The swift adoption of digital tools during the COVID 19 pandemic has shown the power of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to improve daily lives – and how the inadequacy or outright lack of digital infrastructure can deprive entire communities of essential services.
Broadband mapping – whereby regulators assess service availability and quality locally, nationally, and regionally – is essential for informed decision-making.
It is also a prerequisite for investment in sustainable, inclusive broadband infrastructure that leaves no one behind, agreed members of the Regional Regulatory Associations’ Meeting during the latest Global Symposium for Regulators, GSR-21.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made mapping exercises more important than ever before to identify gaps and boost digital access among vulnerable user groups and communities.
“Regulators need a good understanding of broadband mapping to offset negative impacts of COVID,” says Bridget Linzie, Executive Secretary of the Communications Regulators’ Association of Southern Africa (CRASA) and the Meeting’s 2021 Chair.
Vladimir Daigele, a network development expert at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), describes mapping as “important to understand the reality in a place, as it allows different stakeholders to come together and plan optimal network technologies and financing solutions.”
The discussions among regional regulators at GSR-21 centred around ways to promote broadband mapping tools, particularly to foster investment and competition aimed at achieving inclusive and sustainable connectivity.
Regional associations can serve as a driving force, disseminating information, tools, and guidelines among their members.
Supporting universal access
ITU’s Interactive Transmission Maps – tracking backbone connectivity over 20 million kilometres of global terrestrial networks involving nearly 550 operators – can help to shape infrastructure strategies to connect underserved or disconnected communities.
ITU is also updating the ICT Infrastructure Business Planning Toolkit to include 5G networks. The toolkit aims to support regulators and operators in designing optimal broadband network deployment in rural and isolated areas using these maps.
Ensuring universal access, even in a specific sub-sector like education, hinges on mapping the actual demand on the ground for connectivity.
Giga, jointly led by ITU and UNICEF relies on geospatial infrastructure data available on the ITU Maps.
In South Africa, mapping is underway to help achieve universal broadband access by 2025.
“Regulators have developed guidelines to analyze broadband gaps in areas with connectivity, as well as gaps in broadband demand, radio-frequency spectrum availability, and investment in broadband infrastructure,” says Linzie.
In Central Africa, regulators hope mapping will serve to create a practical region-wide index of ICT infrastructure, either in place or planned.
“Thematic maps, with detailed information on active and passive ICT infrastructure in each country, will hopefully avoid overlapping construction and deployment,” says Bernice Edande Otye, Permanent Secretary of the Central African Assembly of Telecommunications Regulators (ARTAC).
The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the crucial role of network security and resilience as part of sustainable development.
“An efficiently developed broadband mapping tool is useful not only to address connectivity gaps but also to address network incidents and monitor resilience,” says Nataliia Lado from the Eastern Partnership Electronic Communications Regulators Network (EaPeReg), representing Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
But providing broadband connectivity at reasonable costs calls for a major upfront investment.
“This will have to be done through collaboration between regulators and operators,” says Mohamed Chemani, Secretary-General of the Arab Regulators Network (AREGNET).
“Legislation has to be adopted to encourage investors to work for digital inclusivity.”
Regulators, he added, need the right tools to collect relevant data, boost competition among market players and attract new investments.
Fostering a harmonized approach
Collaborative broadband mapping requires a common, harmonized approach. Guidelines from the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), for example, seek to ensure consistent mapping among national regulatory associations.
“The core guideline harmonizes our definitions, suggests which indicators to provide, and advises on which operators should provide the knowledge that we need to make these maps,” explains Annemarie Sipkes, Director of the Telecommunications, Transport and Postal Services Department at the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM), and elected as BEREC Chair for 2022.
Another guideline covers ways to verify information. “It’s not just about the availability of networks,” Sipkes says.
“The quality of service is also important. Otherwise, how do we [regulators] verify what the operators are telling us is happening?”
Regional associations can be key drivers for harmonization, according to Daigele.
Information on national mapping systems helps to increase awareness even between regulators and governments at the national level, as well as feeding into regional harmonization initiatives and revealing cross-border collaboration opportunities.
ITU can support regulatory associations in this regard, adds Daigele. “It’s about sharing information and having a forum where we can sit together and discuss how to harmonize methodologies used in different regions.”
Beyond infrastructure, less tangible barriers, such as affordability or lack of digital skills, can also stop people from using the Internet.
Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, grapple not just with redundant regulatory frameworks and a lack of long-term spectrum management, but also with a major gap in ICT skills, says Oscar León, Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Telecommunication Commission (CITEL).
After several years of acceleration, the roll-out of mobile-broadband networks slowed down in 2020, according to the latest ITU data.
About 85 per cent of the global population is now thought to receive 4G network coverage – double the level covered in 2015.
Regulatory associations say mapping tools, along with other ITU platforms and data such as the Regional Regulatory Associations Portal, will help to improve infrastructure deployment and sharing, reduce costs, and ultimately ensure affordable access for consumers worldwide.
Regulatory associations can reach out to ITU for support with exchanges of best practices, defining common aims and terminology, and harmonizing data collection and mapping methodologies.
Regional and interregional cooperation is essential, GSR-21 participants noted.