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Mobes will save the world - just give us some spectrum!

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MWC Every World Congress - GSM World Congress, 3GSM World Congress and now Mobile World Congress - has seen rising attendances, but this year it's a little more echoey in there. GSMA CEO Rob Conway’s keynote tried to make the best of it by saying that only the elite of the mobile world had come this year.

Big company attendances are certainly down from the days in Cannes where Motorola took a separate building to handle the on-site registrations for its 1000 attendees. Conway’s spin called the event the Davos of mobile, with a healthy attendance of government ministers.

He then went on to portray mobile as the saviour of the world’s economy. He looked at how many of the major industries were looking for government handouts but telecoms was not. Sure, handset sales are down a bit, but they are still healthy.

The traditional way to spend out of a recession is to build infrastructure; that may mean roads and railways, but Conway saw telecoms infrastructure as the way to make everyone more productive. He cited Lord Carter in the UK as understanding the value of getting broadband to rural areas.

The stats to back this up looked at how 100m Europeans are beyond the reach of fixed broadband. Mobile costs ten per cent of putting in fixed broadband, and people on broadband are six times more productive. By building more mobile infrastructure, we can build our way out of recession.

Conway did want something from the governments in return, however: The 400MHz of spectrum currently being reclaimed from analogue TV broadcasters, known as the “digital dividend”, is up for grabs. Not surprisingly the broadcasters see it as theirs, but the GSMA wants 100MHz of it, at around 700MHz for mobile.

“How many TV channels do you need?” asked Conway.

And he wants that spectrum to be guaranteed for the long term. The greater range you get by using lower radio frequencies dramatically reduces the number of cell sites needed to cover an area. One cell at 700MHz covers the same area as seven at 3.5GHz.

To keep costs down the GSMA wants the same frequencies throughout the world, and praised France for allocating 790MHz to 862MHz for non broadcast while chiding Spain and Italy for not even thinking about it. The technology for this spectrum is LTE: “WiMax is a sideshow.”

More immediately Conway was pleased with the growth in mobile broadband. Speaking from the operator perspective, he saw a need for cheaper chips and for manufacturers to work on tighter margins and higher volumes. He might have noticed that the same was said about mass market phones, where we’ve since seen Motorola and Sony Ericsson pull out of trying to compete.

Other GSMA projects include an audience monitoring project with the five UK networks. This has produced the shock results that the operator portals are the most visited mobile websites, that Google is the top off-portal website and that people like looking at Facebook in the morning before school or work. Marketing people like numbers to back up the bleeding obvious, and the GSMA has those numbers.

Another set of numbers which sound impressive is a GSM association plan to get bank accounts to 20m of the billion people who have a phone but are unbanked. This is being done with the help of $12.5m from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It’s not such an impressive target when you realise that Safaricom, the Vodafone network in Kenya, already has 5m subscribers to its M-pesa scheme.

It does rather look, though, like the GSMA wants to reinvent M-pesa, and you have to wonder if the money would be better spent on working on the regulatory hurdles – particularly Know Your Customer – than on covering old ground.

Perhaps it’s depressing that transforming the lives of millions of people by giving them bank accounts – something that can make the difference between eating and starving - didn’t garner the same round of applause that the GSMA project to make every phone use the same charger. But then, like Rob Conway, everyone in the audience had a bank account and a cupboard full of redundant chargers, because of course they were the elite of the mobile world. ®

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