Down and out of ideas in Barcelona

17 Mar 2009

Another year, another Mobile World Congress, and I think it's safe to say that one of the biggest highlights of this year's annual GSMA global bash was the fact that anyone actually showed up.
I'm exaggerating, of course. But one of the most frequent comments I got from the various people I met was this: 'I'm amazed how many people are here, you know, considering "&brkbar;'

Yes. John Hoffman of the GSMC put the official visitor count at 47,000 - admittedly down from 55,000 in 2008, and admittedly many of them probably paid their entry fees well before the bottom dropped out of the global economy. Certainly some of the exhibitors did. (And I take no joy in making jokes at the expense of Nortel Networks, but if I had a euro for every time I heard someone say, 'What's Nortel doing with a booth here‾', I could probably make a bid for their old Wimax unit.)

Anyway, certainly the economic meltdown was the first issue on the dock at the opening keynotes. GSMA CEO Rob Conway spoke about how the mobile industry not only has the momentum and the numbers to survive the recession, but also has the ability to help pull markets out of recession via encouraging infrastructure spend that in turn means more mobile growth that also grows GDP (according to GSMA-commissioned studies). The GSMA even invited development economist Jeffery Sachs to back its point.

But I couldn't help notice that most of the points made by the GSMA in the name of economic repair - the need for 'regulatory stability' (i.e. regulations that make it easier for cellcos to go about their business) and giving GSM operators all the 700-MHz spectrum they require to launch LTE - aren't anything new. The GSMA has been lobbying regulators for digital dividend spectrum and more favorable regulations (on things like taxes) for at least a year. This year, they've basically taken the same demands and repackaged them as an economic stimulus plan.

That's fine, as far as it goes: they're valid issues, and it's the GSMA's job to lobby on behalf of the industry. And to be fair, the GSMA isn't arguing that mobile investment alone will save the economy. But that pitch must be hard for regulators to swallow when operators are reporting losses and layoffs (to say nothing of the vendors), and when part of it hinges on freeing up spectrum via analog/digital TV switchovers that in most countries won't happen before 2011. But I'm not even an armchair economist, so it's not like I have any better ideas.

Reused ideas

Still, I get nervous when mobile executives recycle old solutions to address new problems. The first batch of cellco CEOs who took the stage in Barcelona was tasked to address the economic crunch. Their ideas for survival: reduce churn, partner wisely and do better PR. In other words, things they presumably already do (except maybe the third one), or at least should have been doing.

I'm not saying they're bad ideas, but they seem rooted in old-world business models, which is not a good idea for an industry intending to evolve to the all-IP world of Web 2.0 or whatever it's going to be by 2012 when LTE starts seeing serious commercial deployments. I know it's unrealistic to change your business model overnight, but we've seen from other communications industries that have had their business models blown out from under them (broadcast and music) that the longer you cling to the old model, the longer you drag out the pain of a changeover you'll have to give in to anyway.

Maybe that's why so many delegates were disappointed by Android's failure to take the MWC by the throat (although that was never likely, handset development cycles being what they are), yet thrilled about things like Google's demo of exploiting HTML5 to use web apps even when your phone is in airline mode. They're hungry for fresh ideas that the mobile sector genuinely needs to advance to the next level. The fact that those ideas keep coming from industry outsiders like Google and Apple continues to speak volumes about the state of mobile in 2009.

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