Thursday, September 20, 2007

ITU Telecom World needs some disrupting

This is an article I wrote for CommsDay Asean after attending last year's ITU extravaganza in Hong Kong. As you can read, I wasn't exactly overenthused by the whole thing. But there's room for improvement and it's coming to Bangkok. Yes, to Bangkok, Thailand!! More coming . . .

As the 23 tons of temporary trusses came down and the 28,484 sq meters of carpet up from the floors that housed ITU Telecom World last week, I did the only sensible thing on offer: I went camping. Yep, after all the well-meaning but meaningless talk of bridging the digital divide (yet again), I decided I’d rather be on the other side of it. So it was goodbye IP-TV, ciao mobile TV and into a national park that was blissfully free of any TV or Internet.

For those who went to Hong Kong last week, I’d be really interested to know what you thought of the ITU’s three-yearly telecoms extravaganza (email me at if you like). Personally, I was both overwhelmed and underwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the sheer size (in terms of square metres) of the event, but also the scale of the commercialisation of it all. Underwhelmed because, frankly, it’s just another very large trade event – and not a particularly inspiring one at that.

Anyone who managed to check out all 695 stands spread out over the 41,000 sq meters of exhibition space was either a fitness freak or desperately giving out marketing material. As for the ITU’s claims that this is a not-for-profit event, that’s a question of semantics. It’s certainly a money-generating exercise and in that regard it’s no different from any other trade show around the world.

I ended up spending most of my time in the forums, but I couldn’t help noticed that a lot of the keynote speakers were top brass at some of the major exhibitors. While some did have something to say, others delivered little more than a corporate spiel, and what they did say was uninspiring. In particular, many Asian CEOs, from some of the world’s largest companies, really need to work on their presentation skills if they’re to be taken seriously.

Some of it can be put down to speaking in their non-native tongue, or having to go through a translator, but many non-English speakers from other parts of the world can get around it. In fact, the best presentation I came across was from a Spanish-speaking South American but delivered in English. He had something to say so people were prepared to put in the extra effort to listen.

In the airport lounge before flying home, I came across an article by Kumiko Makihara in the International Herald Tribune that went some way to explaining the poor English among the Japanese elite (and it’s presumably similar in other parts of North Asia). “In this extremely conformist society, even children are reluctant to stand out by speaking better or worse than their peers,” he wrote, noting that there is still a stubborn insular mentality among Japan’s elite. Like it or not, fluency in English and presentation skills are essential in today’s global business world, and as Makihara noted, the country cannot expect to thrive despite the lack of English as it did in the past.

But back to ITU Telecom World: I sometimes wondered what the point of the event was supposed to be. Is it a snapshot of the industry and intended to look at current and future trends? Or is there some sort of altruistic, UN-style goal that is pushing everyone to look at and provide a solution for the unequal spread of communications? Let’s face it, the hot topic of IP-TV isn’t going to help wire up Africa.

Yet connecting the unconnected was what Fernando LagraƱa, executive manager of ITU TELECOM, summed up as the goal of the event in a closing statement issued by the organisation: “As well as the innovation, the lively debate, the busy halls and the fun, I hope its real legacy is as a milestone in our commitment to bridge the Digital Divide together”.

One of the problems I found is that the event is trying to be all things to all people. It’s trying to show off the latest and greatest while at the same time finding basic solutions for the unconnected. It’s trying to be a showcase for the mobile world when the mobile world has its own focussed event in Cannes/Barcelona every year. In fact, all of the various segments are best served by their own focussed events, whether it’s about security or wireless broadband.

It’s also trying to latch onto trends such as social networking when these groups are better represented in cyberspace or their own informal meets. In other words, the communications industry is not the same as it was in 1971 when the first Telecom World was held. It has fragmented and segmented and specialised and moved on. Yet the ITU seems to be still catering to the telecoms model of old with an event to match. Maybe the ITU and its events needs to face some of the same disruption that the telcos are facing? – Geoff Long

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