DIGITAL XCHANGE

GSMA M360: How Eurasian Mobile Operators Embrace AI And Sustainability

Chief Regulatory Officer and President of the Mobile for Development Foundation at GSMA.
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Eurasia stands at the precipice of a digital transformation, with mobile operators leading the charge towards 5G deployment while embracing the potential of artificial intelligence. As 5G gains momentum across the region, operators are balanced to drive significant economic growth, but challenges persist in bridging the digital divide and ensuring sustainable development. In this landscape, partnerships, policy reforms, and environmental initiatives are shaping the trajectory of Eurasia’s mobile industry, heralding a future defined by connectivity, innovation, and sustainability. JOHN GIUSTI elaborates on M360 Eurasia and its impact.

MOBILE WORLD LIVE: Where does Eurasia stand in the journey towards 5G? What impact will 5G technology bring to the region?

JOHN GIUSTI : The early stages of 5G development are underway in Eurasia, with 4 markets having introduced commercial 5G services.

For the near term, operators are prioritising increased consumer adoption of 4G by expanding capacity in urban areas and extending coverage to underserved regions. As such, we expect to see 4G uptake continue across Eurasia in the coming years, rising from 69 per cent of total mobile connections in 2023 to reach 81 per cent by 2025.

These developments will pave the way for 5G momentum across the region in the coming years, and we expect to see 5G adoption reach 41 per cent by 2030. As 5G achieves scale and widespread adoption, the economic benefits of the technology will begin to materialise and, in 2030, 5G will add almost $23 billion to the Eurasian economy.

Realising the benefits of 5G will require significant investments in infrastructure, with operators projected to invest $32bn in Capex by the end of the decade to keep up with demands. It will therefore be crucial for operators across the region to partner and find innovative ways to drive growth and close the investment gap in the coming years.

MWL: What is the current state of mobile connectivity in Eurasia?

JG: The mobile industry plays a prominent role in bridging the digital divide by connecting communities, including in rural and difficult-to-reach areas. Over 191 million people in Eurasia are currently covered by mobile networks, representing 78 per cent of the population, and this figure is set to reach 200 million by 2030.

However, the adoption of mobile internet services has not kept pace with the expansion of network coverage, and there is a significant usage gap in Eurasia where 63 million people remain unconnected despite living in an area covered by mobile broadband networks. The usage gap is widest in Turkmenistan (51 per cent) and Tajikistan (48 per cent), compared to a global average of 37 per cent.

Mobile internet is a key enabler of productivity and economic growth, providing access to life-enhancing digital services and creating opportunities to generate revenue. To address this challenge, the mobile ecosystem must work with governments to eliminate affordability barriers, improve digital literacy and skills, and encourage the creation of relevant content in local languages to ensure everybody in the region can safely access and benefit from mobile internet.

MWL: With AI emerging as a key theme for the industry and monetisation being an ongoing pursuit, where do you perceive the opportunities for Eurasian operators?

JG: One of the core focuses of M360 Eurasia will be the role of operators and the mobile industry in forging cross-industry partnerships to prepare for the AI revolution. The emergence of next-generation technologies, such as Generative AI (GenAI) and industry-wide collaboration presents operators with new opportunities to monetise services, improve the customer experience and optimise networks.

Eurasian operators are increasingly exploring genAI use cases that can be implemented in the near term, with the primary applications focused on improving customer services and managing networks. Kazakh operator Beeline, for example, has developed its BeeBERT chatbot that uses genAI to enhance the customer experience to provide tailored, Kazakh-language responses to customer enquiries.

Industry initiatives, such as the GSMA Foundry & IBM AI Challenge, will also play a prominent role in driving further genAI opportunities. The GSMA’s partnership with IBM is designed to support the development of innovative genAI applications for telecoms-specific use cases and to help bridge the AI adoption gap for the mobile ecosystem.

Further opportunities for operators can be found by leveraging industry-wide collaborative initiatives such as the GSMA Open Gateway. The initiative provides a framework of open APIs that helps developers and cloud providers bring new digital services to market quicker, and presents operators with new ways to monetise beyond the traditional approach of selling connectivity services.

The initiative has grown significantly since launching, with 240 mobile networks representing 66 per cent of global mobile connections having joined. In February 2024, Veon announced the launch of the Geolocation Gateway, which uses the Open Gateway Device Location API to enable applications to determine the location of devices.

MWL: What should policymakers consider for growth and innovation in Eurasia?

JG: As operators lay the foundations to roll out 5G in Eurasia, spectrum access will be critical to bridge the digital divide and achieve connectivity goals. With 5G currently available in only four countries, policymakers must prioritise spectrum policy to enhance rural coverage, increase network capacity in urban areas and incentivise network infrastructure investment across the region. Low-band spectrum is crucial for addressing connectivity gaps in less populated regions, while mid-band frequencies like 3.5 GHz are essential for high-speed connectivity, with 6 GHz being pivotal for future growth.

At the same time, tax reforms are necessary to encourage investment in mobile infrastructure and foster economic growth. Reductions in sector-specific charges and corporate taxes can incentivise such investment. In certain markets of Eurasia, the mobile sector faces a high tax burden, often driven by sector-specific charges such as regulatory and spectrum fees. Policymakers must ensure that taxes in the mobile sector are globally competitive, broad-based, stable, and straightforward. This approach facilitates revenue collection without hindering infrastructure investment and long-term sectoral development.

MWL: How have mobile operators in Eurasia been addressing climate change and SDGs?

JG: With COP29 taking place in Baku later this year, the environment and sustainability are both top of mind.

Currently, around two-thirds of the industry by revenue, including Azercell and MTS in Eurasia, have committed to Science Based Targets to reduce carbon emissions. Operators have also begun endorsing GSMA-led targets aimed at enhancing phone take-back programmes and ensuring zero waste.

To reduce emissions and improve energy efficiency, operators are increasingly prioritising the use of renewables. Kazakh operator Beeline, for example, is investing in solar-powered network equipment to expand 4G coverage in remote partes of Kazakhstan and bridge the digital divide; meanwhile, Azercell has powered four base stations with solar energy in Karabakh, Gobustan and Tovuz.

The mobile industry also continues to achieve its impact on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, driven by the increased reach of mobile networks and growing uptake of mobile internet services. In Eurasia, between 2016-2022, the mobile industry had the highest impact on SDG 4: Quality Education, SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation and SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy. Growing adoption of smartphones and mobile internet is also contributing to the mobile industry’s SDG impact.

  • Giusti is Chief Regulatory Officer and President of the Mobile for Development Foundation at GSMA.
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