Ministerial Programme: Ask the regulator

One of the highlights of the Ministerial Programme at MWC Barcelona 2022 was “Ask the Regulator: Covid Learnings, New Approaches,” a panel session moderated by Ambassador David Gross (Co-Chair, Wiley Rein), featuring the heads of four national regulatory authorities – Annemarie Sipkes (BEREC Chair and Director of Telecommunications, Transport and Postal Services Department, ACM, Netherlands), Chuen Hong Lew (Chief Executive, IMDA and Commissioner, PDPC, Singapore), Dr Mercedes Aramendía (President, Regulatory Unit of Communication Services, Uruguay) and Dr P.D. Vaghela (Chairman, Telecom Regulatory Authority, India). They shared the approaches they took to address the pressures of the pandemic and how this experience shaped the way they view telecoms regulation to support future connectivity. Some of the key themes follow.

Telcos on the frontline during Covid-19

The session kicked off with a series of keynotes looking at how regulators tackled the crisis. During the pandemic, connectivity became the critical element to keep the economy running, facilitating work, education, socialising and entertainment. Telecom companies rose to the occasion by increasing capacity and keeping networks running.

To ease the burden on networks, the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) supported some relaxation of spectrum rules by EU Member States, while many regulators around the world released additional spectrum to meet the spike of broadband demand. Other governments, such as India, introduced telecom reforms in an effort to expand network investment and modernise their telecom infrastructure.

A key learning for telecom regulators is to expect the unexpected and cultivate resilience in communication networks. This means prioritising extra capacity over achieving efficiencies, to protect against future crises.

The evolving role of the regulator

The session continued with a discussion on the evolving role of the regulator. A significant challenge for all regulatory authorities is to change internally as quickly as the external world is changing. As Mr Chuen asserted: “The role of the regulator is less to regulate but more to put in place norms, build trust, promote economic development and ensure that no one is left behind in the digital journey.”

A big part of the general public do not understand how a particular technology works but the regulator needs to signal trust. For instance, the proliferation of contact tracing apps during the pandemic was met with mixed results in different parts of the world. Singapore is one of the champions in contact tracing as they managed to address the privacy concerns of citizens by communicating effectively the benefits of the app and ensuring that citizens’ data was anonymised, encrypted, kept on the phone for limited time and only released by individual’s consent.

More than ever, regulators need to be multidisciplinary, adaptable and flexible – updating their agendas as needed. According to Ms Sipkes, this sometimes means doing it yourself. “How do you regulate an algorithm? Do you regulate the outcome or how it is built? The regulator needs to get a feel for it and build expertise in house to address emerging issues.” Regulators are increasingly investing in R&D and building technology and data science teams within their organisations.

Regulators also play a crucial role in bringing sectors together around shared challenges and opportunities in order to create the conditions for new technologies, such as metaverse and 6G, to develop and become universal.

Regulators’ role in closing the digital divide

One recurring theme during the session was the need for regulators to create the conditions for end-to-end connectivity to serve societal needs and bring marginalised communities into the digital economy.

Closing the digital divide starts with the infrastructure and connectivity being in place. The regulators set the policy direction in a technology-neutral way and let the market decide what is the best solution for each of the demands and use cases. However, regulators need to do that in a targeted way, considering where the problematic areas are. This mapping informs governments to take action where the market cannot fill the gaps naturally.

The regulators also pointed out that there are three more aspects to closing the digital divide. First, internet services and devices need to be affordable to all users. Second, everyone should have the basic digital skills needed to use these technologies. Finally, the content and services they have access to should be exciting and relevant to them.

The cost of missing out on the digital revolution is already bigger than getting everyone connected, and regulators have a key role to play in this journey.

See more highlights from the Ministerial Programme here.