Information and communication technology’s increasingly central role in almost every aspect business and social interaction is creating enormous challenges for ICT regulators and policymakers, whose decisions will have a crucial influence on the shape of tomorrow’s world, top speakers told delegates to ITU’s Global Symposium for Regulators (GSR) this week.
The world’s largest annual gathering of ICT regulatory experts, GSR-14 was hosted by Bahrain’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority under the patronage of Prime Minister HRH Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa. Chaired by TRA Chairman Dr Mohammed Alamer, over 700 leading specialists from 113 countries worldwide registered to attend the event, which grappled with the many complex legal and public policy issues raised by our increasingly interconnected digital environment.
With the theme of ‘Capitalizing on the potential of the digital world’ the event was one of the best attended GSR events ever, attracting around 80 VVIPs and VIPs, including government ministers, heads of regulatory agencies and C-level industry executives. It was officially opened on Tuesday, 3 June by HRH Sheikh Ali bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, Deputy Premier of Bahrain, HE Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohamed bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, Minister of State for Telecommunications Affairs, and ITU Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun I. Touré.
The conference heard how the fast-growing global store of huge data volumes generated by high-tech sensors, human interaction over web, email and social media sites, and machine-to-machine communications is creating a host of new business opportunities as well as concerns about privacy and the use of personal data by third parties.
Leading a session on Big Data, GSR Discussion Paper co-author Andrew Haire reminded delegates that 90% of the world’s data has been collected over the past two years. With storage costs now low, the trend towards long-term storage of almost any kind of data – even information with no immediate obvious value – creates new potential for improving social services in areas like epidemiology, environmental management and disaster response, but also raises concerns about privacy protection and over-concentration of the data collection market into powerful monopolies. Regulators need to be proactive about putting in place frameworks to harness the social benefits of Big Data while exercising foresight in protecting legitimate consumer concerns, the conference was told.
Consumer empowerment and the need to share resources were leitmotifs of this year’s event, as regulators stressed the social importance of affordable ICT access, and operators and service providers sought ways of enhancing competition and bringing new products to market in the most cost-effective ways possible.
The need for more radiofrequency spectrum to alleviate ‘spectrum crunch’ and support a growing array of wireless services was one issue where concepts around shared spectrum approaches stimulated vigorous debate, both during a pre-event workshop hosted by ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau, and at a special session on spectrum licensing held on Wednesday 4 June. During an animated discussion, several speakers and delegates stressed the importance of reliable spectrum allocations that deliver return on investment for ICT players and service quality for users, urging regulators to be open to evolution while ensuring the protection of existing services.
In a Network Debate session, experts from the policy-making sphere, the telco community and the satellite industry also emphasized sharing – this time, of infrastructure, as part of innovative strategies that can help the ICT industry grow networks in today’s largely privatized environment, where national governments – the builders of most of today’s existing fixed copper and fibre networks – no longer directly fund new network build-out.
Panellists noted that shared approaches can help new players enter markets, stimulating competition and giving consumers great choice. They also emphasized that in a highly capital-intensive sector, good levels of return on investment are essential, as are clear and predictable regulatory frameworks that promote investor confidence. For regulators, that means ICT frameworks need to be flexible enough to support innovation and new business models while ensuring current players still have the opportunity to develop and grow their operations, observed moderator Kamal Shehadi, Chief Regulatory Officer with leading Middle East operator Etisalat and Chairman of the GSR-09 event held in Lebanon, Beirut in 2009.
In his closing address to GSR-14 delegates earlier today, the Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, Brahima Sanou, said: “Capitalizing on the potential of the digital world can only be achieved through collaborative efforts, resulting in effective and smart regulation. Empowering consumers, redefining responsibilities and creating the conditions for all citizens to benefit from the potential of the digital world further calls upon cooperation at all levels, national, regional and international.”
GSR-14 Chair Dr Mohammed Alamer noted: “Together, we identified measures needed to protect the rights of telecoms and ICT consumers – without stifling innovation – that will enhance the consumer’s experience of living in a competitive, safe and trustworthy digital environment. GSR-14’s cadre of regulators identified proactive policy and regulatory measures in the following areas: redefining consumer protection needs along the value chain, from ICT networks to apps and services; identifying priorities and responsibilities of ICT stakeholders (government, industry and consumers) in a digital environment; and expanding the regulator’s mandate and enforcement measures to ensure effective consumer protection in a converged digital environment – in particular in dealing with privacy, data protection, protection against fraud, and misuse.”
In addition to three days of intensive discussions, the event featured a number of focused side events including an ITU Workshop on White Spaces and Dynamic Spectrum Access, a seminar on “Satellite Communications Spectrum: Assessing User Needs for Connectivity”, co-organized by the Global VSAT Forum and the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization, a dedicated meeting of private sector Chief Regulatory Officers, and special meeting of Regulatory Associations from around the world.