Next steps for wholesale industry leaders
The ITW Global Leaders’ Forum has a new director, Annabel Helm, and Alan Burkitt-Gray asks her what’s next for this network of the industry’s senior leaders
The events division at Capacity began 2022 with a successful live event, Metro Connect, in Miami. This will be followed by International Telecoms Week (ITW) in May. But it is Capacity Middle East in March when the board members of the Global Leaders’ Forum (GLF), the wholesale industry’s leadership group, will gather in person for the first time in more than two years, and will meet the GLF’s new director, Annabel Helm.
Helm joined Capacity Media, which manages the GLF, in January, after Jussi Mäkelä moved on from the role after almost five years.
Helm is familiar with the wholesale telecoms industry. A decade ago, she spent three years with Capacity’s conferences operations as a producer on events ranging from Metro Connect in Miami to Capacity Africa in Dar es Salaam and took care of the conference content for ITW.
“Wholesale has a dynamic that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the telecoms industry,” Helm says. Describing it as an industry made of “friends, suppliers and competitors”, she says wholesale is “an ecosystem I’d like to protect”.
In 2014, Helm moved to the GSMA, the mobile industry’s trade association, where she ran its Mobile 360 conferences – smaller events than its mammoth Mobile World Congress that overwhelms Barcelona, Shanghai and Los Angeles each year. Part of her brief at the GSMA was to become involved in members’ policy objectives, an activity that was “really baked in to what we were doing”, she recalls.
This policy angle was an attraction when the offer to direct the GLF came. Despite this, returning to Capacity was not an easy decision. “I wasn’t looking to leave [the GSMA],” she says. “It was difficult to leave. I’d built up my own role.”
It is unarguable that the strength and resilience of the world’s carriers carried us through the pandemic. When many of us had to stay inside and stay apart, despite their network infrastructure not being designed to handle video calls all day long from our homes, carriers enabled us to keep working and keep our families together. Helm acknowledges these efforts. She says that over the past few years GLF members, who represent most of the leading wholesale carriers, “have been working on some incredible initiatives, from implementing industry codes of conduct to fight fraud and ensure quality of service of international IoT traffic, to some incredible thought-leadership on diversity, belonging and inclusion”.
But now she wants the GLF’s members “to identify what’s coming from an industry perspective – to talk more about the future”. So since becoming the director of the GLF, she has talked with most of the board’s members – probably all of them, by the time you read this – about beginning “a full strategy review” in time for when the GLF meets at ITW in May.
“The industry has stepped up to make a difference,” and carriers have maintained this resilience, which “should stay top of mind” as we emerge from the pandemic, she says, speaking in person in Capacity’s offices.
But, she adds, there are still issues carriers must maintain awareness of. “The race to net zero is one of them,” she says. And she also warns that the industry faces a skills problem, as a “retirement cliff is coming” and it is becoming harder for companies to recruit new staff.
“A lot of science and technology departments at universities don’t even talk about telecoms. We’re fuelling the global economy – and no one knows about us,” she says.
The GLF and ITW have deep connections. In early 2008, the industry’s major wholesale carriers, dissatisfied with their annual gathering, approached Capacity’s then owners to see if something better could be organised. Thanks to a huge effort by Capacity’s team, the first ITW took place that June, in the Washington Hilton. This year’s event will be the 15th ITW, including virtual and blended events.
Back then, the industry was already changing, which Helm recognised when she was first with Capacity. “Years ago, I brought Facebook’s infrastructure operation to ITW. I said that we need to listen to what they are saying,” she says.
Under Mäkelä, GLF introduced a category of membership called ‘GLF Community’ that reached wider than the familiar giant wholesale carriers. Helm wants to build on this during 2022, just as she once reached out to Facebook.
“There are nearly 60 organisations in the GLF Community today. By the end of the year, I hope to have 100. That gives us a real opportunity in terms of bringing organisations together,” she says.
“We have a lot of traction with data centre operators, tower companies, software and hardware companies. We want to start on getting a true path forward. After ITW, we will have a path.”