In the business of connectivity, collaboration is key.

Since its formation in the mid-1990s, the GSM Association (Global System for Communications Association), the mobile industry has had a governing body that has represented mobile operators worldwide.

The GSMA, a not-for-profit organization, was established in 1995 to provide a standard for cellular networks to adopt.

It counts 750 mobile operators as its members, plus over 400 companies in the broader mobile ecosystem are associate members.

If you’re a keen telecoms enthusiast then you’d know who the GSMA are and what they do.

But this body predominantly covers the mobile industry. Is there something similar for the broadband industry?

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A gap in the market

At present there is no such alternative that represents the broadband industry in the same way as the GSMA.

This is something that has long been a frustration for Martin Creaner, a telecoms veteran, who has held positions at BT and Motorola Solutions during his lengthy career spanning back to the eighties.

His career has taken him to many different parts of the tech industry, but he’s landed in broadband, specifically at the World Broadband Association (WBBA).

He’s got experience leading a trade association, doing so as president and CEO of TeleManagement Forum for 12-and-a-half years, which is a global industry association for service providers and their suppliers in the telecommunications industry.

But his project at the WBBA is different, as this is focused specifically on broadband.

Creaner played a key part in launching the WBBA last year, in his efforts to provide leadership for digital broadband to overcome industry challenges that businesses and the industry face.

“It’s an organization that has been set up relatively recently, the first discussions about it were in mid-2021,” Creaner told DCD.

“The WBBA is about creating an open member-led organization that creates a platform to drive broadband cooperation and partnership across the whole industry, and to accelerate broadband adoption everywhere in the world.”

Broadband is a global good and an absolute necessity for everyone, says Creaner.

“If you believe the argument that broadband is a global good, it doesn't matter where you are, whether you're in Birmingham or Botswana. Having broadband improves your life and improves your ability to do business, it improves your access to information, your access to education, your access to health care, it improves the quality of life.”

He wants broadband for everybody, regardless of geographical location, to bridge the divide in the world’s developing countries.

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Creaner wants to create more dialog around broadband and the opportunities and challenges the industry faces – WBBA

Driving conversations to improve broadband

It might sound pretty obvious, but broadband is every bit as important as the use of mobile phones.

While the GSMA has the latter covered, it’s the work that the association has done to build out its message that inspired Creaner to create the WBBA.

The GSMA’s place in the market for mobile made it clear something is missing in the broadband sector.

“There's nothing that really matches the GSMA for the broadband industry and this is what kicked off a number of discussions. For us, it provided us with soul-searching from a whole load of companies and industry bodies. It was essentially concluded that we need to create a business association and an advocacy association for broadband.”

He points out that people - not even just those who have much knowledge of the telecoms industry - understand the concepts of 2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G, largely because of the GSMA, even if it’s not known to them who are the GSMA is.

Creaner wants the WBBA to drive the conversation around fiber services in the same way, driving industry standards where telcos and broadband firms are on the same page, while also educating the mass market.

Open for everyone

So far, some of the telecoms industry’s biggest names have signed up to the association, including network vendors Nokia and Huawei, plus telcos such as Swisscom, China Telecom, and China Unicom.

Membership is open to everyone, says Creaner, though he didn’t disclose a target on how many members the association is looking to onboard.

“The process for membership is that it’s open to any company in the broadband industry, by which we mean that group of stakeholders, ranging from the supply side operators and our traditional suppliers to the demand side, plus those investing in the industry.”

Fiber cables
Driving the transition from copper to fiber – Getty Images

It’s not about the quantity, but instead about representation across the industry, insists Creaner.

“It's not just about the volume of membership during the next few years, it is really about making sure we have got good representation, representing all the different stakeholder groups from all the different parts of the world. Once this begins to fill up we’re going to start seeing a fabulous dynamic start to emerge.”

There is a membership fee that is being structured, which is dependent on the size of the company, he adds, though, for academic institutions and not-for-profits, there’s no membership fee.

