IT must invest its way out of crisis, say leaders

At Cebit trade show, dignitaries and leaders urge investment in schools, broadband access, and high-tech training

The surest way out of an economic crisis is to invest -- that was the unanimous view of the dignitaries speaking at the opening ceremony of the Cebit trade show in Hanover, Germany, Monday night.

The signs of the current crisis are everywhere and should not be ignored: "Cebit this year is smaller than last year," said Hanover mayor Stephan Weil, the first speaker. "We shouldn't whitewash the situation."

[ For more from this year's Cebit, see "Vendors see future in iPhone business applications" | Learn more about how the financial crisis is affecting IT and the high-tech industry, plus what IT can do to help, in InfoWorld's special report. ]

But in what to invest?

"We need to invest in 21st-century knowledge skills and in innovation," said Intel chairman Craig Barrett, another of the speakers. Intel's home state, California, is the guest of honor at this year's show, a role that in recent years has been played by countries such as France, India, or Russia.

Investing in education is something that Germany is already doing with a recently voted economic stimulus package -- although it's not doing enough for everyone's taste.

"We would welcome an expanded stimulus package. Our schools need more than a new coat of paint: They also need fast Internet access, laptops, and educational software," said August-Wilhelm Scheer, president of Bitkom, the German Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media.

To that shopping list Barrett might have added investment in staff selection and training: "The most important part of education is good teachers," he said. "But giving good teachers the right IT tools can make education exceptional."

German chancellor Angela Merkel was categoric. For German IT companies, "Investment in this Cebit is the right investment," she said.

Her government wants to develop broadband Internet access and has set some ambitious targets: that Internet access at 1Mbps should be available to everyone in Germany next year, and by 2015 connections at 50Mbps should be available to 75 percent of the population.

The government won't be footing the bill for building those connections. "Broadband links are created by private enterprises, but it's up to the state to stimulate that," Merkel said.

Businesses may soon be able to play their part. After years of battling with German regulatory authorities over opening its VDSL (Very high-speed Digital Subscriber Line) access network to competitors, Deutsche Telekom announced at Cebit on Monday that it will sell the service wholesale to other telecommunications operators in a bid to raise the funds necessary to complete its network rollout.

With only 4,300 exhibitors this year, the show is the smallest it's been in years. But the line waiting to get into the opening ceremony seemed longer than ever. The attraction? Former Mr. Universe and now governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The companies exhibiting at Cebit to find new business, rather than complaining about the state of the economy, are winners, not whiners, he said.

Schwarzenegger echoed previous speakers' praise for California's economic drive and entrepreneurial culture.

"California is not just another state, we're more like a nation state. We are the eighth-largest economy and the innovation capital of the world," he said.

Although Schwarzenegger found riches and fame in California, that's not where his winning streak began, he said.

It was on a previous visit to Germany that the foundations of his success were built, he said. At age 19, he moved from his native Austria to Munich in Southern Germany to help manage a friend's gymnasium. "It was there that I learned the discipline and work ethic that still drives me today," he said.

His current trip won't be his last, he said, concluding his speech with the famous phrase from his film, "The Terminator": "I'll be back."

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