Barcelona bunfight between mobile operator CEOs turns out to be a bit under-baked

It is said that the alignment of the planets over the Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza happens just once every 2737 years. But then, as if to demonstrate that the Age of Miracles has not passed, another and almost equally rare event took place this very week in Barcelona when five men who, between them, lead mighty companies that provide mobile telephony services to more than a couple of billion people appeared together on stage at Mobile World Congress 2013 without getting up close and personal or busting one another's chops - or Cheops come to that.

To all intents and purposes it was like the Age of Aquarius all over again with the CEOs of AT&T, China Mobile, Telecom Italia, Telefonica and Vodafone all lined-up in front of a big audience of the media, analysts and conference delegates as if they are all the best of chums who regularly drop in on on another to borrow a bit of bandwidth and bitch about regulators.

Indeed, so cosy was it that the audience wouldn't have been at all surprised if five guys named Randall, Yue, Franco, Cesar and Vittorio had suddenly burst in to a chorus of "Let the sunshine in". (They didn't, by the way, but it would have injected a bit of much-needed life into an otherwise surprisingly flat meeting had they done so).

However, and as we all know, these people are not best pals at all. They live in intense rivalry with one another and fight continuing wars of attrition across international borders as they pursue the ultimate goal of the destruction of their competitors companies and global, or at least regional, hegemony for their own.

At the meeting, the strain attendant on them simply being there all together in public, in the same place in the same time and under the same spotlight was sporadically evident. The presentation was stage-managed to within an inch of its constrained life and it showed in the stitched-on smiles and spurious bonhomie that was about as impulsive as a spontaneous demonstration by the Dagenham Girl Pipers Band in Pyongyang on a wet winter Wednesday.

You might have hoped that such an unusual, not to say peculiar, joint appearance would result in an informative, entertaining and robust exchange of views between some of the most powerful individuals in the global comms industry - but you would have been wrong.

This one was not the gut-grabber it should have been and consisted in the main of five men of a certain age and position in life reminiscing about the changes they have seen and have had to put up with since they were lads, and how expensive, difficult and and time-consuming it is to deploy, maintain and manage a mobile comms network. In other words, it was the same old song sung to an ever-so-slightly different tune.

The most vociferous and heartfelt complaint from the CEOs was that the global industry in general, and their company's in particular, must put up wiith over-regulation and being forced, time-after-time, to stump-up lots of a cash to their governments to buy or, even worse, rent, the very spectrum they must have to do business in the first place.

The Famous Five also complained that their respective markets all suffer from "too much competition." How different it was from the old refrain that topped the pop charts from the 1980s to the Noughties. The chorus of that global hit went something like this" "Competition is great. Competition is Fine. We love it. We embrace it. We want more. It keeps us lean, mean and eager to please. Bring it on."

Ah, but that was then and this is now and as margins start to slip and OTT players eat more and more from the operator's tables while subscriber consumption of data goes through the roof, mobile operators are increasingly worried, if not yet quite in full panic mode.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the whole performance was that the CEOs did not take questions from the audience. Why that should be was not made clear and caused more than a few raised eyebrows.

Perhaps the massed phalanxes of pushy minders, who now surround most industry CEOs like over-fed flies buzzing about a particularly juicy jam pot, were to blame, but surely the point is that any CEO worth his or her salt should be able routinely to cope with a few pointed queries and curve ball questions from people who know what they are talking about. But no, we get to listen to and applaud the agenda but not to question it. That self-ordained determination to fish for plaudits but sidetepping criticism makes the CEO's look remote and unable to stand on their own two feet in any situation other than when they are being deferred to (as they usually are), and, in the final analysis, it does the industry no good.

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