Colao and Telefónica Chairman and CEO José María Álvarez-Pallete addressing a packed crowd during a keynote presentation at MWC 2018 in Barcelona (Credit: Andy Szal)

A collection of global telecom executives highlighted how the wireless industry stands to benefit nearly all facets of society at the outset of this year's Mobile World Congress.

The theme of the 2018 show — "creating a better future" — is nearly omnipresent in Barcelona, but industry leaders warned that realizing that vision will take cooperation from companies, governments and society as a whole.

"We have a unique opportunity in the next four to five years," Vodafone Group CEO Vittorio Colao told the audience during the congress' opening keynote.

But Colao also suggested that the increasing prominence of populism in global politics reflected widespread dissatisfaction with how governments and economies function — and warned that companies must address those concerns or risk delaying or compromising next-generation technologies.

He said tech and telecom leaders must ensure that 5G networks offer "a better deal for our citizens."

"There is a growing concern ... about the impact of technologies, particularly machine learning," Colao said.

He pointed to ongoing 5G trials in Milan with dozens of partner companies as a model of how next-generation systems could benefit societies, and called for an environment of long-lasting spectrum, private investment and neutrality from public subsidies.

Kazuhiro Yoshizawa, the president and CEO of Japanese carrier NTT Docomo, also lauded the partnerships formed between his company and others in Japan as a path to creating new value in the wireless industry.

The company is currently testing 5G systems that allows remote workers to pilot unmanned Komatsu construction equipment, enable remote diagnosis of medical conditions and facilitate "vehicle-to-everything" connections.

Those projects come as Japan pushes to deploy 5G-capable networks and devices in time for the nation to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.

"The network and services will have to be launched simultaneously," Yoshizawa said.

Colao also praised the importance of privacy protection and free internet principles, and suggested that the industry affirmed that it would "never discriminate and we will never stifle innovation."

But both Colao and Telefónica Chairman and CEO José María Álvarez-Pallete also said that regulators need to level the playing field between the telecom sector and its counterparts in the tech industry.

Colao noted that the same rules that apply to wireless carriers' messaging services should also apply to much larger services hosted by Facebook or Instagram.

Álvarez-Pallete, meanwhile, called for an "investment-friendly framework" in order to accommodate the massive infrastructure requirements needed to both connect more systems and ensure populations are not left behind.

"These massive efforts require recognition from policymakers and regulators," Álvarez-Pallete said.