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Issue of January 2003 
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ITU Telecom Asia 2002: Spotting trends in communications

Sandeep Ajgaonkar / Hong Kong

ITU Telecom Asia 2002 was a premier showcase for new products, technologies, and services in the area of communications. With Asia-Pacific emerging as one of the worlds leading telecommunications markets, both in terms of growing subscriber base as well as newer technology deployment, this year's event (held in Honk Kong between 2-7 December 2002) was especially significant.

The event was a launching pad for an exciting slew of new products. This year's spotlight was on transport and network management, broadband, IP and next-generation wireless.

In the areas of IP and next-generation networking, vendors such as Metalink, Cisco and Comtec were demonstrating technologies that would allow service providers to roll out multiple services including the usual voice, video and data over the same network.
Industry heavyweights like IBM, Sun, etc were demonstrating new equipment and deployment models that would enable telecom service providers to quickly develop, deploy and integrate new revenue-generating services.

Everyone seemed to be interested in the much-hyped, next-generation wireless technologies. Vendors like Agilent were demonstrating tools for implementing and managing 2.5/3G cellular networks, which the company claimed would allow service providers to roll out services based on these technologies as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. NTT DoCoMo was demonstrating FOMA 3G (Freedom of Multimedia Access) solutions, while Ericsson was showcasing some of its latest next-generation handsets.

ITU Telecom Asia 2002 also had discussion forums on issues ranging from 'Bridging the digital divide' to 'Defining the future of telecommunications and networking.' Here are the highlights for some of these areas.

A new kind of 'Digital Divide'
Digital Divide has been a fashionable topic among the digiterati over the last decade. There have been many seminars with themes on helping developing or third-world nations bridge this gap. Telecommunications plays a crucial role in bridging this divide.

Telecommunications has made remarkable progress over the last decade in many parts of Asia. The ITU Asia-Pacific Telecommuni-cation Indicators 2002 report says that the epicenter of the telecom industry is shifting from North America and Europe to the Asia-Pacific. A case in point: About a decade ago Asia accounted for only 22 percent of the world's telecom subscribers, compared to 36 percent in Europe. Now it has 36 percent of the subscriber base (both fixed and mobile)—a number larger than both US and Europe. The cost of basic telephony has also come down fourfold over this period.

ITU believes that the gap between digital haves and have-nots has narrowed significantly. However, the rapid change in telecom technology itself is creating a new kind of divide. As ITU Secretary-General Yoshio Utsumi puts it: A new king of digital divide based on the usage of more sophisticated, advanced telecommunication technologies—that include broadband, WLANs, PDAs and other new information and telecommunication technologies are emerging.

In short, it is the very nature or 'definition of the divide' that is undergoing a transformation.

So while developing countries are still in the process of implementing basic telephony services, advanced countries are focused on rolling out wireline and wireless broadband services.

As per the ITU Asia-Pacific Telecommunication Indicators 2002 report, broadband can provide critical services such as health and education to overcome the limitations of existing human and physical infrastructure, something that is and will continue to be a limiting factor for basic voice infrastructure.

The Government's role
Telecommunications plays an important role in socio-economic development of any country. That explains why telecom is as much driven by government policies in a particular country as it is by technology or costs. The government usually sets the broad telecom objectives and ensures standards compatibility. In the wireless space, the government plays the crucial role of spectrum allocation.

Unfortunately, in many cases the government also considers the national carrier (telecommunications overall) from purely monetary perspectives rather than as a driver for socio-economic development. This results in either unreasonably high tariffs or licensing fees or still worst, blocking new or disruptive technologies to protect state-owned telecom monopolies. An example being VoIP.
VoIP allows consumers to make cheap long-distance calls. Yet, in many countries (India to an extent as well), VoIP usage is still restrictive in many ways. This puts it out of reach of the common man who is still forced to pay substantially high for national and international long-distance calls.

Technology by itself cannot solve all problems of development, but it can help significantly. Governments need to understand this and identify new opportunities where telecom can promote community-building and economic progress.

Government should act as a facilitator for the growth of telecommunications—either wired or wireless—rather than treating their national carriers as pure cash cows.

The future is IP
ITU was also an occasion to seek some pointers towards the future of telecommunications.

And if ITU and vendors like Cisco are to be believed, the future of telecommunications lies in IP, the very standard that popularized enterprise networking.

The ITU Asia-Pacific Telecommunication Indicators 2002 states that, while five years ago the focus might have been on telephone lines and international voice traffic, the emphasis has shifted to Internet, mobile communications, and high-speed broadband networks. Future networks will be IP-based and it's only a matter of time before circuit-switched networks disappear.

This is further seconded by a (Cisco-commissioned) AC Nielsen survey of 276 IT decision makers in enterprise and government organizations across Asia-Pacific. As per the survey, 60 percent of the respondents have plans to adopt managed IP solutions such as workforce optimization and customer care. This represents a huge potential market for traditional telecom service providers who can provide value-added managed IP services to corporate customers.

The survey also highlighted an interesting trend in the enterprise space: It found out that 50 percent of all enterprise users plan to adopt Internet business solutions like IP telephony and IP VPNs in the next 24 months. The key drivers for adoption of IP in the enterprise are: Increased functionality (55 percent), improved time-to-market (53 percent) and cost savings (46 percent).

Tele-research fact sheet

ITU Telecom Asia 2002 was the occasion for presentation of many research reports and surveys, the most important among them being ITU Asia-Pacific Telecommunication Indicators 2002. The report shows some interesting trends in the areas of telecom penetration, broadband access and mobile voice and Internet. Here are a few interesting snippets from the report:

  • Mobile all the way
    Mobile users have outstripped fixed-line customers in 23 Asian countries. The Asia-Pacific region is poised to overtake Europe as the world's largest market during 2002, although mobile penetration is less than 10 percent. Two of the top three mobile economies worldwide (measured by mobile phones per capital) are from this region. They are Taiwan and Hong Kong.
  • Mobile Internet
    The region also has the largest number of mobile Internet users namely in Japan and Korea.
  • Increased Net usage
    The notion that restriction on content would hinder Internet usage in Asia has been proved wrong. With 160 million users, the region now accounts for one-third of the total Internet users in the world. This has been primarily due to innovative schemes for community access, online gaming, and
    e-governance.
  • Broadband access
    Asia-Pacific leads the world in broadband Internet with five Asian economies among the top 12 worldwide in terms of penetration. Capacity on Internet bandwidth has increased eight-fold over the last 2 years from 8 Gbps to 65 Gbps.
 
     
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