Naveed Ul Haq

Changing Role of Telecom Regulators towards a Digital Future

By Naveed ul Haq
In general, the need for new regulations varies with the situation and condition of a particular market place. While the design and role of a regulatory framework may change with the passage of time, certain critical elements are always integrated including decision-making processes, accountability, consumer protection, dispute resolution, spectrum management, licensing and ensuring quality of service. If we observe last 15 years, regulatory frameworks for telecommunication markets have emerged and evolved rapidly. They have invited viable and open communication markets thus creating opportunities in economies lagging behind, improving access to telecommunication services, flourishing the introduction of wide-range technology platforms and enabling competitive prices.
February 15, 1997 would be remembered as an historic date for telecommunication liberalization when sixty-nine governments formalized commitments at WTO (World Trade Organization) stage to liberalize their basic telecommunications services. Statistics reveal that countries that made GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) commitments, in particular from Sub-Saharan Africa region out-performed by achieving high penetration fixed-line penetration and mobile subscriptions generating high revenues in telecommunication sector. These commitments also incorporated reforms in telecommunications legislations via independent and pro-competitive regulatory structures.
Telecommunication, Broadcasting and Information technology platforms are now passing through convergence while re-organizing themselves inside-out. The digital future of economies lead by telecommunications is being drafted by Internet Protocol and packet-switching networks. Innovative set of applications are strapping up our daily lives, binging services which were not envisaged few years back. However, this swift embracement of telecommunications, development of digital economies and increasing impact of ICTs in our daily lives is also calling upon a new set of regulatory and policy challenges.
Today, kids are born in a world offering whole new dimensions and connecting opportunities with each other ‘anywhere, anytime’. This era of digital age or information-based societies is bringing a fundamental transformation of relationships among societies, cultures, individuals, businesses, agencies and governments. This phenomenon is expected to continue while we may experience playing with even more saturated interconnected devices with media convergence. The necessary policy and regulatory framework thus will be highly influential to up take advantages and fortune of information societies. Regulators from various economies in particular the developed ones have already instigated in this regards. It is also noted that these popping challenges for policy makers and regulators require different approach as compared with traditional one with more multi-stakeholder inclusion, self-regulation promotion and inventive support. Governance of the networks is now of more importance than promoting technologies. Technologies have wrapped the communication infrastructure with endless innovation and services arriving every second day. It is quite pertinent to look into the governance issues surrounded around Internet, Broadcasting and Mobile networks. There are issues which stand common for all communication platforms followed by this who stand unique for every platform.
Some of the main issues emerging are briefed as follows:
Intellectual Property Rights in Digital World- In a world where copying a particular product, idea or creativity is easy, the creator demands protection against intangible value or intellectual property rights. Concerns have been raised over digital piracy and copyright infringement by computer software, video games, recorded music and film corporations. Internet in its open nature permits instant access and transfer of files and content. To a great extent industry players have taken a lead to enforce procedures to control digital piracy. Issues of digital piracy on the Internet are putting significant pressures on existing business models and regulatory environments especially after the arrival of per-to-peer file sharing. For Telecommunication regulators, digital piracy is a relative new area.
OfCom, the UK communication industry regulator carried out an industry consultation to draft code of practice to include processes to be followed, rights and obligations of rights owners, ISPs and subscribers in 2010. The consultation was result of the Digital Economy Act 2010, an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The Act asks for introduction of “technical measures” to reduce the quality of, or potentially terminate internet connections of infringers. France and Ireland have also adopt the ‘Three Strikes’ provisions to address digital piracy. Regulators have initiated certain fine and sanction provisions; however the challenge of balancing IPR in digital world stands factual for the telecommunication regulator.
Network Neutrality – The decentralized, open and democratic nature of digital world has instigated an interesting debate over principles of neutrality in network access. The proponents of ‘Network Neutrality’ advocate the free and non-discriminatory access to information stored and transmitted over the Internet while the opponents say that they have to bring network capacity management and quality aspect while dealing with high bandwidth hungry applications and services over their networks. The opponents include telecommunications giant and some ISPs as they demand to maintain the maximum flexibility for configuring services. In 2009, FCC (Federal Communication Commission) of U.S directed Comcast, one of the leading ISP to cease downgrading user access to peer-to-peer file sharing service. The ruling however was subsequently struck down through an appeal in court.  Following a long year debate, Federal Communications Commission’s “Open Internet” rules have taken effect last month. European Commission is also carrying out similar consultations before considering the adoption of specific net neutrality regulations.
Protecting Privacy – Regulators are now sensing the magnitude of challenges linked with personal and commercial privacy protection in digital world. Privacy protection over Internet and other online communication channels is extremely difficult. The situation turns into a real havoc in societies where the end-user is actually unaware of what ‘online privacy’ means. Companies are using personal data of users for commercial purposes while the user are not sure about the mechanism and legal standing of distribution of their personal data. Privacy and data protection policies and regulations have been introduced in number of economies while regulators are also in pursuance to reduce online identity thefts and privacy concerns raised by end-users.
Regulating Digital Content – Content regulations is considered as a thriving challenge. Setting limits to various type of content in relationship with culture, religious and social values is generally agreed. However, the definition of such limits and enforcing them in practical is a huge regulatory test. Communication is considered as basic human rights as freedom of information over digital world is widely acknowledged across International institutes. The advancement of open communication channels have also brought along methods of deception, exploitation and abuse as dark elements for societies.  There have been a number of practices / rules followed by a number of economies in order to control specific type of content. Disreputable content leading to Pornography, Anti-religion speech, Child Abuse and Cyber Stalking are now part of regulations and policy debates.
While moving towards digital era other issues like cyber security, social networking, voice over IP, IP television, identity theft, and green ICT are also placing new working agenda for regulators, significantly separate from the traditional understanding of telecommunication regulations. It is expected that regional and cross border cooperation will continue to grow as the boundaries within which communication services are increasingly becoming artificial.

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