INTERVIEW: Michael O’Hara, Mireya Almazan & David Pollington of the GSMA

FindBiometrics is back from a record-breaking Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, presented by GSMA, which set new attendance records for the mobile industry conference. As FindBiometrics readers know, biometrics and identity tech were major topics at this year’s MWC, with some of the year’s biggest fingerprint news and high profile announcements and demonstrations involving GSMA Mobile Connect. Following up on the conference, FindBiometrics President Peter O’Neill spoke with Michael O’Hara, CMO, GSMA Mireya Almazan, Head of Mobile Money, GSMA, and David Pollington, Head of Applications & Services, GSMA—the last of whom  is participating in our upcoming Mobile Biometrics Webinar, scheduled for March 29, 11AM EDT. The following conversation is wide ranging, covering topics such as the conference’s growth in recent years, the most exciting technology showcased at MWC this year, GSMA’s latest report on mobile money, why biometrics will continue to take over the conference in coming years, what to expect at the inaugural Mobile World Congress Americas, and much more.

Read the full interview bellow.


INTERVIEW: Michael O’Hara, Mireya Almazan & David Pollington of the GSMA

Join GSMA Head of Applications & Services, David Pollington at our upcoming Mobile Biometrics Webinar. Pollington will be joined by Acuity Market Intelligence, Precise Biomerics, Nok Nok Labs, and Aware, Inc. for a critical discussion about mobile biometrics.


Peter O’Neill, President, FindBiometrics (FB): Congratulations on such a successful Mobile World Congress in Barcelona! The official numbers are in: over 108,000 visitors, up 7 percent from last year. What do you think is causing that kind of growth in terms of interest? Do you expect it to be even bigger next year?

Michael O’Hara, CMO, GSMA: That’s a great question. We set our goals in a couple of areas when we thought about how to grow the show and how to make the show relevant. The first thing that we really focused on was how do we get industry leaders there and get them on stage. From my experience attending and exhibiting at trade shows, I always used to look to see who the keynote speakers were to make sure the most relevant people in the industry were up there on the stage. So that is the first pillar for us, making sure we have the most relevant, senior level decision makers and thought leaders in the mobile industry on stage. I think we have been successful in that.

The second thing that we have really focused on over the last few years is broadening the scope of the event. If we think back to last year, we talked about “Mobile Is Everything” and our goal was to reach out to those adjacent industries impacted by mobile and get those leaders and companies engaged in Mobile World Congress. It started with internet companies probably four or five years ago, the Googles and the Facebooks, and now it has expanded through the auto companies, the health companies, the financial companies. We bring all of those groups together at Mobile World Congress.

Putting that all together creates this big melting pot, a place where people come to do business. I don’t think people come to Congress to look and kick the tires, I think people come there to meet senior leaders from the broad ecosystem and do some business. That is why it is successful.

Can it keep growing? I hope so. I think the focus for us will be on maintaining that model, continuing to get the right people there.

FB: You know it is interesting Michael, I have personally experienced that kind of growth as the biometric and identity industry seems to be gathering momentum at MWC. This is my third year attending the show and I am seeing more and more identity and biometrics players there.

Mobile World Congress is continuing to expand too. This September will mark the first ever MWC Americas. What can you tell us about that show? What prompted the move to bring your conference across the Atlantic? How will it be different from your Barcelona and Shanghai shows?

Michael O’Hara, CMO, GSMA: Obviously, we are excited. We call it the third leg, if you will. We started in Barcelona, as the big event, and we have been developing more of a consumer-focused event in Shanghai. Then the opportunity came up to work with the CTIA, where they were interested in a partner. They obviously like what we do and understand what we do, and we actually work really well together as two associations. GSMA doesn’t lobby in Washington, but we share our positions with the CTIA on key topics, and CTIA don’t lobby outside of Washington but they share with us their positions. We came to an agreement as to how we would run the show together, with the GSMA leading on the event but with CTIA specifically involved in the policy discussions and on the stage there.

What will it look like? First and foremost, we have moved to San Francisco. We are very keen to move out of Las Vegas and move it over to the Valley area, the very heart of mobile innovation. Focus areas will be of course include 5G, and I expect North America to be in a leadership role there. It will be a smaller event, around 30,000 people. So we will create a little bit of an identity, get people excited, and then see how we can grow that event moving forward.

I believe North America needs that type of a show. It’s important for a region that has such a leadership position in mobile. We are excited. The response has been amazing.

FB: I’m certainly looking forward to attending Innovation City in North America. It should be a wonderful show and good luck bringing it to the market.  

The theme of this year’s Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress was The Next Element. What were some of the big talks and technologies at this year’s show that you think best encapsulated that theme? What, in your opinion, was the most exciting technology you saw at this year’s show? What did you see this year that made you excited for the future? Why?

Michael O’Hara, CMO, GSMA: It’s a big question. The idea of the theme really was that mobile is elemental and everything in our lives. It has become part of every tool, every new innovation and every emerging idea. As you walk around and take a look at things at the show that was very clear. Things that really caught my attention this year were the moves toward virtual reality experiences. KT CORPORATION did a virtual reality luge ride, a really fun experience, but the thing that I find particularly interesting there was their plan for the Winter Olympics. They will fit cameras to every athlete, and enable viewers to take part in the Winter Olympics virtually with their favorite competitor. That is the kind of thing that is interesting about virtual reality, the ability to put you right in the heart of the action.

