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4G, quad-core, pah. Now connect the next billion bods to mobile web

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MWC 2013 Phones are here, there and everywhere - but there is a need to drive down costs to connect the next billion or so people to the world of mobile internet.

This was a subject tackled by Manoj Kohli, the MD of Bharti Airtel; Dr Nasser Marafih of Ooredoo; our favourite Canadian, Nokia’s Stephen Elop; and new-boy at the GSMA party Mozilla’s Gary Kovacs, during a debate here at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Don’t beat yourself up if you’ve not heard of Ooredoo, it’s the new name for Qtel Group. At the moment it operates Asiacell in Iraq, Indosat in Indonesia, Nawras in Oman, Nedjma in Algeria, Tunisiana in Tunisia, Wataniya in Kuwait, the Maldives and Palestine, and Qtel in Qatar. Dr Nasser Marafih clearly wanted to reduce the size of his business card.

Ooredoo means “I want” in Arabic and is well placed to look at how to get the unconnected onto the internet. While a third of the world population has connectivity, only 13 per cent of the Arab population is online. Dr Marafih spoke of the social impact of this: if mobile connectivity was so important to the Arab Spring, albeit with such low penetration, the effects of widespread connectivity could be far reaching.

He quoted a favourite GSMA statistic that 10 per cent of internet growth causes GDP to rise by 1.2 per cent, and said that doubling internet usage would take 600 million people out of poverty. This being Mobile World Congress, this data was lobbed at any regulators who happened to be in the audience.

And he followed up with his major beef: “The most important key is the way we deal with government policy makers and regulators and the major issue is spectrum availability, we need access to more spectrum, in some countries we don’t even have regulators yet. Another important thing is taxation because that keeps changing,” he said.

The cost of data is a major problem for his subscribers and he needs to roll out solutions to meet the needs of his customers in a way they can afford.

New York, London, Paris, Nigeria, everyone's talking about… Facebook

There was a similar tale from Manoj Kohli, the MD and CEO of telco Bharti Airtel, which has grown out of its Indian roots and now has substantial holdings in Africa. He looked at the accelerating evolution of mobe tech: “In 1998 3G was launched, and that was phase one for mobile data and it took ten years [to establish itself]. Phase two started with the major mobile growth of Google, Facebook and the other major players that drove content, initially with youth. Phase three was banking, now we start phase four, the growth into the masses.” Some of that growth will be stunning.

Sub Saharan Africa has led internet growth over the last few years. There was a leap in some countries from having no phone to GSM, and the next leap will be no internet to mobile - there will not be a DSL stage. In India Bharti connected 450,000 villages, and usage is not that different to the rest of the world: “We connected the Sahara desert people. They are just like you and me; they love to talk and Facebook.” 92 per cent of Swaziland is on Facebook as is 87 per cent of Nigeria.

His plea to the regulators was more direct. He wants spectrum at 700MHz for high-speed mobe broadband LTE. There has been a lot of talk at the conference about frequency fragmentation but it’s unusual for anyone to come out championing such a radio frequency.

High frequencies, 2.6GHz and the like, are good for cities where capacity rather than distance to the nearest mast is a problem. Lower ones, 700MHz for example, don't often find a cheerleader. But as he’s building base stations in large countries with low population densities, Kohli wants range and low spectrum will give you that at least. Constructing lots of sites is expensive because LTE ought to be hooked up with fibre to be of any decent use. Microwave links do not have the capacity.

And he had a special request for the next speaker: cheap hardware. Specifically high-speed dongles at $10 and smartphones at $30. And he used “Nokia” to mean mobile phone - just like Hoover, Tannoy and Kleenex have become catch-alls for vacuum cleaners, public address systems and tissues. You might expect the boss of a mobile phone network to be more diplomatic, and not use a term that favours one of his suppliers, but it's more of an indication of Nokia's standing in India.

In a stark contrast to Western operators, he was positive about the role of the over-the-top companies - firms that build profitable empires (from VoIP to video) on the backbone of the mobile industry.

“We should be thankful for Google, Facebook and Twitter, these people helped innovation and usage,” he said, but then he isn’t struggling to monetise his network. He’s bracing himself for data consumption growth and a world where mobile is everything – your source of healthcare information, entertainment and contact with your bank.

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