Telecom World tries to shake off its paper-pushing reputation

UN still caught in Barcelona envy

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ITU Telecom World ITU Telecom World is the UN's chance to push out the message that broadband internet is a human right, but the now-annual event is also pitching itself as a grown-up version of the increasingly infantile Mobile World Congress.

Just like Mobile World Congress which takes place annually over valentines in Barcelona, Telecom World started as a gathering of telecoms operators who wanted to save airfares by all being in the same city at the same time, and just like Mobile World Congress companies were quick to realise that such a gathering presented an ideal opportunity to showcase their wares.

Telecom World bloated well before its competitor, but in recent years has become a poor companion to the showbiz glitz of MCW. But despite, or perhaps because of, that Telecom World still feels like a place where real work gets done, even if most of the real work is carried out behind closed doors.

We're told that the ITU is shaking off its bureaucracy but journalists still had to produce an editor's letter of reference before being allowed in the door for Telecom World, and hotel booking forms were expected to be delivered by fax. But for an organisation which still likes to parade an empty glass box around the room when voting, that's progress.

Journalists still aren't granted access to the decision-making process, the ITU's core remains fiercely opaque and national representatives met on day one, which was closed to the press, but we are allowed to sample the atmosphere and talk to those who did attend.

Walking around Telecom World is a bit like watching Eurovision: one feels slightly guilty not to be more familiar with the smaller countries boasting pavilions. Some of those pavilions are little more than hoarding-surrounded trestles, bracketed with photographs of smiling children being edified thanks to the connectivity which stretches to far fewer of the population than it should.

Between the countries vying for investment are the companies looking to help them spend it. The usual infrastructure suspects are here, with Huawei being particularly in evidence and trumpeting its deliveries to governments around the world. Huawei reckons such projects are profitable, with only the scale discouraging private investment. But when pushed the company admitted that a government would expect to reap benefits in increased tax revenue based on improved GDP, which would pad out any direct financial return. If all that fails then there's always bigger boys to call on - loans from the World Bank or EU development cash for those hit hardest by the world's economic breakdown.

But the the stands and stalls play second fiddle to the presentations and workshops, which feel much more like discussions than the press conferences of Mobile World Congress. The ITU might jealously watch the product announcements and celebrity speeches of MWC, but the tone of Telecom World is far longer term, discussing which will happen rather than what is happening.

It took a decade after the ITU pegged 3G at 2.1GHz (in 1993) for the first service to roll out, and about the same delay before anyone deployed LTE (4G) at 2.6GHz – allocated by the ITU in 2000. LTE at 800MHz was only ratified in 2007, and should be deploying real soon now, so the process is speeding up, if slowly.

When one is guessing at requirements of the next decade one treads with care, and the bureaucracy can forestall snap decisions. The ITU could certainly be more open, following the lead of Ofcom and the FCC in sharing documents and submissions. One of the speakers here at Telecom World estimated that half the decisions the ITU makes are wrong, but as it takes ten years to find out there's not much to be done about it. More openness would be good, but faster decisions are, perhaps, to be avoided. ®

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