GSMA Ministerial Programme 2023: Leadership for future connectivity

Every year, MWC Barcelona features an exclusive event-within-an-event called the Ministerial Programme, which brings together ministries, regulatory bodies and the mobile sector to discuss the policies, challenges and emerging technologies shaping the digital economy and society. This year, in its 17th edition, the programme welcomed 196 delegations representing 151 countries and 45 intergovernmental organisations — the highest number of delegations ever and a testament to this forum’s ongoing value to decision-makers across the digital ecosystem.

While much of the value happens on the edges — planned and serendipitous meetings, ad-hoc discussions and socialising/networking — the conference sessions offer information and insights on the leading issues of the day. During the first Monday session, Alex Rogers, VP of Technology Licensing at Qualcomm, emphasised the cross-cutting impact of mobile technologies. “5G is not just an enhancement for the smartphone, but a technology platform for further innovation — technical, industrial and social.” It is a catalyst, he said, for a safer, more innovative and more sustainable digital economy. GSMA Chief Regulatory Officer John Giusti echoed the operators’ point of view, identifying investment, spectrum and usage as the key themes for the industry this year.

Investment gap: Fair share and consolidation

By 2030, mobile operators must invest USD 1.5 trillion in CAPEX to keep up with the growing data demands of consumers, businesses and governments. Exponential data traffic growth, relatively flat telecom sector revenues, and low return on capital have contributed to an investment gap. At the same time, those benefitting the most from using existing networks contribute the least to national digital infrastructure. Six content and application providers are generating more than 60% of all traffic on the web, but the investment burden isn’t being shared equitably.

C-level executives from mobile operators Deutsche Telecom, STC, Telefonica and Millicom called for more collaboration and ensuring that all actors contribute a fair share in building the “digital highways.” On the other hand, hyperscalers Meta and Netflix argued that they already invest billions of dollars in digital infrastructure such as data centres, fibre and submarine cables, and building the value of the internet with innovative services. Amir Algibreen, Group Chief Regulatory and Compliance Officer of STC, summed up the debate: “Every industry has demand and supply needs, and there has to be equity between the two. In digital, mobile operators are the supply. We have seen data demand grow continually, but unless the investment model changes, telcos cannot deliver the necessary supply.”

Another solution to reduce the investment gap, particularly in Europe, discussed during the event was mobile market consolidation. For many years, competition authorities have propped up the number of mobile operators in Member States, ostensibly to sustain competition for the benefit of consumers. They are now reconsidering their policies, recognising that to compete globally, the structure of the industry in Europe needs to be changed to encourage investment and innovation. There are over 100 MNOs in Europe, compared to just three each in the United States, China and India. Bringing together companies from different countries within the EU could create a more robust and efficient industry that can provide advanced connected services controlled within the region and exported. Nancy Victory, Co-Chair US & Global Telecom Practice of DLA Piper, provided the US perspective. The big mergers in the US helped to create big players with strong financial backbone and spectrum resources: “US merger policy resulted in fierce competition: faster 5G deployment with no price increase for consumers.” What made consolidation easier in the US was that regulation didn’t differ from state to state. Harmonised regulation can incentivise network investment, reduce costs and provide better consumer services.

Policymakers participating in various sessions all agreed that there is a need for change. They need to look to the future rather than tie consumers and businesses to regulatory models of the past. H.E. Nadia María Calviño, First Vice-President and Minister of Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation of Spain, stated candidly: “The digital and green twin transitions require massive public and private investments in infrastructure. We need to make sure that all stakeholders contribute.”Other policymakers committed to monitoring closely the EU consultation on the future of the connectivity sector, launched just days before by Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner for Internal Market.

WRC-23 and spectrum for growth

Mobile connectivity depends on timely and affordable access to harmonised spectrum. 2023 will be a crucial year as the world comes together in Dubai for the ITU World Radiocommunication Conference 2023 (WRC-23). For years, it will be the only opportunity to identify more harmonised spectrum for 5G and beyond.

The mobile industry is calling for WRC-23 to:

  • Deliver more low-band spectrum to increase digital equality by enhancing 5G capacity across wide rural areas
  • Extend global harmonisation of 3.5 GHz to drive economies of scale; and
  • Identify more mid-band spectrum, including 6GHz, to meet future expansion needs.

The connected future of the world depends on administrations striking the right balance at WRC-23. Its decisions can create a virtuous circle of fast, sustainable and affordable networks delivered to more people, lowering the usage gap while driving scale and further investment. It can deliver affordable 5G worldwide and help ensure that no one is left behind in the digital age.

Usage gap

Digital inclusion is a priority for mobile operators and governments worldwide. Today 95% of the world’s population is covered by a mobile broadband network, and 4.3 billion people, or 55%, are already using it. That means that 40% or 3.2 billion people covered by mobile broadband are not using it. The main reasons for this ‘usage gap’ are a lack of digital skills, device affordability, relevant content in local languages and imbalances, such as the gender and age digital divide and rural-urban divide.

Closing the usage gap is too big of a challenge for any country or company to solve independently. Delegations agreed that together, through leadership and partnerships, we can make progress. Mobile connectivity can help address today’s most pressing challenges, such as expanding digital inclusion, responding to humanitarian crises and taking climate action. Digital policy frameworks must provide a roadmap for action — enabling innovation, embedding necessary protections, encouraging adoption and cultivating value-adding, digital-powered business. At a time of global uncertainty, digital vision and leadership are needed more than ever.