There were simpler applications of mobile being elemental as well, like embedding mobile technology in ski jackets so you can track skiers. We also had a connected seals demo, using mobile technology to monitor seal conservation efforts and ultimately using that kind of technology to measure climate change.

We saw great innovation at AT&T’s stand, where they had a pair of glasses for blind people with call assistance. You hit a button on the glasses and you are connected to a call center, and the call center person can see what is in front of you and direct you through an ear piece. I felt that was a really nice innovation.

Probably the big “wow” moment for me is that I had the joy of moderating a keynote session when these robotic race cars were announced. It is an interesting idea – we were debating whether, without personalities, could this ever become a global viewing phenomenon. But I certainly believe that this type of technology will help the driverless car market move forward with testing on the racetrack. I’m a big car guy and I really enjoy being part of that.

FB: I’m a big car guy too and automotive at this year’s show was huge. There were so many exhibit stands that had a car in front. One of the things that I really liked was the opening keynote with Masayoshi Son, CEO, Softbank talking about singularity and it kicked off the whole week for me, because everybody was talking about singularity and what that means and how fast it is coming. It was very exciting so congrats on that.

GSMA released a number of reports at MWC. One that really caught my eye was the State of the Industry Report on Mobile Money, specifically focusing on topics of financial inclusion in emerging markets like Kenya. Can you tell me a little about that report? What sort of programs and initiatives is GSMA taking part in that address financial inclusion?

Mireya Almazan, Head of Mobile Money at the GSMA: While mobile money has been around since 2001, when the first service launched in the Philippines, 2007 was a watershed moment for the industry. The launch of M-Pesa in Kenya that year and the lightning pace of customer adoption demonstrated the power of mobile money to reach the underserved. The special edition of our State of the Industry Report on Mobile Money reflects on industry accomplishments over the past decade, and turns an eye to the many ways that mobile money promises to improve people’s lives in the years ahead.

 Key findings from our report include:

  • There 277 mobile money services in the world, spread over 92 countries, covering two-thirds of low- and middle-income countries
  • There are more than half a billion registered mobile money accounts globally, of which 174 million are active on a 90-day basis
  • 35 deployments have more than one million active accounts, indicating a greater ability to become profitable
  • More than 40% of the adult population in eight countries are actively using mobile money—an increase from just two countries in 2015
  • The industry processed 1.3 billion transactions in December 2016—more than 43 million transactions per day, or 30,000 transactions per minute
  • Collectively, the top mobile money providers generated more than US$ 1 billion in revenues in 2016
  • Mobile money contributes to 11 of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, including by reducing poverty and giving people tools they can use to better manage their lives

Download the full report here, and the executive summary here. We also partnered with the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advocate for Financial Inclusion, Her Majesty Queen Maxima, to produce a video on the power of mobile money, based on findings from our report.

The GSMA Mobile Money Programme works with mobile operators and industry stakeholders to create a robust mobile money ecosystem, which can sustainably reach the underserved. We do this through close engagement with mobile money providers, providing them with tools and insights to help these services scale, as well as supporting the creation of enabling policy and regulatory environments for mobile money to flourish.  

 The programme also promotes collaborative action amongst industry stakeholders to strengthen responsible business practices (e.g. mobile money Code of Conduct initiative), unlock innovation and growth (e.g. API harmonisation initiative), and expand cross-border mobile money transfers for international remittances. The programme is supported by GSMA members, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the MasterCard Foundation and the Omidyar Network.

FB: I’ve been coming to Mobile World Congress for a few years now and every year biometric technology is becoming more prominent, why do you think biometrics has found such a strong platform at Mobile World Congress and do you expect biometrics to grow in the coming years?

David Pollington, Head of Applications & Services, GSMA: Absolutely. It all comes down to the trade-off between security and convenience. We all know from the consumers’ perspective that we need something that is easy to use, but we need to move away from the username and password paradigm. The average user now has something like 50 if not 100 different websites that they need to authenticate themselves to, so having separate passwords is just too onerous for the user. The use of a biometrics is a very simple and easy way for them to authenticate. We are seeing an expansion – there was a lot of interest over the past few years around fingerprint sensors, but now we are seeing facial recognition become one of the interesting areas that everyone is pursuing.

FB: It really felt like this was an integral year for taking some foundational steps toward the 5G future. But commercial 5G networks are only a few years away and that promises to really change the way the world thinks about mobility. How do you see Mobile World Congress changing as connectivity evolves into this new and exciting paradigm?

Michael O’Hara, CMO, GSMA: That’s a great question. We talked a little bit up front about what makes Mobile World Congress successful, and as we can maintain that level of dialogue, that level of government interest, of leader interest, then it will continue to be an exciting event. As we move towards 5G we’ll see more and more compelling applications, more and more interest from auto companies, more and more interest from industry as they move through the 4th industrial revolution, more interest from health companies, more interest from the brands generally who must have a mobile strategy if they are going to survive. So, for me it is just the next logical step. It’s more band width and less latency, which opens up exciting applications for more industries. What an exciting industry to be part of.

FB: I couldn’t agree more and thank you again very much for taking the time to speak with us today. I look forward to seeing you at Mobile World Congress Americas in September.

Michael O’Hara, CMO, GSMA: My pleasure Peter, let’s meet up there. Thank you.