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Telecom bigwigs: 'We're all friends – really'

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MWC 2013 A gaggle of the world's top telecom grandees put on a show of smiling unanimity as the Mobile World Congress got underway in a kumbaya-fest that masked the intense competition among them.

Get the bosses of Telefonica, Vodafone, AT&T, Telecom Italia, and China Mobile together – five men who have a significant majority of the world's 3.2 billion subscribers paying their salaries – and you should have the scene set for a classic smack-down.

These people are fierce competitors, not a band of buddy-buddy brothers.

After all, they exist to take subscribers from each other, and all of them compete in places the others see as their own. The long knives wielded in that struggle were sheathed in Barcelona on Monday morning, however, and the general glad-handing made for a soporific start to MWC.

Much as last year – and the year before that – the execs talked about how expensive it is to run a mobile phone network, although given the shift in balance sheets, such talk sounded less hollow than it once did. They talked about the need for spectrum to be sold in sensible chunks and in the same place across the world. Then they all bitched about being their government's piggy banks and having to buy spectrum.

AT&T chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson waxed eloquent about how regulators need to look at how they regard spectrum, either as a long-term infrastructure play or a short-term sale. In the US, spectrum is sold on a perpetual license, but in Europe it's time-limited.

Mobile operators in most markets suffer from too much competition, he said. Regulators think of it as a luxury, high-margin industry – but that's no longer the case. From Stephenson's point of view, regulators overestimate the money to be made and underestimate the value to consumers and the economy.

He also sees the move from 3G to 4G as being as disruptive as the move from analog to 2G.

Telefonica chairman and CEO César Alierta said the failure of the UK spectrum auction, which fell £1bn short of the stated target of £3.5bn (and some in government were predicting a lot more), has sent a clear message to the world, and that the £22bn spent on the 3G licences was a mistake the industry was only going to make once.

What's driving the need for spectrum is massive consumption of data, he said. Citing US statistics that show data consumption had grown 75,000 per cent from 2000 to 2006 and 35,000 per cent from 2006 to today, Alierta sees that as only the start and expects exponential growth into the future, a need that will require more spectrum. This will be driven not only by the increased bandwidth but by the need to reduce latency, he said.

Another topic the stage-managed CEOs agreed upon was security. Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao said that the future of security is in the SIM, and that you wouldn't want to lose the verification of your identity when you moved from one device to another.

Colao also said that 30 per cent of the CEOs with whom he's talked have security as a top concern, and that they're addressing it with their deal with BAE Systems Detica – the UK government's preferred vendor for their spooks – that will allow corporations to manage their mobiles in the same way as they manage their internal networks with protection from attacks and malware. There is a significant BYOD play in this.

The Vodafone CEO also talked about a number of other initiatives, including a pay-as-you-drive insurance scheme that will monitor your driving habits and then send you an email if it disapproves.

Alierta and Colao talked about operating systems, with Alierta reiterating his view that Firefox OS was the solution to the evil Apple/Google duopoly. He also noted that only 17 per cent of his subscribers have a smartphone; this is an opportunity, but it needs to be more open, he said.

Colao was more mild-mannered, seeing choice as being what will break the Apple hold, and that Blackberry was "back", along with Windows Phone 8 and Firefox OS.

Still, there is a feeling that Apple is no longer the golden boy, and as the operators start rounding on Cupertino, things could get nasty.

What MWC keynotes lack is the opportunity for their audiences to put questions to the presenters. Any CEO worth his or her salt should be able to field the nastiest of questions thrown by what is a knowledgeable and international audience. Without it they look weak.

Eric Schmit did an excellent job last year – it's not just in providing over-the-top services that Google is more impressive than the telecom operators. ®

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