This article originally appeared on Tech Crunch by Natasha Lomas.
Carriers have kicked off the world’s biggest mobile phone tradeshow with calls for an “investment friendly framework” to fund rollouts of next-gen 5G network technology and level the playing field with Internet giants.
“We need a new mindset,” argued Telefonica CEO José María Álvarez-Pallete López, giving the first keynote of the morning here at Mobile World Congress 2018 in Barcelona.
López went on to call for a “digital bill of rights” and for the industry to engage with ethical debates over the impact of connected technologies, including in areas such as privacy and machine ethics.
Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao also urged the “same rules for Internet players”, arguing that Facebook Messenger makes the tech giant “the biggest telco in the world” — yet one he said has “practically no obligation” in terms of the access it must provide to different groups of users.
“All of this much finish. We need to be treated all the same,” he added in a thinly veiled warning to governments eyeing 5G and thinking how they might reap the benefits of next-gen network investment to power efficiencies in their own service delivery.
The unspoken ‘if’ being — if you want us to make the big investments needed to build out 5G networks.
Colao also complained that spectrum is too expensive and said licenses should be granted for longer than 25 years — not shorter, as he said is currently being considered in Europe.
Discussions on public shared networks should be “parked”, he said ticking another item off his regulatory wish-list, and any public subsidy for 5G rollouts should be “neutral”.
If lawmakers adopted this approach the deployment of 5G and fiber would be a given, he claimed.
During the keynotes, several telco execs took time out to describe beneficial applications that could be enabled by 5G. Colao talked about a connected ambulance being able to be “the first step of the hospital”, for example.
And NTT docomo’s president and CEO Kazuhiro Yoshizawa also talked up 5G-enabled telehealth solutions supporting remote diagnostics when specialist doctors can’t see patients in person.
Yoshizawa also talked about 5G enabling construction machinery to be operated remotely from a control centre, rather than with a human driver in the cab. Which made for the slightly disconcerting vision of a visibly driverless digger carving up the landscape.
“Many businesses will need a large amount of video on the uplink,” he noted.
But while there was talk of 5G’s potential societal (and business) benefits, Colao had come to play Cassandra for the flip side: Warning about the risk of a growing technophobia undermining the case for 5G rollouts by eroding trust and support.
He also raised the “digital dominance” of tech giants Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google, noting growing concerns over how “big and powerful” these companies are, and over societally damaging problems like fake news.
Although he argued the real problem for telcos is people are becoming worried that AI technologies “empowered by broadband” might damage jobs and skills.
“We have to make it an opportunity to create more jobs — more expert jobs and mitigate this techno fear,” he warned.
Connected technologies risk “increasing inequality and decreasing social cohesion”, he added — suggesting too that such concerns have the potential to fuel damaging populism.
“We need as an industry to engage, to ensure we build better future for people and a better deal for citizens,” he said.
His suggestion for 5G purveyors to win friends and wider societal backing is to tie rollouts tightly to local needs.
And he called for the creation of regulation-free regions where 5G experiments can become practical examples showing what’s possible — pointing to Vodafone’s 5G trials in Milan as the kind of consortium of local partners needed to “test the future” but in a way that keeps communities of users engaged and on side with the benefits.
The Milan trial is a public private partnership involving 38 partners including universities and startups, he noted. “This should be the model,” he continued. “A locally managed innovation process so that local citizens can see the benefits.”
Regulation-free innovation areas would also be a way to attract startups to tackle local problems — and entrepreneurs are needed to play a key role in ensuring 5G gets associated with a “better future” for society as a whole.
“We need to start looking at technology not as an enabler of problems but as a way to improve the deal of citizens,” he added.