Speech from Dr Hamadoun I. Touré, ITU Secretary-General

GSMA Asia-Pacific Conference - Welcome Reception Dinner
Colombo, Sri Lanka
7 September 2008

Ladies & Gentlemen,
Honoured Guests,
My dear friends,

 

I am very pleased to be here with you all this evening. I am especially pleased to be with you, as we are here to celebrate a birthday - the 21st birthday of GSM.  Around the world, 21st birthdays are celebrated as the day when someone ‘comes of age’, and today is the day when GSM comes into its full inheritance.

 

And what an amazing inheritance it is. Today, more than 2.7 billion GSM subscribers will use GSM-compatible phones to carry an astounding 16 billion minutes of calls and a staggering 6 billion text messages over more than 700 GSM networks in more than 200 countries.

 

On this day alone, by some estimates, GSM will have generated $3 billion US dollars or 1.36% of the world’s daily Gross Domestic Product (compared with a total of 1.6% of daily GDP for the mobile industry at large). ITU estimates that, as a technology, GSM accounts for 85% of the total 3.3 billion mobile connections worldwide .

 

But today, we also celebrate something far larger than GSM – we are celebrating the transformation of the mobile industry in Europe and beyond – a transformation that traces its roots to the signing of a simple Memorandum of Understanding for a pan-European cellular telephone system in Copenhagen twenty-one years ago, in September 1987, by 15 operators from 13 countries.

 

It was this initial agreement that led to the development of GSM. At the time, the original founding operators optimistically hoped that they might achieve some 20 million cellular subscribers by the turn of the century and the arrival of the new Millennium, mainly in the business sector and niche markets. They could not have been more wrong.

 

Instead, by 2000, GSM numbered quarter of a billion mobile subscribers (over ten times’ as many as originally estimated – or a third of the 737 million total mobile cellular subscribers worldwide). GSM was growing at an astounding rate – it took twelve years to reach the first one billion subscriptions in 2004, and only two and a half years to surpass the next billion GSM/UMTS subscriptions in mid-2006.

 

Given the astounding success of mobile telephony today, it is easy looking back to dismiss the expectations of the original pioneers of mobile telephony. However, it is important to remember that those expectations were not unrealistic for the era.

 

In 1987, Europe was a continent of fragmented separate markets, with a complex mix of national analogue standards in phones and TV. Localized solutions to the development of mobile communications were unable to fulfill the long-term goal of affordable communications. Mobile phones cost hundreds of dollars, making them the ultimate elite executive accessory, but putting them well beyond the reach of the average consumer.

 

With GSM, Europe succeeded in creating a unified market larger than that of the United States, held together by an open standard accessible to all and driven by competition at each level of the network. Similar competition has helped reduce the cost of mobile handsets still further, so that today, the ten-dollar handset is well within reach.

 

The experience of GSM has shown that, by following principles of mutual benefit, open standards and a competitive market, mobile telephony has developed both as a must-have essential communications tool and as a vibrant industry in its own right, earning billions of dollars in revenues each year.

 

These are principles that ITU endorses in its everyday standardization work, where ITU is committed to developing open and accessible standards drawing on the expertise of its diverse public and private sector Members. ITU established clear principles for the security of IMT (3G) networks and recommended early on that the security provided by mobile broadband 3G networks should be comparable to contemporary fixed networks.

 

More recently, in the interests of competition, the decision was taken at RA-07 to add WiMAX-based technologies to the IMT (3G) set of wireless standards, paving the way for the deployment of voice, data and multimedia services to stationary and mobile devices at higher speeds across wider areas. Having competed successfully against its rival technologies, I am confident that GSM can hold its own and that we are looking at a case of technological ‘disruption’, rather than technological ‘destruction’.

 

Indeed, GSM is evolving. The GSM family of technologies continue to show strong market promise with 3G (UMTS) and HSDPA, HSUPA and HSPA Evolved (or HSPA+) as the next step, capable of delivering data services enabling speeds of up to 42Mb/s in the downlink and 11Mb/s in the uplink. Today, HSDPA networks were in commercial service in over eighty countries, with 267 operator commitments in some 120 countries.

 

ITU is pleased to be working closely with the GSMA under a Memorandum of Understanding signed at the 7th Global Symposium for Regulators in Dubai last year. This project will strengthen cooperation and improve access to mobile phone services to bridge the digital divide in least developed and developing nations. It concentrates on three key areas: supporting developing market projects for low-cost access to ICTs in underserved areas; industry and government cooperation; and benchmarking of the global industry, on the basis of our close monitoring of the markets.

 

ITU also appreciates the initiative by GSMA in the establishment of a Developmental Fund for shared access to voice and data services for people living under 2$ per day and ITU encourages investment in sustainable projects that seek to extend access to mobile services in the developing world.

 

So while we have much to celebrate, and while the mobile industry has come a long way in a very short time, let me conclude with an appeal, an appeal to the mobile industry – an appeal not to be complacent and to rest on our laurels, but let’s use those same principles of mutual benefit, open standards and competition that have worked so well for GSM to bring the benefits of mobile telephony to the next billion subscribers in developing countries, and quickly.

 

ITU believes it is doable; ITU believes it can be done; ITU is committed to connecting the world. Let us work together to achieve that goal. Thank you.