Q&A: GSMA director general on how to partner with the mobile industry

Mats Granryd, director general at GSMA. Photo by: GSMA

SAN FRANCISCO — High-speed mobile network connectivity may seem far off from many of the contexts where the global development community works — but network operators see it as a reason for more urgency in efforts to reach the last mile.

5G, when combined with technologies such as artificial intelligence, the internet of things, and big data, will have a profound impact on society, said Mats Granryd, director general at GSMA, the trade body for mobile network operators.

“Collaboration between the private sector, the public sector, civil society, and NGOs has never been more important,” he said. “Because the risk is that some countries will leapfrog and go really quickly to something new, while we're leaving a huge amount of people behind, and that is something that we just must avoid.”

“Almost 2.8 billion people that are covered by 3G or 4G … decide not to use the internet.”

— Mats Granryd, director general, GSMA

Devex caught up with Granryd following Mobile World Congress to get his advice for NGOs on partnering with the mobile industry.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

There is certainly interest from the global development community to engage with mobile network operators. What is it they need to understand about the industry in order to partner more effectively?  

We are always local. Sometimes we're regional. But we're never global. The only thing that is global is GSMA. My advice for the NGO community would be to reach out to those operators that are present in the country where you want to be present. Those mobile operators normally have a very long and deep relationship with consumers — obviously, that's our customer base, so we know them very well. We are also highly regulated, and so we know the government very well, and we often have a deep relationship with the ministry of communication, and possibly the finance minister as well, since we pay a lot of taxes.

We are so dependent on the NGO community to guide us. I'm an engineer; I am not a gender specialist or an agriculture specialist. What I am good at is understanding mobile networks. I think you should view us as this massive awesome muscle, this awesome platform, whereby you can build things.

And then in the NGO world, if you’re a health expert or you're into agriculture, you would go to the mobile operator present in that country and ask them about using us as a platform, and we would then gain your expertise in that area.

The beauty of this is that we're not competing. We're actually working the same issue but from different angles. And I think the more we can get that understanding into everyone, the better it will be. 

During Mobile World Congress, UN Women executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka encouraged mobile network operators to consider handset affordability — even giving them away for free. But companies that make up the mobile industry have to answer to shareholders. What are your thoughts on ways to find a balance?

Many people tell me that accessing mobile internet should be like water or like air — it should just be there. That's an easy thing to say. However, it is a complicated piece of technology and there is unfortunately quite a lot of cost related to it.

Giving handsets away is something that we in this industry have been by and large doing. In some countries, you still have handset subsidies when you buy a service. But we are trying to get out of that because it's two different business models.

I think there needs to be a smarter way of doing it. I could possibly see governments investing in handsets, coming up with a scheme where you would tie your handset to a mobile operator but the handset would then be subsidized from the government.

In many countries, the regulator puts an obscene price on spectrum [the radio frequencies the mobile industry uses to deliver services such as mobile broadband]. We are arguing that spectrum needs to be affordable. It is a huge cost for us and it needs to be honestly almost free.

Then the government would be able to enjoy a much larger taxable base in the future. They could say that you get spectrum for free but you need to subsidize handsets. That would be a business model I think operators would be happy to entertain.

Supporters of GSMA include donor agencies from the United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden, and Australia, as well as organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Omidyar Network. What does their support allow you to do?

Normally, this funding is over multiple years, and so it gives us a fairly good runway on launching projects and programs, then of course there is the follow-up, and making sure that we hit our targets.

The worst service we could do is to sort of say that this is a corporate social responsibility activity. For us, having a close relationship with a donor means that they will be able to push us to make sure we agree on measurement and that we actually hit our targets. So I think that rigor in follow-up is good. And I don't mean that CSR doesn't have that. But when I was a CEO of a mobile operator, we sort of used CSR as a sloppy term. And this is by no means that.

We at GSMA have the ability from a neutral perspective to pick and choose the best team to achieve something. Normally, it is one or maybe two different mobile operators that normally have difficulty in cooperating because they are so deep in competition in that local market. But if we come in, we are the neutral body and they can sort of put down their weapons and work with us, with the donor, and with a third or fourth party that develops a solution together with the mobile operators.

One of the things these donors support is your Ecosystem Accelerator, which supports startups across Africa and Asia-Pacific. What role do local entrepreneurs play in the future of mobile for development?

We just passed 50 percent of the world's population that is on the internet. And internet access is through a mobile device by and large. But we still have 50 percent of the world's population to cover.

Now we know that less than a billion of that 3.6 billion, 850 million or thereabouts, are not covered by any mobile broadband network. But it's only 850 million. So we need to build up more networks, and that's a challenge in its own right. But you then have almost 2.8 billion people that are covered by 3G or 4G but they decide not to use the internet.

Why are they not accessing it? One is skills, the second is affordability, and then you have security and other related issues. But the fourth and the biggest is, you know, "I have skills, I have money, I feel okay to access it, but there is no relevant content there for me." Maybe there is nothing in my local language or there is nothing that appeals to me.

I think the way to change that is to have local entrepreneurs coming up with smart ideas solving the local problem in a local context — not in Europe, not in the U.S., where 75 percent of all mobile apps are being built. No, they should be built in Africa, in South Asia, in India, where the real consumers are — where the ones who are not linked to the Internet yet, the future customers, are.

About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.