Bring on 2014

The CommsMEA Awards, mobile money and musings on the future of telecoms
Roger Field is the editor of CommsMEA.
Roger Field is the editor of CommsMEA.

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December was another hugely busy month for the CommsMEA team, kicking off with the Awards on December 4 and continuing with some interesting interviews, some of which you can read in this issue. Indeed, while we’ve dedicated a fair amount of space to review the Awards – a reflection of the importance that the evening holds in the regional telecoms calendar – we still found space to bring you some valuable reports on matters as diverse as mobile money and a profile on Iraq’s telecoms sector.

Of particular note is mobile money. While many telecoms executives might think they’ve heard most of what there is to know about this topic, it is in fact continuing to develop at a rapid pace, providing a range of valuable services – and of course potential revenue streams for operators. While these services might not always translate into profits for operators, they tend to aid customer loyalty, which is critical in today’s increasingly competitive telecoms landscape.

According to the GSMA there are now 208 live mobile money services in 83 countries as compared to 178 live services in 2012. While most of this growth has occurred in Sub Saharan Africa, mobile money services are also starting to take root in the Middle East. Indeed, Rajiv Bhatia, head of mobile commerce sales, Ericsson, says that in mature markets, we will see the adoption of mobile payments driven more by the greater convenience and ease of use rather than out of necessity.

December also brought some interesting news. One announcement that particularly caught the attention of the CommsMEA team was the European Commission’s decision to start preparing to launch an initiative to promote research into 5G technology. To those outside the telecoms sector, this might seem a little premature, after all, 4G deployments globally remain at an early stage of development. But then just consider this – 3G as a commercial service is little more than a decade old, and in many countries, it is already decidedly creaky given the volume of data flowing on these networks.

It’s fairly safe to assume that LTE will be in a very similar position in 10 years’ time. The lead-in time to develop the next generation of telecoms technology is significant, and the technology needs to be tried and tested before operators can even consider the idea of commercial deployments.

But what on earth will all of this extra data capacity be used for? A sizeable amount of LTE capacity will be accounted for just by mobile broadband laggards coming online and current users consuming more data as prices fall. But the data speeds and capacity that 5G bring will also open up a new world of potential.

Perhaps it is difficult to predict the types of services that will emerge, just as it would have been difficult to predict social networking and YouTube in the early days of the internet. But there are a few clues out there. We’ve all heard about machine-to-machine communications and augmented reality. These will move into the mainstream bringing innovations such as driverless cars with them.

Google’s recent acquisition of Boston Dynamics, a company that builds frighteningly life-like robots should also give us a few ideas. There are surely unlimited applications for robots capable of complex movement that can be controlled remotely over secure IP networks, particularly in security and the military. If controlled by sensors attached to the body, this technology effectively gives the user remote presence, which also opens up huge potential for services and innovations yet to be invented.

With the Consumer Electronic Show and Mobile World Congress just around the corner, it will be interested to see what technology is on show. It’s often the smaller, more understated displays that give a glimpse into the future.

But while pondering the future might make for an interesting pastime, the present reality in many countries is a little more bogged down in the past. In the Middle East, one of the biggest telecoms markets - Iraq - is still waiting for 3G licences to be issued. The country needs mobile broadband, not only for people’s convenience, but also to aid economic development. Let’s hope 3G arrives soon.

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