Access Partnership was recently invited by UNESCAP and the Internet Society, Asia-Pacific Bureau, to speak at the Asia Pacific Regional Community Network Summit on “Innovating to connect the unconnected”. The summit touched on enabling a fascinating ground-up initiative – community networks – in resolving last mile connectivity issues.
Last mile connectivity is widely acknowledged as essential to closing the digital divide. However, current regulations and policies in the communications industry present challenges to the growth of innovative last mile solutions. In this article, we holistically review the regulatory landscape and offer new perspectives on how policies can balance the current needs of the telecommunications industry against growth in the new connectivity industry. For the purposes of this article, we refer to the collection of technologies and businesses enabling connectivity outside of the traditional telecommunications networks as new connectivity.
Incentivise Participation in Last Mile Connectivity Provisions
Sustainable participation by both large and small players, traditional and non-traditional connective technology players, should be incentivised. Creating policy environments that promote corporate social responsibility and public-private partnerships supports the supply of companies willing to contribute to building last mile connectivity. For instance, governments can incentivise spending on last mile connectivity through tax breaks or holidays, discounts on charges and reduced licensing fees for access to cell sites to allow for more cell sites. For the smaller players deploying these solutions, grants and funding – in addition to an open and fair business environment – will lower barriers to entry and encourage their participation.
Recast Policy Frameworks to Foster Inclusivity for New Connectivity
Telecommunication industry laws and policy frameworks are still focused on growing and regulating national scale communication companies, and smaller regional versions of these network operators in most of the developing world. Incorporating provisions to acknowledge the important role non-traditional communications companies, smaller players, cooperatives and social entrepreneurs bring is also a key step. For example, in Brazil – a country with a large rural population – the telecommunications regulator, Anatel, has issued a general competition plan to identify groups with significant market power (SMP) and create solutions through regulatory means, including measures for transparency, equal treatment, price control and access obligations, among others. In Australia, amendments to the superfast network rules have allowed the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to exempt smaller networks from separation rules currently applicable to all network providers.
In addition, policies will need to ensure fair and non-discriminatory access to resources such as core networks, backhaul and radio spectrum. In the US, bidding credits (discounts) are provided during radio spectrum auctions for smaller players intending to deploy last mile connectivity solutions. This ensures that less well-funded last mile connectivity providers are also able to gain access to critical resources.
Technology Neutral Outcome Based Policies
Creating outcomes-based policy frameworks will allow for the most effective and affordable last mile connectivity solutions to be deployed. Additionally, ensuring that regulatory considerations concerning radio spectrum allocation and management, network and infrastructure sharing do not discriminate against technologies and enable any technology to flourish will mean there are more options for last mile connectivity providers to choose from.
Harmonised Policies and Regulations Promotes Scaling of Solutions
Disparities in policies between adjacent countries, national and sub-national levels and even across states within the same country mean that ground-up initiatives will be unable to scale across the country and even across adjacent borders. Harmonisation is key in providing a stable operating environment and to allow for quick scalability to bring successful last mile solutions across state and national borders.
Informed Decision Making Supports New Policy Approaches
To adapt policy frameworks that will benefit new connectivity, a detailed understanding of the ecosystem of connectivity solutions and technologies, through open and frequent multi-stakeholder dialogues, is essential. This will not only allow governments to track the latest technologies and developments, but also understand the underlying applications of these technologies to assess the opportunities and risks emanating from their potential deployment.
Closing the digital connectivity gap is increasingly affordable and readily available due to a diverse array of communications technologies and methods which have been and are continually being developed. To allow this new ecosystem of connectivity solution providers to flourish, communications policies and regulations need to be revisited.
Author: Renuka Rajaratnam, Public Policy Manager, Access Partnership