The world of telecommunications is changing. New applications have failed to emerge for 5G or gigabit broadband, with more focus on reliability and ubiquity. Operators and suppliers are financially troubled, laying off staff and selling assets. National sovereignty appears important. AI looks to be disruptive.
Regulators and associated government departments need to think differently from the tried and tested approaches of the last two decades. Here, we set out 10 recommendations for regulators.
Data traffic growth is slowing – consider the implications
Over the last decade, mobile and fixed data usage has been growing at rates of around 50% per year, leading to dramatic increases in usage and network capacity needs. However, these rates are now falling. The numbers vary from country to country but are now in the region of 20% per year for mobile and 10% for fixed usage. These downward trends suggest that rates might fall further over the coming years, meaning we might soon reach a situation where usage is relatively stable. This makes sense; as users approach the satiation of video content, there are few other drivers to increase data usage. This may change, but there is nothing on the horizon at present to drive an increased growth rate.
The implications for regulators fall predominantly on spectrum. With slowing growth, the need for more spectrum for mobile, which has been driving spectrum policy for decades, will reduce. It may be sufficient to maximise the utilisation of current spectrum and enable the sharing of some other spectrum below 3 GHz (see below). Auctions may no longer be needed. Long discussions at the ITU and elsewhere as to which bands will be next for mobile are not required. Other factors, such as coverage, will become more of a priority.
6G will be a software upgrade – focus elsewhere
Each mobile generation up to now has been a major event. More spectrum is cleared and auctioned. Operators roll out new base stations and market new services. This trend may also be at an end. 5G has been a disappointment to many, with no new applications emerging and no new sources of revenue for operators who had to spend heavily on spectrum and equipment. Many operators are now saying that 6G should not repeat this mistake and that it should be a software update only – ideally delayed beyond its expected 2030 date. If this were to occur, it would not need new spectrum (since that requires new hardware). Nor would it be a material change, but one more akin to one of the periodic new releases on 5G.
Regulators and governments do not need to promote this version of 6G. National leadership in 6G will not be relevant (it will be the same as 5G) and ensuring widespread rollout will not be of great importance. Grants to promote trials and testbeds will not be needed. Regulators and governments can focus elsewhere, as discussed below.
Quality coverage (mobile) and broadband inclusion (fixed) are the key issues for connectivity, not Gbit
Users are clear about what they want: ubiquitous coverage at “4G levels” and sufficient home broadband that is reliable. Both require around 10 Mbps per person. Mobile networks are far from ubiquitous, with not-spots, rural areas without coverage, congestion, low-quality indoor signals, and problem areas, such as trains. Broadband is generally good in urban settings, but rural areas may have low data rates.
It should be noted that this does not need gigabit connectivity. No applications require speeds of even 10% of a Gbit, nor any signs that this will change in future. Indeed, applications such as home video streaming are seeing falling data rates as better compression algorithms are employed.
The problem is that better coverage and rural broadband are uneconomic. Operators cannot justify the investment based on returns. Instead, the justification needs to rest on productivity improvements and societal inclusion, which requires government intervention. These are difficult challenges and an area for the regulator and government to realign on now that fewer resources are needed for auctions and 5G/6G.
Fair share is dead, net neutrality should be too
Mobile operators have been making poor returns on capital, in part because of the 5G losses discussed earlier. Some have called for companies generating large data flows – Apple, Microsoft, Google, Meta, Netflix, TikTok, etc. – to make payments to the operators to “compensate” them for the loading placed on their networks. This is a bad idea on too many counts to describe here. Happily, most have reached this conclusion, and the “fair share” concept is assumed to have been quietly shelved.
But there is an issue: operators are unable to incentivise providers to limit the data they are producing. This could be done in many ways, such as by compressing videos, stopping auto-run video play, and limiting pre-fetch. Removing any net-neutrality restrictions would allow operators to signal behavioural changes to data generators. It would also allow sensible prioritisation of traffic flows in congested parts of the network. Reactive regulation could be used in cases where behaviour that was clearly anti-competitive occurred.
Regulators should carefully review whether they need any net neutrality style of regulation, as well as whether they can help ensure that data is only transferred where needed and in the most efficient way possible.
