Here’s how ICT regulators are building back better after COVID-19

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For ICT regulators, building back better means bringing affordable, safe, secure and trusted connectivity and online access and use to people in their respective regions.

It also means making sure everyone is connected, no matter where in the world they live or their level of socio-economic means.

These ideas shaped the discussions of the annual meeting of Regulatory Associations (RA), held virtually on the eve of the 20th Global Regulators Symposium (GSR-20) core sessions.

Chaired by incoming Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) Chair Michel Van Bellinghen , the meeting featured a panel discussion on how regulatory associations can collaborate in a post-COVID digital ecosystem.

The panel was followed by a presentation of different project sand activities of each RA since GSR-19, with a focus on how each is rebuilding towards meaningful connectivity in the post-pandemic world.

Causes for optimism

Despite bearing all the hallmarks of a crisis, there are many reasons for regulators to be hopeful in the wake of the pandemic. “The COVID-19 crisis is also a window of opportunity that the regulatory community cannot afford to miss,” declared Dan Sjöblom, Chair of this year’s edition of GSR, Director-General of the Swedish Post and Telecom Authority (PTS), and current Chair of BEREC, in an earlier regional regulatory roundtable session.

While networks have been pushed to their limits during the COVID-19 crisis, “they have largely remained operational and resilient,” affirmed Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, who was also present at the RA meeting.

Moreover, the current crisis has also fast forwarded the adoption of digital technologies. “We now live in a world where we work, interact, and do business differently,” she noted.

Teleworking proved to be particular boon in the form of higher member participation for some regulatory associations. “The pandemic forced us and our members to work from home,” said Allan Ruiz, Executive Secretary of the Regional Technical Telecommunications Commission (COMTELCA). “This gave us the opportunity to interact with more of our members, because they did not have to travel for the meetings.”

The challenges of building back better

There are many hurdles to overcome as regulators across the world shift from pandemic response to recovery. According to the latest ITU data, 3.6 billion people remain unconnected worldwide. In many remote areas of the planet, broadband development is hindered by demographic or even geographic constraints.

In still other places, permanent connectivity is simply not affordable. This is the case in many parts of West Africa, noted Abossé Akue-Kpakpo, Digital Economy Director of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA). “In some [West African] countries, the cost of broadband can reach 60 per cent of the average salary,” he noted. “This makes it impossible for citizens to work [remotely] or follow education online.”

Quality of service remains a major challenge in Africa, as well as regulatory issues around roaming, added Laminou Elhadji Maman, Secretary General of the West Africa Telecommunications Regulators Assembly (WATRA).

Investment resources for information and communication technologies (ICTs) will likely be harder to come by with the impending economic crisis projected to follow the health crisis. Even without considering the pandemic, potential investors in the ICT sector must deal with long cycles in terms of return on investment, as well as high operational and maintenance costs when it comes to servicing remote and underserved areas.

Sharing solutions

In a post-COVID digital ecosystem, regulatory association representatives agreed that collaboration is crucial – especially at the national level within government departments, but also at the regional level between countries. For example, sub-regional initiatives in West African countries including Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali are helping to ensure cross-border connectivity, remarked Charles Milogo of the Francophone Network of Telecommunication Regulation (FRATEL). “Regulatory associations must keep on collaborating to ensure that connectivity plans are carried out,” he said.

To address the issue of unaffordable connectivity, Mr. Akue-Kpako suggested putting subsidies in place similar to those some countries have implemented for water and electricity.

According to Mr. Ruiz, his organization developed a guide of best practices on the “rational use of the internet” to not overwhelm communication networks. Some of the measures that were taken included additional temporary spectrum use, regulatory sandboxes, and agreement with content providers on lowering the quality of their streaming services during the lockdown period, he said.

Representing BEREC, incoming Chair Michel Van Bellinghen conceded that while there was no major congestion in Europe, the networks did face pressure during the first weeks of the lockdown in spring. “Big platform operators were asked to reduce the quality of their streaming service so that networks can cope with the increased demand,” he noted.

“We are holding workshops on cybersecurity to increase consumer awareness,” said Antony Chigaazi of the Communications Regulators’ Association of Southern Africa (CRASA), citing a need to further “fine-tune activities and priorities in view of COVID-19.”

According to Karima Mahmoudi, Director of the Electronic Communications Market Observatory, Instance Nationale des Télécommunications of Tunisia (INTT) and representative of the Arab Regulators Network of Telecommunications and Information Technologies (AREGNET), Tunisian authorities experimented with emerging technologies, using robots to verify the movement of people in order to limit transmission of COVID-19. “We also implemented the ‘e-wallet’: a virtual wallet enabling people to collect their salary remotely and avoid moving or getting into crowds,” she said.

Some of the practices mentioned in this meeting will remain with us on the long term, noted Ms. Bogdan-Martin in her summary of the first panel discussion.

Top priorities for regulators in the post-COVID future

To address future challenges, regulators need forward-looking mindsets that can anticipate future trends, suggested Mr. Van Bellinghen. One of these is sustainability, which will be a main focus for BEREC in 2021, he said.

Among the priorities regulatory associations mentioned include reduced costs for internet access, as well as regional public warning systems that can send alerts to all phones in the area in case of a major emergency.

The harmonization of spectrum use was mentioned as another top priority, as well as implementing common activities across regions, such as a digital identity system that is interoperable and can facilitate travel at the regional level. Finally, closing the digital gap is a top priority for regulators, especially in terms of education. In the case of Burkina Faso, for instance, students attending private schools often benefit from internet access at home to access learning materials, while many public-school students do not, said Mr. Akue-Kpakpo.

Next steps: Take stock and collaborate

The tasks ahead of regulators are two-fold, suggested Mr. Van Bellinghen. The first includes a thorough assessment of measures taken in the last months – such as the ones compiled in ITU’s Global Network Resilience Platform REG4COVID, where regulators and policymakers from all over the world have submitted and exchanged best practices.

Echoing the need for sharing challenges and exchanging experiences, Mr. Ruiz suggested that the role of local governments will be crucial in the coming months, in that they will need to be informed of discussions and best practices defined by regulators. “Regulatory challenges must be shared among all countries and multilateral actions have to take place to move forward in the future,” he said.

Secondly, collaboration must be deepened between institutions, said Mr. Van Bellinghen in his closing remarks. Because no matter the nature of the emergency, “no country, no regulator can fight a crisis on its own.”


Image credit: Антон Дмитриев via Unsplash.