Policy Leaders Forum APAC: Building Digital Nations

In August, as part of Mobile 360 APAC, the GSMA hosted its annual Asia Pacific Policy Leaders Forum, which brought together key stakeholders from ministries, regulatory bodies and the broader mobile ecosystem to exchange views and explore how mobile connectivity continues to transform the lives of billions.

This year’s theme, Building Digital Nations, put the spotlight on strengthening trust in digital technologies while harnessing their power for societal development and economic growth.

Building an inclusive digital nation

In her opening remarks, the GSMA’s Head of Public Policy for Asia Pacific (APAC), Jeanette Whyte, noted that while the APAC region boasts 96% mobile coverage, among the highest in the world, only 44% of the population uses the internet. In the following keynote, Sulyna Abdullah, Chief of the Digital Knowledge Hub Department at the ITU, described five critical divides holding back universal internet usage: income, urban-rural, gender, generation and education. To close these divides, the UN has set the ambitious target to overcome three critical challenges by 2030: close the coverage gap, close the usage gap and achieve meaningful connectivity for all. Meaningful connectivity comprises not only internet access but also the quality and reliability of internet connections. Only then can the world fully benefit from the power of connectivity for socio-economic development. Meaningful connectivity for all cannot be achieved without smart policies and regulations on a national level. To support this, as part of its Global Connectivity Report 2022, the ITU has developed five recommendations for policymakers and regulators as they pursue their digital transformation agendas. From bridging silos to developing a common language and upskilling, the need to redefine policy priorities and modernise regulatory tools has never been more pressing.

Singapore’s IMDA is leading the way in regulatory modernisation. In a fireside chat, Aileen Chia, Director General, Telecoms and Post, shared IMDA’s strategy for keeping pace with technology and the needs of society. The authority’s focus is placed on empowering end users through access and digital literacy. Pre-Covid, its priority was to ensure affordable internet connections and devices were available to all citizens. Post-Covid, the focus shifted to mobilising the entire population to use technology through digital skills programmes in all communities. As a result, 99% of the population uses the internet. But the situation is very different in larger and developing countries. For those at the beginning of their digital transformation journey, extra emphasis should be placed on the relevance, affordability, safety and user empowerment of connectivity to encourage people to use technology.

Digital policies and new business models for a digital future

Another country taking a proactive approach to digital transformation is Indonesia. Dr Ir. Ismail, Director General of Resources Management of the Ministry of Communication and Informatics, sees the ministry not just as a policymaker but also as an investor in building the country’s digital infrastructure. Indeed, telecom infrastructure is a prerequisite for digital transformation. There is an increasing need to expand and evolve the networks that provide internet access, and more investment is needed in network capacity and capabilities to meet this demand. Telcos are in a two-sided squeeze, as online services replace traditional telco services and as telcos’ asset base is reduced in efforts to maximise efficiency. Factors including asymmetric regulation and restrictions, sector-specific taxes and spectrum costs are squeezing the business models of infrastructure providers. Against this backdrop, telecom operators from across the region, such as Axiata and KT, urged policymakers to reconsider the interdependence of online services and other growth sectors on the underlying infrastructure investment to stimulate a fair, innovative and sustainable digital economy for all.

Strategies for a data powered economy

The day’s final session focused on how governments can maximise the value of data while protecting the privacy and security of citizens. Alongside connectivity and digital transformation, data governance is on top of the agendas for many regulators across APAC. There are two main regulatory conundrums regarding data — data sovereignty (i.e., whose regulations data is subject to when it crosses borders) and data protection. Governments want to have jurisdiction over the handling of personal data that relates to their citizens, but businesses and governments also recognise the value of transporting data across borders to gain business efficiencies and enable digital innovation. The free flow of data across borders allows people to access the global range of services and permits businesses to reduce their costs and prices for customers. To tackle these issues, ASEAN launched the Model Contractual Clauses for Cross Border Data Flows (MCCs) in 2021. The MCCs are contractual terms and conditions that can be included in the binding legal agreements between parties transferring personal data across borders. Moreover, joint efforts like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will help facilitate digital trade and investment and will deepen the engagement of the ASEAN Member States with Australia, China, Japan, Korea and New Zealand.

There is a similar dilemma in data protection. Consumers want their data to be protected, however, in contrast, businesses and consumers alike are interested in the legitimate use of personal data to provide innovative and relevant services at a lower cost. According to Zee Kin Yeong, Singapore’s Deputy Personal Data Commissioner, these needs must be equally balanced. Markets are looking at new and sophisticated ways of protecting data beyond consent-based and legitimate interest models. New technologies, such as data minimisation and anonymisation tools, can help companies navigate stringent privacy requirements.

The rich debates throughout the day revealed diverse policy and regulatory approaches to connectivity across the APAC region. Nations seeking to bolster their digital transformation journeys should focus on infrastructure, innovation, data governance, security and people. To achieve this, they must continue to foster industry collaboration so that digital nations prosper in a safe and sustainable way.

Watch the Policy Leaders Forum recording here.