Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao claimed 5G could help to renew the relationship between citizens and society in the face of rising populism, as his counterpart at Telefónica hailed the “unprecedented speed and reach” of other new technologies.
Promising a different kind of opening keynote to normal on the opening day of Mobile World Congress, Colao said that he wanted to deal with the “how” component of the conference’s broad theme of “creating a better future”.
In particular, he highlighted a recent comment by EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who blamed rising populism on the “unhappiness and anger of citizens who believe they are not getting enough from the societies they live in”.
Colao also mentioned "growing concern over jobs and the role of humans" amid growing talk of AI and a fear that this could “increase inequality and decrease social cohesion”, in an echo of similar comments made by Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri yesterday (25 February).
But according to Colao, 5G could provide an opportunity to improve the deal that society gives to its citizens.
He cited Vodafone’s 5G trials in Milan, where it has invested €10 million to support start-ups, as a potential model of how this future could work.
The initiative has already generated pilots including connected ambulances, traffic management and drones for aerial security, the CEO said.
He added that he did not want a “slow self-managed innovation but a strongly locally managed innovation project close to where citizens can see the benefits of what we are working on”.
Telefónica CEO José María Álvarez-Pallete López is also a believer in the good side of new technology, saying the likes of AI are “helping to disseminate knowledge at unprecedented speed and reach”.
The Spain-based operator announced yesterday (26 February) that it was rolling out its Aura digital assistant, which is based on cognitive intelligence, to six markets.
He added: “Far from decelerating, we should expect further technological disruption across every industry to be one of the trends determining our future.”
But neither CEO is offering the benefits of technology for nothing, and they slipped back into the usual mantra of telecoms execs in Barcelona by criticising regulators.
Colao called for more affordable spectrum with longer licences to incentivise investment and for equality of regulation with OTT providers.
He said Facebook, “the biggest telco in the world”, did not share the obligations telcos have in terms of cooperating with authorities or providing interconnection to their assets.
"We need to stop thinking of technology as a creator of problems and as a real solution,” he said, adding that telcos should not be treated as a “cash machine”.
For his part, Álvarez-Pallete said: “This industry makes huge investments every year and employs millions of professionals.
“That requires recognition from policy-makers and regulators.”
He also called for a “complete revision of norms that have accompanied us in the analogue world”.
Both operators work with Facebook on the social network's Telecoms Infra Project.