Digital is now, digital is the future: Insights from the GSMA Ministerial Programme 2024

In its 18th year, the GSMA Ministerial Programme 2024 (MP) has once again proven to be the essential confluence of policymakers, regulatory bodies and the mobile industry. With over 180 delegations from countries and intergovernmental organisations, the event underscored the collective endeavour to shape a resilient and inclusive digital economy.

Given the rapidly evolving digital landscape, this year’s tone was not only about the digital future but also the practical now. Four themes emerged across all sessions, reflecting the priorities and challenges of the digital ecosystem today.

Embracing AI: A journey towards responsible deployment

Artificial Intelligence (AI) stood at the forefront of discussions, a shift from last year’s focus on the metaverse. Unlike the metaverse, the rapid adoption of Generative AI, exemplified by the meteoric rise of platforms like Chat GPT, has brought the conversation to the forefront of digital policy and business strategy. AI was mentioned in every session at MP – from operators using AI to optimise their networks to using AI to prevent cyber-attacks and tackle climate change.

The discourse ranged from identifying AI’s opportunities and threats to formulating actionable strategies for its responsible deployment. Highlighting regulatory initiatives from leading regions such as the US, South Korea, and the EU, the discussions embraced AI’s potential for societal good, signalling a global alignment towards leveraging AI technologies positively and responsibly. Contrary to popular opinion, it was also noted that AI would create more jobs than destroy in the future. Hence, a big focus was on equipping the workforce with the necessary skills, emphasising the importance of soft skills and ethical training.

Partnerships for a more inclusive future

The event also spotlighted the indispensable role of public-private partnerships and a multistakeholder approach in addressing critical challenges like climate, digital inclusion, humanitarian action, and cyber resilience. With the digital economy growing 2.5 times faster than physical GDP and the flow of data surpassing the flow of physical goods, the consensus was clear: to achieve a truly inclusive digital future, it’s imperative to transform all regions and all sectors, including agriculture, health, education, and finance.

The dialogue underscored the importance of innovative strategies, such as flexible financing models and targeted efforts to bridge the usage gap in regions like Africa, where the potential for mobile internet remains largely untapped. The UN’s Early Warning Systems for All (EW4A) initiative exemplified such partnerships, aiming for universal early warning coverage through collaboration between mobile network operators, governments, and NGOs.

Many partnerships were announced during MP, such as the mobile industry’s financial commitment of $9.4 billion, bringing the total ITU #Partner2Connect pledge fund to $46 billion (halfway to the 100 billion goal by 2026). The UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office announced a renewed partnership with the GSMA to drive digital innovation for socio-economic and climate impact, supported by a £37 million fund. GSMA and GSOA announced a partnership to advance terrestrial and non-terrestrial network integration to close the coverage gap.

The investment debate goes global

Another recurring theme across all sessions was the need for investments to achieve our digital aspirations. The industry’s Fair Share proposal, which calls for contributions from big tech companies towards network investment, gained momentum outside of Europe. At MWC 2023, the Fair Share debate in Europe was among the most heated discussions at MP. This year, governments from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the US weighed in.

There’s a growing recognition of the need for equitable investment frameworks and tax structures to support the deployment of digital networks. With Africa alone requiring $100 billion for basic 4G connectivity, the discussions highlighted the urgency of addressing investment gaps to ensure the sustainable expansion of digital infrastructure.

The GSMA and BCG launched a new report with policy recommendations supporting a booming mobile sector, centred around four Fs: facilitation by government, fairness of regulatory framework, flexibility to operate and fiscal burden reduction.

5G expansion and innovation remain in focus

Five years after the first commercial deployments of 5G, the dialogue at this year’s event emphasised that 5G is still evolving. Although monetisation challenges in many countries have held back 5G deployment, the most transformative use cases are being developed with the promise of mission-critical communications, massive IoT and optimisation of networks. Even as the 6G specification has begun to take shape, operators remain focused on building a solid foundation in 5G over the next several years.

The GSMA Ministerial Programme 2024 has laid the groundwork for a present and a future where digital technologies are leveraged for the greater good, underpinned by responsible AI deployment, inclusive partnerships, and equitable investment in infrastructure. As the digital landscape evolves, the insights from this year’s programme offer a roadmap for navigating the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, ensuring an inclusive, resilient, and forward-looking digital present and future.

The GSMA Ministerial Programme is an invitation-only event, part of MWC Barcelona. The next edition will be held on 3-5 March 2025. Find out more.