As GSMA focuses on next billion connections, Etisalat, SingTel offer growth options

BARCELONA, Spain - The GSMA is working on plans to connect another one billion people to mobile networks in the next six years, and is researching new business strategies and techniques in order to reach that goal. During a keynote appearance here at the Mobile World Congress trade show, executives from Etisalat and SingTel discussed how they are working to both address competition and break open new opportunities to achieve that aim.

"There is a job to do to connect the remaining population on the planet," said Telenor CEO Jon Fredrik Baksaas, who is the GSMA's new chairman. "This is going to be for everyone, not just the privileged."

Baksaas said that the mobile industry added 400 million new mobile connections worldwide last year, and he said the GSMA is targeting the addition of one billion new mobile users to be added globally by 2020. To power this growth, Baksaas said the GSMA is predicting that mobile operators globally will need to invest another $1.7 trillion into mobile networks by 2020.

Baksaas said the GSMA is focusing on a handful of core areas to support growth: personalised data technologies that will help users more easily sign into services; connected living businesses like home automation and smart cities; digital commerce and mobile payments services; and additional network investment.

"To reach these growth figures, collaboration is needed," Baksaas explained. He noted that in Pakistan, mobile operators have teamed with the country's financial institutions in order to jointly offer banking services to residents. He said the result is more opportunities for customers and a more efficient model for telcos and banking firms.

In subsequent presentations, Etisalat's Ahmad Julfar and SingTel's Chua Sock Koong discussed their new attempts to grow their respective businesses. Julfar, Etisalat's CEO, explained that the government in the UAE has recently announced plans to offer more than one hundred different government services over smartphones. Further, he said the government there plans to allow citizens to use their mobile phones as their primary personal ID card.

And, Julfar added, it is of no surprise that the UAE's government is investing in new mobile services, an action he said highlighted the potential for partnerships between mobile operators and governments. He said that smartphone penetration in UAE has topped 75 percent, with three out of four people using the gadgets. He also said Etisalat's network in Saudi Arabia transmits 1.3 petabytes per day.

For her part, Chua, SingTel's group chief executive officer, said SingTel is struggling to ensure that its service is not commoditised, and that the carrier does not become a dumb pipe competing in a market purely determined by the cost of data access. She noted that across SingTel's 501 million customers in 25 countries the company has seen increased use of smartphones but a decline in profits.

To combat those trends, Chua said SingTel has created a business unit called Digital Life, which is tasked with investing in new Internet products and services that will help SingTel differentiate itself from the competition. She specifically pointed to SingTel's $321 million purchase of US-based mobile advertising company Amobee in 2012, which it folded into its Digital Life business.

"We need to learn to try, and try many different things," she said. Indeed, The Business Times late last year reported that SingTel has scrapped the planned launch of LoopMe, an application intended to offer unified messaging services.

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