While Creaner and those involved at the WBBA will try and hype up the need for an organization to represent the industry, is there a need for such an association?

One such company that has joined as a member is the Internet performance metric analyst firm Ookla.

Speaking to DCD, Sylwia Kechiche, the principal analyst for enterprise at the company says there is.

“In every industry, there is always a trade association or organization that represents it.

The goals of GSMA and WBBA are quite similar,” she said.

“GSMA aims to unlock the full potential of connectivity for the betterment of people, industry, and society.

Meanwhile, WBBA’s mission is to connect the world by providing broadband access to everyone”

“It’s worth noting that other organizations have similar missions to WBBA, so collaboration is key to preventing duplication of efforts.”

It’s for this reason that Ookla has joined the WBBA says Kechiche, acknowledging that without dialog and collaboration, technological advancements in this space won’t happen.

“It’s important to note that simply being connected to the Internet isn’t enough. The quality of the connection is also crucial. That’s why Ookla has joined WBBA to fulfill our mission to measure, understand, and help improve connected experiences.

Some of the biggest challenges the WBBA would have to address include infrastructure limitations, which is why satellite connectivity has become more of an option for remote areas where it’s not possible to place telecom towers or build base stations.

Kechiche says that on top of this, affordability, language barriers, and regulatory challenges are some of the biggest challenges facing the broadband industry.

“To address these challenges, a multi-faceted approach involving multiple stakeholders, including government bodies and private and public sectors, is necessary,” she said.

“Although it may be difficult to measure the direct impact of a governing body, there are other ways in which it can play a role. These include advocating for the industry, providing a forum for sharing knowledge and ideas, stimulating discussions, and bringing together various players. It is important to ensure interoperability, the ability to exchange ideas, and international representation through existing alliances.”

The industry, like others, has had to contend with shortages, in particular around fiber rollouts.

Last summer, reports suggested that fiber providers were struggling to get the materials necessary to run their networks.

A report from business intelligence firm Cru Group noted that the global shortage of fiber cables led to delays and price hikes for the sought-after kit, though DCD spoke to several telcos, who explained that such challenges have since eased.

But it’s these such challenges that can differentiate from country to country, says Creaner.

“So in some places, one of the biggest challenges is overcoming local statutes to rapidly roll out fiber into our rural environments,” he adds.

“In other cases, it's about trying to roll out fiber into an advanced city, while for others it's trying to roll out fiber into impoverished villages in parts of Africa, North America, or Asia. So, there are lots of different challenges in different parts of the world, and we're very focused on trying to understand the nature of those challenges.”

Fiber is mentioned a fair bit in our discussion, with Creaner stating its importance in developing a more energy-efficient industry as a whole, as opposed to the legacy copper network, which is widely being switched off.

“We need to reduce carbon emissions and the telecoms industry is very, very focused at the moment on how do we do our part in reducing our carbon footprint. One of the great ways to do this is to roll out fixed broadband on a large scale, right across the world because broadband, particularly fiber broadband, is much more energy efficient than any of the other technologies by which we can connect.”

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The WBBA takes inspiration from the GSMA – Paul Lipscombe

Leverage his experience

With a lengthy career in the telecoms space, Creaner is keen to leverage his experience in building up the WBBA.

So what can we expect from the WBBA as the association aims to grow its presence? Creaner has identified the importance of industry-wide events, not too dissimilar to the massive Mobile World Congress (MWC).

Referring to the GSMA’s MWC event as a “must-attend” event for the telecoms industry, he aspires to launch something similar for the broadband community.

“It’s an event that everybody goes to, has the best speakers, and is a great place for people and businesses to do business. It’s a hugely valuable thing that the GSMA has created for the mobile industry.

“We’d love to create something similar for the broadband industry and are in the early stages of creating events and have a big event scheduled in Paris in October. Our ambition is that we hope we can create an event that becomes a magnet for the broadband industry to come together.”