Shanghai Day Two: Empowering the next 3 billion

The theme of MWC Shanghai 2017 is the Human Element, recognizing the needs of people and communities alongside the tech preoccupations that often dominate industry narrative.  In yesterday’s keynote, GSMA Chair Sunil Bharti Mittal went as far as to say that, without the support of the mobile industry, the UN has little chance meeting its Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Back in 2015, as part of its work on Release Five, Small Cell Forum commissioned independent research to assess the business drivers for small cells in rural and remote environments. The report found that small cells could deliver affordable mobile broadband coverage to an extra 650 million users worldwide, with GDP benefits close to $1 trillion or an estimated operator benefit of $163 billion. In his keynote on the second day of the Shanghai conference, Rangu Salgame argued that we should all up our game a little – and that our ambition should be about enabling connectivity for the next 3 billion subscribers.

Having made his name with Cisco and Verizon, Salgame is today leveraging his profile as CEO, Growth Ventures for Tata Communications to push Next3B, a partnership organization that aims to ‘empower the underprivileged through smartphone-based revenue generation’, particularly in Africa and India. Salgame maintains that, while in broad terms the first 5 billion mobile subscribers took up their phones for convenience, business and for social reasons, many of the next 3 billion will be using their devices as a means of economic empowerment. And that the mobile industry should be doing everything it can to support such enterprise. It’s a theme that was echoed a little earlier in Kathryn Brown’s presentation, in which the CEO of Internet Society highlighted the social impact of connectivity on rural and remote communities. Like Salgame, Brown emphasized the powerful role that Internet access has in the economic liberation of women in rural communities.

Building on its earlier work to grow rural connectivity, Small Cell Forum is now collaborating with GSMA and others to explore further the role of small cells in delivering connectivity to rural and remote locations.

Elsewhere at the conference, in response to a throwaway question at the end of his VAS-focused presentation, Telstra CEO Andrew Penn clearly enjoyed the collective intake of breath that greeted his prediction that carriers should prepare for data prices declining to zero over the next decade. The answer was consistent with Penn’s call for operators to innovate to extend their service offerings if they wanted to remain relevant in a burgeoning value chain. Once again, the Human Element was well to the fore, with Penn insisting his business was more about people than ‘cool tech’. Yesterday’s preoccupation with the importance of evolving new ways of doing business continued as an explicit subtext.

Finally, China Mobile Chair Shang Bing explained that over the past three years China Mobile had invested a cool $66 billion building the world’s largest 4G network that, by the end of 2017, will comprise 1.77 million base stations, delivering 99 per cent 4G coverage across China. He also announced that his firm plans doubling its VoLTE user base in the same timeframe, with penetration reaching 17 per cent by year end.