ITU Telecom World 2011 sets new paradigm?

“ITU Telecom World 2011 sets new paradigm for top-level networking and knowledge-sharing”. So said the announcement at the end of ITU Telecom World 2011 – but does it really? And what exactly was new about the paradigm for top level networking and knowledge sharing in Geneva?

It strikes me that ITU is very good at organising top-level knowledge-sharing and networking events. The problem is that nothing concrete ever seems to come out of them other than expressions of hope which ultimately seem to have little bearing on the development of real communications services in emerging markets.

In the week that Nokia unveiled its first Windows-based smartphone devices in London, Sony announced it is buying out Ericsson from their joint-venture and 4G World took place in Chicago, it very much felt that the major action in telecoms was taking place somewhere other than in Geneva. Time was, the wires were alive with news of deals inked in at ITU World Telecom. Today I checked and found... well, nothing at all.

That is not to say that there is no value in the ‘top-level networking’ that inevitably takes place when ‘over 330 world leaders, including Heads of State, Heads of Government, Ministers, national ambassadors, heads of regulatory agencies, and CEOs from around the world’ get together. It’s not only about deals after all, and the emphasis placed on ‘Young and Digital Innovators’ is to be commended.

There was one big announcement in Geneva and that was by ITU themselves. This is the Broadband Challenge calling on ‘world leaders, governments, industry and civil society’ to work together to ensure that at least 50% of the developing world’s population, and 40% of its households, are using broadband Internet by 2015. The Challenge underlines the need for concrete policy measures to promote broadband and stresses the fundamental importance of making content meaningful to individuals at a real-life, local level.

According the Dr Hamadoun Touré, ITU Secretary-General “As we accelerate towards a ubiquitous high-speed future, international dialogue is essential to ensuring we take the right decisions, learn from one another’s experiences and avoid having to re-invent the wheel. ITU Telecom World plays an increasingly central role in forging best practices that the public and private sectors can draw on when defining and deploying the networks that will offer best quality affordable service to all users.”

The challenge to increase broadband availability in emerging markets is hard not to support, and there is a need to establish appropriate regulatory frameworks in many emerging markets. But, in the expansion of broadband in emerging markets it’s hard not to feel that factors other than this will have a much greater impact. As with mobile phones the real questions are about using the right business models to make services affordable and sustainable.

This is a point which was reflected in closing remarks at the forum made by Carlos Slim (pictured), a man who knows a bit about how to operate telecoms services successfully in emerging markets. Speaking in his role as Co-Chair of the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Digital Development, Slim pointed to the past decade’s explosive growth in mobile as offering a potential roadmap for broadband take-up.

He cited the success of the prepaid model in Latin America as an innovative alternative to large-scale top-down investment. Slim also stressed the need for affordable devices and low-cost universal access through Wi-Fi in public places, schools and libraries. It’s good to hear some real-world sense being talked at an ITU event at last.

Looking at ITU World Telecom, I wonder just how good the return on investment is for the companies and governments who by exhibiting in effect fund this event. My hunch, given the absence of a significant number of industry powerhouses, is that it’s not good enough.

This was the 40th anniversary edition of ITU Telecom World. The next one will take place in Dubai, UAE, in Q4 of 2012. A new paradigm? In debate maybe, but in action, I think not.


At least this year it seems delegates were spared the presence of Robert Mugabe - not that ITU learn as it seems that an invitation was issued to the aging president by Touré. Sadly or not, depending on which way you look at it, Mugabe’s wife Grace and five senior aides were denied visas by the Swiss authorities. Zimbabwe’s Foreign Affairs Ministry Permanent Secretary Joey Bimha was dispatched in place of Mugabe to head up a low-level delegation in Geneva. Meanwhile, Harare is said to have lodged a formal complaint with the UN and the ITU. Perhaps the UAE will be more accommodating next year...

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