Tracing one ICT regulator’s journey to 5th-generation regulation

ITU

The global regulatory and technology landscape is complex and fast-moving.

Regulators find themselves grappling with an ever-growing array of challenges, chief among them achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the 2030 deadline, now just a decade away.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s ICT regulator is no exception, as the country continues to prioritize the rapid growth of its ICT sector and pursue sustainable economic diversification as part of its Vision 2030.

A new strategy bringing government agencies and the private sector together as well looking into new and emerging technologies have been critical elements of the Saudi Arabian regulator’s journey.

But what is 5th-generation in the first place? And how is Saudi Arabia’s Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) planning to get there?

The evolving role of the ICT regulator

If we think in terms of regulatory “generations”, the first employed a “command and control approach”, which often took the form of public or national telecom monopolies. The second-generation regulatory landscape saw the opening of markets, facilitating partial liberalization and privatization of telecommunications. By generation three, we saw accelerated investment, innovation, and access opportunities emerge, with regulators placing a dual focus on stimulating competition while ensuring consumer protection.

Fourth generation features integrated regulation, led by economic and social policy goals. A 4th-generation regulator is one that ensures or is working towards universal access, consults stakeholders regularly, and promotes international and regional cooperation, equitable spectrum management, and stronger consumer protection.

Where do regulators stand globally?

According to ITU’s Global ICT Regulatory Outlook 2020, 8 per cent of countries now has holistic, forward-looking regulatory frameworks enabling digital transformation across the economy.

More than half of world’s population is concentrated in 2nd and 3rd-generation countries, poised to leapfrog to near universal digital inclusion and lead vibrant ICT markets.

40 per cent of countries remain in regulatory generations 1 and 2, missing development opportunities and remaining disconnected from the digital transformation of their economies. While one third of countries have achieved G4, characterized by thriving markets for ICT services and the lowest proportion of unconnected populations, some have already set 5th-generation regulation in their sights. In a 5th-generation regulatory environment, collaboration among even more stakeholders is key to shaping decisions in a harmonized way not only within the telecommunications realm, but across a broad range of sectors now dependent on ICTs.

CITC’s regulatory transformation

With a guiding vision of a “connected nation for a thriving digital economy”, CITC is stepping up to meet the 5th-generation regulation challenge with an ambitious new digital transformation strategy. Their vision also emphasizes safeguarding the public, providing reliable service, ensuring fair competition, and balancing the diverse needs of multiple stakeholders.

Historically, the Commission’s mandate focused on regulating the telecommunication and information technology sectors. But the last two years have seen that mandate evolve to reflect a changing global regulatory and technology landscape.

Today, CITC is delivering on its vision by working to create a robust regulatory platform within which government and businesses can safely operate and invest.

The Saudi Arabian regulator has met the challenges of an increasingly complex regulatory environment with a series of initiatives, including, among others:

• Promoting investment and infrastructure development while ensuring access to high-quality services. CITC reported investing 15 billion USD in infrastructure, including meeting major deployment milestones on network infrastructure and quality. Mobile broadband download speed reached 77.55 Mbps in August 2020, and mobile coverage increased to 99 per cent of the population for 3G and 94 per cent for 4G, according to CITC estimates.

• Establishing a National Regulatory Committee that will bring together 8 core regulators to collaborate on ICT and digital cross-sectoral topics like blockchain, smart cities and digital platforms, and proactively anticipate emerging topics. Additional public and private entities will be involved as needed. This collaboration was set up to accelerate regulation-to-adoption and seeks to drive innovation, job creation, and investor confidence by promoting coherence and efficiency across Saudi Arabia’s ICT ecosystem.

• Acting collaboratively to deploy ICTs during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic reached Saudi Arabia, CITC collaborated quickly and effectively with telecom operators to meet the surge in demand for online access and data with increased speeds and data capacity, free services, expanded spectrum use, and enhanced network configurations and connectivity. This rapid response played a critical role in enabling remote work, business continuity, delivery apps, e-government services, and remote learning across Saudi Arabia.

Looking ahead: Targeting new sectors

Around the world, ICT regulators are expanding their telco-focused mandates to include adjacent sectors: another hallmark of 5th-generation regulation. CITC counts itself among these forward-looking regulators by targeting adjacent sectors with the greatest potential to be disrupted by the rapidly expanding ICT landscape, such as mobility, healthcare, manufacturing, energy, education, finance, and retail. The Commission has also identified Saudi Arabia’s public sector as a priority, ensuring that regulation enables social welfare, public safety, and security.

In this increasingly convergent digital environment, CITC is balancing three objectives, all of which are aligned with ITU’s Strategic Goals of growth, inclusiveness, sustainability, innovation, and partnership.

First, it is looking to empower the telecom sector, especially through building and strengthening infrastructure. Key regulatory topics for the CITC in this area include ensuring adequate spectrum allocation for international mobile technologies (IMT) usage, fair competition, affordable prices, and connectivity. CITC’s second objective is to enable the expansion of the IT and technology sectors by leveraging infrastructure investments. Removing barriers and promoting growth and localization in the ICT sector have been deemed critical steps for the country’s successful digital transformation journey. Third, as technologies evolve to touch many more sectors of the economy, CITC is exploring new and emerging technologies and their related markets, including quantum computing, IoT, automated vehicles, blockchain, AI, media convergence, digital currencies, fintech, and 5G.

The strategy also advances several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, with CITC placing a strong emphasis on sustainability through the inclusion of ITU’s global standards on sustainability within its core objectives. As it continues to hit milestone after milestone, CITC is well on its way to becoming one of the world’s most developed 5th-generation regulators.

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