Telecom Asia, a biennial event organised by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), returns to Hong Kong this week with less pomp than before, but with a greater commitment to push basic communications services to more people across the region. ITU, a United Nations agency responsible for developing telecom policies and global standards worldwide, expects industry representatives and government regulators to exchange views and create partnerships that will help boost infrastructure development in areas where they are most needed. ITU secretary-general Yoshio Utsumi says: 'There is much work to be done. Access to telecommunications services, let alone modern telecommunications services, is still far from universal in Asia.' He notes, however, that news from the region is encouraging. Fixed-line services are projected to show steady growth during the next five years, even with the lingering economic slowdown. Research firm Gartner's Dataquest unit has forecast fixed-line telecom services revenues in the Asia-Pacific, excluding Japan, to post a modest 1.8 per cent gain this year to reach US$111.6 billion after last year's 4.5 per cent dip. It says the industry will continue to experience single-digit growth rates up to 2006, when the regional market is projected to total US$136.8 billion. The mainland's telecom market is expected to hit US$27 billion in 2006, based on annual revenue growth of 7.9 per cent since last year. At that rate, it will account for almost 20 per cent of the total Asia-Pacific market within four years. Multinational consultancy Frost & Sullivan also notes that telecom service providers in the region have not been threatened by the chaos that hit other markets, where a number of major telecom companies have filed for bankruptcy. 'Unlike their European and American counterparts, telecommunications companies in Asia have been risk-averse. Cautiousness has been the call of the hour and this has paid off well, as Asian carriers have emerged as some of the most profitable companies worldwide,' Frost & Sullivan director of technology practice Manoj Menon says. The region's main growth engine is supposed to be in the data communications business, which includes broadband Internet access and virtual private networking. The developing markets of China, India and Southeast Asia are expected to lead the regional expansion of these services. According to the ITU, the combination of wireless communications and Internet technologies, such as short message service (SMS) and NTT DoCoMo's i-mode service in Japan, will further transform the way people interact and the way businesses operate in Asia in the next several years. 'At Telecom Asia 2002, it will be the job of policy-makers as well as major players from the industry to ensure that this progress is enhanced and that further development brings telecommunications services within reach of all the region's people,' Mr Utsumi says. The five-day event, held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, includes an international telecoms exhibition, a telecom conference with speakers from the industry, and a youth forum for a select group of university students from the region. The third Global Symposium for Regulators, hosted by the SAR government's Office of the Telecommunications Authority (Ofta), will be held right after Telecom Asia, on December 7 and 8 at the same venue. This symposium is expected to draw more than 200 of the world's telecom regulators, including Minister of Information Industry Wu Jichuan and Masanobu Suzuki, the president and chief executive of NTT Communications in Japan. Mr Utsumi says this year's Telecom Asia also marked the 25th industry event organised by the ITU since the first global forum was held in Geneva in 1971. The regional ITU events, which include forums for the Americas, Asia-Pacific and Africa, were introduced in 1985 to address the more specific concerns of individual regions. Since then, they have grown in size and prestige and have become the most respected and authoritative of such events in the world. SAR officials, however, recently admitted that the number of exhibitors at Telecom Asia in Hong Kong this year had decreased sharply, to 305 from 500 two years ago. Ofta secretary-general Anthony Wong Sik-kei says Hong Kong and mainland firms would make up for the fewer Western companies expected to attend. The economic downturn is blamed for the smaller contingent of United States-based companies taking part in this year's Telecom Asia, whose theme is 'Asia Leading Change'. Unfazed by this situation, Mr Wong says: '[Hosting Telecom Asia again] re-affirms Hong Kong's strategic position as the telecommunications, broadcasting and Internet hub for the Asia-Pacific'. He points out telecoms-related organisations from 11 countries have booked space in the 16,000 square-metre area at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. About 100 companies from Hong Kong and the mainland, up from 70 two years ago, will take part in the exhibition and forum sessions. They include data services operator China Netcom, wireless operator China Unicom and China Telecom , the country's dominant fixed-line network operator. Telecom Asia, was held in Hong Kong two years ago and acclaimed as the biggest industry event yet organised by the ITU. Prior to ITU Asia 2000 in Hong Kong there were events in Singapore - in 1985, 1989, 1993 and 1997. The 2000 event attracted more than 50,000 participants, 500 exhibitors, 679 VIP guests and 810 journalists in an exhibition space totalling almost 28,000 square metres. Mr Wong does not want to estimate how many participants will turn up at the five-day forum sessions this week. Two years ago, 1,193 people attended. The focus of this year's forum sessions is on universal service, investment and business prospects, policy and regulatory issues, and new technologies and their applications. The spotlight on universal access is expected to emphasise points made by the ITU at the recent World Summit on Information Society in Bucharest last month. At that event, Mr Utsumi stressed that issues concerning information and communications technologies were not yet high on the political agenda of many governments, despite market statistics showing activities based around the creation, processing and dissemination of information account for more than 80 per cent of employment in the developed world.