Emerging Trends | Policy/ Regulatory Reform | Regulation
June 24, 2019

Why we need ‘5th Generation ICT Regulation’

By Sofie Maddens, Head of the Regulatory & Market Environment Division of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau

In the early days of what was once known simply as ‘telecoms regulation’, policy-makers and regulators dealt largely with the separation of operation and regulation, and the opening up of monopolistic markets. Infrastructure deployment and development were the main focus, including how to roll networks out to unserved and underserved areas.

That traditional approach to regulation began to change fundamentally in the late 1990s, in the wake of a surge of new players interested in investing in ICTs, and major shifts in information and communication technology (ICT) such as mobile telephony and the dawn of the Internet.

Today, the environment in which ICT regulators work is dramatically different from that which shaped the agenda of ITU’s very first Global Symposium for Regulators almost 20 years ago.

Rapid convergence of technologies, bundling of services, and completely new kinds of services and service providers – operating in what are now mostly competitive markets –  have transformed the ICT landscape almost beyond recognition. Even more importantly, ICTs have moved far beyond the realm of simple ‘communications’ to become the crucial foundation for every economic sector and a sine qua non of business performance and national growth.

A new age of regulation

Regulation has entered a new age. As mobile phones become the portals to an ever-growing array of online services, regulators are being forced to grapple with a host of new challenges that span once-disparate sectors – from digital identity to data protection and privacy, blockchain, the implications of artificial intelligence (AI), and much more.

Business as usual, where stable, transparent regulatory frameworks were almost all that was required to ensure the market did the work of connecting people, won’t work in this new era. What’s more, with ICTs so critical to economic growth, getting the right regulatory frameworks in place has become vitally important to every country’s future.

5th-generation regulation will need to be flexible, light-touch, and much more open to partnership.

If we’re to succeed in connecting marginalized individuals, persons with disabilities, low-income communities, communities challenged by educational impoverishment, and remote or isolated populations which may also lack basic infrastructure such as electricity, we’re going to need to be much more creative, and much more collaborative, in our approach to policy-making. This is what we mean by ‘5th generation regulation’.

Getting policies right has never been so important, because ICTs will be absolutely fundamental to meeting the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Finding ways to solve the challenges of digital inclusion are urgent if we are to truly leverage the potential of technology to address some of the world’s most stubborn development issues.

With the right networks and services in place and an enabling regulatory framework, ICTs have the potential to dramatically transform access to education, health care, environmental management and agriculture, opportunities for trade and entrepreneurship, the provision of government services – and so much more.

Collaboration is key

If we had to choose one word to characterize this new 5th-generation of ICT regulation, it would be collaboration. Pushing access out to remote areas and getting the remaining 49% of the world online and able to use ICTs for a better life demands radical new approaches.

Old adversarial models that pitted regulators against private companies, and private companies against one another, need to be replaced by new, collaborative platforms.

At this year’s Global Symposium for Regulators (GSR-19), regulatory experts from around the world will be looking at new models for stimulating the roll-out of infrastructure and services to the parts of the world where technology could make the biggest difference.

It’s a complex picture: with digital connectivity comes the need to build digital skills – to maintain and develop networks, certainly, but also to ensure an enthusiastic and growing user base which is fully equipped to take advantage of new digitally-enabled opportunities and services.

Flexible, light-touch, open to partnership

5th-generation regulation will need to be flexible, light-touch, and much more open to partnership.

Governments and regulators alone will not be able to meet the challenge of connecting the next half of the world – but neither will the private sector.

Old adversarial models that pitted regulators against private companies, and private companies against one another, need to be replaced by new, collaborative platforms where all stakeholders work together to create win-win strategies that ultimately benefit government, business and, most importantly, people.

The upcoming GSR-19 in Port Vila will serve as one of the most important global milestones in forging this new practical approach. Discussions over the course of this year’s four-day event promise to be innovative, bold and, at their best, visionary.

This year’s output – the renowned GSR Best Practice Guidelines – could just prove one of the most important documents yet produced in setting the future direction, not just of ICT development, but of SDG-linked socio-economic development for many countries and people worldwide.

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Why we need ‘5th Generation ICT Regulation’

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