Connecting Humanity, a study by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), indicates the need for investments worth an estimated USD 428 billion worldwide to ensure that people all over the world enjoy unhindered digital access.
Universal access depends on connecting the remaining three billion people aged ten and older — still nearly half of the world’s population — to broadband Internet by 2030.
Reaching this milestone will hinge on regional and national regulatory frameworks — the rules needed to ensure investments happen smoothly.
As countries pursue broadband Internet rollout and use, specific policy choices and other regulatory factors can help drive investment in information and communication technologies (ICTs) and encourage innovation within the sector. Beyond the broad commitment to connectivity, such details amount to “regulatory enablers” for digital transformation.
To benefit end users, ICT policies need to promote competition among service providers and collaboration among regulators.
Radiocommunication experts see the sharing of radio-frequency spectrum — a naturally limited resource — as a key regulatory enabler. Every time you turn on your TV, access the Internet or find a location with your smartphone, you are using a frequency allocated to your service provider.
The global management of radio-frequency spectrum is one of the vital services coordinated by ITU, the United Nations specialized agency for ICTs.
With the rapid expansion of wireless services over the last few decades, the companies and institutions relying on radio waves to provide services or carry out essential functions find themselves constantly competing for radiofrequency spectrum. New applications, steady user growth and exploding traffic — especially in the face of COVID‑19 — all intensify the demand for scarce spectrum.
“ITU develops international regulations that enable the expansion of services and applications while protecting incumbent services,” explained Mario Maniewicz, Director of ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau, during a panel at the 2021 Global Symposium for Regulators. For instance, ongoing deliberations on using parts of the 6 gigahertz (GHz) radio-frequency band for mobile services should bear in mind that the band is also extensively used for fixed-satellite services.
National regulators, Maniewicz pointed out, can analyse spectrum sharing from varied perspectives to implement licensing schemes that increase spectrum efficiency. Spectrum can be shared among different services, different operators of the same service or among devices from the same service.
“Technical feasibility can never be overlooked”, Maniewicz added.
“Ongoing studies by the ITU Radiocommunication Sector (ITU–R) consider sharing and compatibility options to ensure new radio communication services can function without interfering with existing ones.”
Increasingly, radio spectrum may be wanted for other applications. This makes spectrum harmonization another key factor that can influence the scale and reach of connectivity solutions.
“Harmonization is important to make sure there’s sufficient scale,” said Jayne Stancavage, Global Executive Director of Digital Infrastructure Policy at Intel.
“Sufficient scale enables [companies] to provide devices at a lower cost, which gets passed on to the consumers.”
Network sharing options can help to promote investments in connectivity. “Operators must be able to use their own infrastructure, as this is the best way to promote and preserve competition in the long run,” said Michel Van Bellinghen, Council Chairman at the Belgian Institute for Postal Services and Telecommunications (BIPT) and 2021 Chair of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC).
Sharing mobile infrastructure can encourage the rollout of 5G networks, Van Bellinghen added.
“As long as sufficient infrastructure-based competition is maintained, sharing allows cost savings and makes more extensive coverage viable.”
While ICTs require heavy investment, competition helps to improve efficiency and broaden overall participation and representation.
“We need small and medium operators to have enough tools and give them enablers to bring innovative products to end users,” said Ekaterine Imedadze, Commissioner of the Georgian National Communications Commission.
With licence distribution underway for 5G, Imedadze noted progress in incentivizing sharing of spectrum and infrastructure and providing operators with best practices on co-investing in 5G networks.
A balancing act
As regulations for infrastructure sharing come into force, regulators will normally aim to maximize efficiency, reduce market entry barriers and stimulate competition. But at the same time, they must take care not to jeopardize existing — or discourage future — investments.
“Finding the middle ground requires balance,” Maniewicz emphasized.
Pro-investment regulation means seeking equilibrium, so that operators compete with their investments while sharing key network resources, said Serge Abiteboul, a Board member at France’s Regulatory Authority for Electronic Communications and Post (ARCEP).
Data-driven regulation can empower users, drive the market in the right direction and help reach neglected areas or communities, Abiteboul added. Alongside government-led investments, impartial regulatory legislation can assist to guide decision-making by private operators.
Operators due for licence renewal, for example, can be asked to commit voluntarily to new network developments in lieu of paying licence fees. Such incentives, explained Abiteboul, can promptly establish connectivity in areas identified by local authorities.
Spectrum sharing, network-sharing opportunities and finding the right balance between competing interests — new versus incumbent investors, or investor/operator versus customer/citizen — all serve as key enablers to boost connectivity.