Cooperation is needed – reconsider the purist approach to competition
Fostering competition has been a religion for most regulators. Mergers are often prevented, spectrum caps aim to limit differentiation between operators, and new entrants are occasionally encouraged. This has been another reason why many operators are making low levels of return. Competition has become too intense, preventing the normal merger and market exit approaches.
If coverage and reliability are to improve, cooperation is needed; for example, in building shared rural networks and allowing roaming between networks when one fails. Network capacity could be much improved if users were moved between networks according to which had the strongest signal or most capacity, and moved to Wi-Fi whenever indoors.
Competition will remain important, but within a cooperative framework. Getting this right will be a major challenge for regulators and governments, but one with large rewards for all.
AI causes some concern – operators use it for customer care, content regulation issues
The hot topic of the moment is AI. There is much discussion on whether, and how, it might be regulated. Most regulation will likely fall to new “AI regulators”, but there are also implications for telecoms and digital regulators.
Operators use AI in areas such as customer care and fraud assessment. Any regulation should not be so severe that these uses are unnecessarily compromised. In future, AI might help optimise networks and research. Implementation of this should be encouraged.
Some regulators have a remit to regulate content in areas such as social media. AI will likely increase fake posts and require new and enhanced types of regulation. Global cooperation on ways to spot and remove fake and unwanted materials will be needed.
Global spectrum management needs attention
Much regulation, especially spectrum regulation, is inherently multi-national. There are bodies to handle regional and global regulation, including the ITU. During their lifetime, the need for regulation and its cadence has changed dramatically. However, multinational regulation has not kept up. This has led, for example, to highly dysfunctional behaviour in satellite allocation where large LEO operators file for tens of thousands of satellites through countries like Rwanda and others broadly ignore the filing process, operating under “opt-out” clauses. Having WRC meetings every four years is far too slow a process.
An immediate issue is how direct-to-handset satellite allocations might work, especially where they reuse terrestrial spectrum. Rapidly finding new ways to resolve this issue, either within or alongside the ITU and regional bodies, is important. This could be a precursor to a broader discussion on how modern spectrum management and regulatory techniques could be introduced into global bodies.
Much better consumer info
Consumers often have little understanding of the data rates they really need, the amount of data that they consume monthly, and the relative performance of different providers. For example, understanding whether a different mobile operator would provide better coverage across the areas where someone typically travels and works is nearly impossible.
Provision of this sort of information would be relatively easy with apps that tracked usage and customer experience and compared these to other operators based on crowd-sourced information. That could then provide clear recommendations on preferred operators and monthly packages. The information would also help operators understand where they needed to improve their networks.
There is insufficient incentive for the market to provide such apps since revenue sources are weak, but this could easily be orchestrated by regulators or governments.
Develop a database-sharing solution and apply it to upper 6 GHz, defence, etc.
While there may not need to be more spectrum for mobile use for capacity reasons, providing better service outside urban areas will likely need more access to lower frequency spectrum. This might be best delivered using spectrum-sharing techniques to share with broadcasters, defence, and other users. There are other areas where future demand is uncertain, such as the upper 6 GHz band. Here, sharing between mobile and Wi-Fi can allow both to develop and resolve the uncertainty before irreversible decisions are made.
More generally, shared spectrum access via a database will increasingly be the way that spectrum access is enabled and spectrum used more efficiently. Regulators should get on with implementing a database solution, knowing that once in place it can easily be replicated and adapted to other bands.
Implement a panel of super-forecasters and global independent experts
Making regulatory decisions can often be challenging. Those who benefit are pitched against those who lose out. Both parties often generate swathes of somewhat biased information, swamping the regulator and making it hard for them to make clear decisions. Litigation often follows, slowing the process.
Regulators need the best independent advice available. Since many are facing the same issues (e.g., what to do with the upper 6 GHz band or the fair share proposal), this advice could be provided on a multinational basis. Most advice is forward-looking, such as forecasts of how usage will develop, whether new applications will emerge, and how companies will fare. Some individuals have proven much better at this than others: so-called “super forecasters”. Regulators should collectively assemble a panel of those with proven track records and expertise, making use of them to predict future regulatory needs and provide independent input on contentious issues.