Addressing Digital Divides (Parallel Sessions): Ensuring Connectivity for All

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The session started with casting the audience’s on vote whether the access to quality broadband could be considered a basic right. The question was answered positively by 60% of the audience. The moderator then moved to ask the panellists how policymakers can strengthen connectivity and ensure affordable access to high-quality broadband networks for all, and what policies and regulations have proven to be effective.

Mr Vitor Menezes (Secretary for Telecommunications, Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communications, Brazil) started by outlining his country’s strategy to achieve full coverage by 2025 despite the challenges of being one of the largest countries in the world. Mendez believes that competition among providers is the key to guaranteeing better access; he elaborated on five policies currently implemented to showcase the country’s overall strategy to promote access. Brazil implements a policy to ensure competition of coverage licensing which allows 66% of the population to have access to mobile, Internet access. It also aims at full territorial satellite coverage to achieve full digital transformation and ensures fair competition for fixed/mobile provides and leverages the role of Internet Exchange Providers (IXPs). On the other hand, Brazil’s policy is to deploy fibre networks to guarantee quality access in remote areas. Finally, Brazil is currently working on deploying 5G mobile networks to motivate robust market development

Mr Roberto Viola (Director-General, DG Connect, European Commission) elaborated on how policy and regulation best complement market mechanisms to optimise incentives for all market players to innovate, compete and invest along the entire value chain. Viola briefly touched upon the legal framework that guarantees the rights to access the Internet at the level of the European Union, and he stressed the importance of making it actionable, which is not a simple matter.

According to Viola, there are specific criteria to produce coherent policies which will allow streamlining access services at a large scale knowing that most investments come from private funding. Therefore, policy and regulatory measures should stimulate investments. This happens by offering regulatory frameworks, providing reasonable benchmarks that the private sector can achieve realistically and fostering public investments to guarantee the sustainability of services. The Universal Service Fund can act as an effective mechanism to mitigate failure at the delivery level as there is no substitute for private investments, Viola added.

Ms Yasmina McCarty (Head of Mobile for Development, GSMA) elaborated on the sustainable development goals (SDGs) framework which includes up to 169 indicators, but none of them addresses digital inclusion. She added that it is crucial to define the difference between coverage and usage. While recent statistics show that 800 million people are not connected, 2.3 billion are in areas where they have access, but they do not use it due to various challenges. McCarty thinks that there has to be the joint ambition of the private sector and government to ensure digital transformation.  She added that if the right policy framework exists, investments should focus on defining modalities of work and more innovation to justify deploying networks in rural areas, where the return is limited compared to urban areas.

Mr Peter Wostner (Chair of the Working Party on Rural Policy, Slovenia) supports the idea that rural coverage motivates the increase in the quality of life of residents and helps them access job opportunities on equal footing with people in urban areas. He stressed the importance of having a long-term vision to define an ecosystem that guarantees an optimal quality of living conditions of rural areas. Extending the cable connection is a pre-condition but not the ultimate solution. Beyond the digital access, public services including schools, hospitals, and other public amenities should also be included in the plan of digital transformation for rural areas.

In order to guarantee the high-quality access to broadband networks in rural and remote areas, Menesez suggested that any proposed regulatory frameworks should include a number of government agencies to ensure that deploying infrastructure projects is viable. In the case of Brazil, the competition among providers is not a solution to deploy connection in rural or remote areas because the density is lower. Therefore, the satellite coverage is the most efficient solution for large areas.

In the case of Europe, a combination of private/public funding is available to finance the least covered areas by organising a competitive process to identify market needs. A tender is organised to ensure that the best-qualified operator is entrusted with deploying the infrastructure. McCarty adds that affordability is one of the main issues hampering connectivity but not the only one. Computer skills, safety and security issues, specifically among women and youth are also important. 

The increasingly more connectivity traffic that passes through OTT products, defining different regulatory frameworks that influence the use of mobile services and the available funding to deploy 5G was the focus of the last part of this panel. GSMA’s policy position regarding deploying 5G revolves around applying ‘the same service, same rule principle’. The new wave of innovation should continue to drive inclusion, and local operators are positioned to be true partners to the government to achieve the best results. Viola added that the conditions for deploying 5G should consider the stability of infrastructure, facilitate 5G deployment by reducing red tape.

The session finished by addressing the necessity to apply the demand-driven policies to make sure the market is sustained, and to deploy proven models to mitigate market failure and elaborated on how OCED can help the process by:

  • Proposing a multidimensional comprehensive solution to ensure connectivity for all;
  • Co-ordinating at the government level;
  • Helping design a long-term vision to assist government in addressing issues specific to vulnerable communities;
  • Defining regulatory solutions and focus on what works well to activate the right to access; and
  • Providing best practices and tool to measure success.

 

By Hanane Boujemi

 

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