on why competition law is effective to address net neutrality concerns. Stine Bosse, Chair of Tele Greenland, could describe how a government-owned telecom operator that builds infrastructure in the Arctic. Margrethe Vestager, European Commissioner for Competition, could discuss her views on consolidation in Europe. Vestager has more power in the EU than Ansip, and she’s the heir apparent to take over Jean Claude Juncker’s job when he retires.  

Let’s be honest: for most of GSMA’s history the role of women has been as pretty things to decorate the exhibition. While it is impressive that the event gathers more than 100,000 attendees, it has difficulty differentiating from the JATS pack, “just another trade show.” For “Bringing the Sustainable Development Goals to life” to have meaning, it requires the inclusion of poor people, small businesses, and competitive operators from emerging countries. For these actors, Barcelona is out of reach.

GSMA has grown financially-independent from its member. This demonstrated by its political correctness and shying away from the controversial but important topics for operators, including regulation, roaming, and consolidation. Strand Consult would like to see MWC make a difference in the industry by having public conversations between the shareholders whose value is jeopardized and policymakers who make decisions about the industry.

See Strand Consult's 2018 predictions for a list of challenges that GSMA if it was focused on getting results for the telecom industry.

Strand Consult provides both pre and post review of the Mobile World Congress. Read our reviews from the past thirteen years.

Meet Strand Consult at the Mobile World Congress

If you would like to meet with Strand Consult during the MWC, please email us your contact details and the details/purpose of the meeting, and we will get back to you. Journalists are most welcome! Contact us.

Best regards,

John Strand