ITU warns of challenges to come despite overall positivity

Friday, 5 October 2012 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Cassandra Mascarenhas

The ICT sector is one that has weathered many crises successfully in recent times and has in fact done well while other sectors suffered greatly and this can be attributed to the good regulation in the industry across the world, stated International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Secretary-General Dr. Hamadoun Touré.

In Sri Lanka for the 12th global symposium of regulators which came to a close yesterday after three days of discussions, Touré was one of the 400 top tech policy makers from over 100 countries who convened in Colombo to tackle challenges and opportunities of broadband-driven ICT development.

Refereeing the ICT sector

“The regulatory authority is there to be the referee amongst the players. You don’t want to have too visible a referee. You need a regulator strong enough to be respected by the players to prevent foul play and that has been really dynamic in this industry,” he noted at the press briefing earlier this week.

“The ICT industry is one that has done well despite the economic crisis because there is good regulation it but not heavy handed regulation. You all know that the financial sector went through the crisis due to a total lack of regulation.”

He explained that the meeting is held on an annual basis in a very intensive manner, the purpose of which is to bring together top level policy makers and regulators from across the world to share their experiences, both good and bad, and to share information.

Touré went on to say that they follow a simple policy of sharing information as it would be a shame if a country made a mistake or if  something that has already been invented by someone else was created once again solely due to the lack of information.

“You know when you bring the regulators together you always expect professional play. These people are very top level – we have over a 100 countries present here and over 400 delegates and they attend this meeting on an annual basis. We are able to make sure that all people involved in the sector come out as winners by sharing the right information so we have well-experienced regulators here from all across the world.”

Innovation comes from everywhere

The Secretary-General also pointed out that in the field of ICT, countries simply cannot be catagorised as big or small, old or young, because technology and the challenges that come with it are new to everyone and even a small developing country can come up with innovative solutions that will be adopted by everyone else. He added that it has been observed throughout these discussions that people are very proactive.

The director of development of the conference has also come up with a new idea with a lot of value by organising the Global Regulators Industry Dialogue (GRID) that brings together the heads of private sector companies together with the regulators to talk.

“It is like you are bringing the players and the referee together to build up the rules of the game together. That’s the difference with this sector which makes it well regulated and we are monitoring it to ensure that we share best practices to make sure that people don’t overdo the regulatory aspect of it and we keep the momentum going.”

As of now, there are over 165 countries that have a national independent regulatory authority which is setting the rules of the game in this information era. They have successfully worked towards ensuring that mobile communication is almost widespread everywhere in the world today and Touré stated that the next challenge the sector is faced with is how to convert this mobile miracle into what they call the broadband miracle.

Entering the knowledge society

“As you know, we are now in the information society with almost every citizen in the planet connected through the mobile phone. Our next challenge is to enter the knowledge society where people will be able to access more information and data and through broadband communications. This is why ITU two years ago formulated the Broadband Commission for Digital Development in order to put together a plan to ensure that every country has a national broadband plan,” he said.

Talking about Sri Lanka, Touré stated that the country has seen a great revolution in terms of mobile penetration as in 2006, the mobile penetration in Sri Lanka was around 27 per cent. By the end of 2011, the mobile penetration was 87 per cent.

This is a tremendous growth, he asserted. In fact, 3G services were introduced in Sri Lanka ahead of every other country in the Asia Pacific region and therefore was also the first country to introduce third generation mobile services. There are currently trials been undertaken in Sri Lanka for LTE – the next generation of mobile communications.

“We are very pleased with Sri Lanka as we believe that there has been a very good regulatory environment that was conducive to more competition. Competition, the private sector, privatisation and innovation are the key drivers of this industry today. I would like also to mention the level of cooperation that the ITU had with Sri Lanka for many years – we have been working on the legal and regulatory framework on capacity building areas.”

Assistance from the ITU

He drew upon a project that was carried out recently here in collaboration with the ITU, a very large scale school connectivity programme which aimed to bring in computers and create computer labs in schools. It also made sure that the lab is operational for the rest of the community after school hours ended.

Touré observed that this has been very successful here in Sri Lanka. It has been implemented in 25 schools and has been so successful that the Government has decided to do it nation-wide. The ITU sees it as a very good success story, one so good that it was included in a report that was submitted two weeks ago in Europe.

“We believe that Sri Lanka can be seen as a case country for other countries to learn from the success stories, and of course from the mistakes as well.” He also commended the work being done in the North and East of the country.

The ITU has also conducted several programmes and workshops in Sri Lanka over the years and a notable one was the workshop held in 2009 for Supreme Court judges through which they received special training on ICT challenges so that they would be better equipped to oversee court cases related to the ICT industry and make a fair ruling.

He also revealed that telecommunications has been made a global requirement for people along with water, electricity and transport. In fact, it is interesting to note that mobile phones have taken electricity to rural areas as people required it to charge their mobiles.  

“Legislation is key in driving policy. Research has shown that 10 per cent of mobile penetration results in a 0.7 per cent increase in GDP,” he said.

In terms of carrying out pilot projects in countries, Touré explained that the ITU’s development sector looks for transparency and low corruption in countries and as they want real implementation of the project, 100 per cent of the funds are spent on equipment that stays in the country and is not used to pay expatriates’ salaries etc. However there is a long queue of countries asking for assistance and if a country does not get its act together, the assistance is cut off.

Obstacles to be overcome

The ITU has over 700 private sector companies as their partners in addition to all the member countries and works closely with the United Nations to achieve good results. Touré pointed out that the MDGs will not be reached in time without ICT.

He added that for ICT to be properly implemented in a country, it is essential to have proper leadership and a strong legal framework. “It is a very profitable industry and competition is needed to drive the industry in the right direction. With more players entering the market, it is important to have an authority that is respected by the players and this authority should be completely independent in order to monitor the environment in an unbiased manner.”

Today’s technology is nothing compared with what is to come and people will keep demanding more, he warned. Some of the challenges that need to be addressed in the coming years will be the issues related to social networking and social behavioural problems. Another looming issue is the one of security and privacy.

“Cyber threats really have the potential to destroy societies and we see unnecessary problems being created in the name of freedom through cyberspace. A new type of cold war is starting in cyberspace with countries accusing each other and it is a big challenge for us as cyberspace knows no borders – we need to acknowledge and deal with the international reach of crime through cyberspace. We need to bring about a cyber peace treaty before war breaks out,” he cautioned.

Attacks on countries have already been witnessed and malware is now being conceived by some countries targeting others, highlighting the urgent need for a level of trust to be brought about on an international level, one involving the private sector and all governments and countries need to commit themselves to not attacking other nations.