|Public-private partnerships for wireless QoS
|Walda W. Roseman
|CompassRose International, Inc
Walda Roseman is CEO of CompassRose International, Inc, an ICT consulting firm specializing in strategic issues with an international dimension. Ms Roseman has served in a variety of executive positions, including Director of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s Office of International Communications, Intelsat Senior Executive for External Relations and Senior Strategic Advisor, Executive Vice President/Chief Operating Officer of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Senior Vice President of National Public Radio, and Director of Public Affairs for the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy. Ms Roseman has been Adjunct Professor at George Washington University and serves on several boards, including the boards of the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation, the American Refugee Committee International, and the U.S. ITU Association. Ms Roseman is a graduate of Cornell University.
The most successful public-private partnerships have been between regulators, and the ICT sector. The spectacular growth of mobile communications worldwide is due to the decision by regulators to keep the cellular communications sector highly competitive and outside the state-owned monopolies. As a result, cellular communications grew rapidly and economies worldwide were transformed. Improved quality of service – QoS – is needed now for wireless growth. It is the next great challenge for this sort of public-private partnership.
One of the most successful public-private partnerships in the telecommunications industry has been that which has led to the global expansion of communications services through wireless – thus far primarily cellular – communications. Those regulators who surveyed a less than successful deployment of telecommunications by their state-owned monopolies, who were motivated by public policy to achieve universal access, and who decided to declare cellular communications competitive and outside of the state monopoly, were rewarded with rapid growth of communications and a transformation of their economies. Each subsequent step has led to more open and competitive markets, greater economic dynamism and access to information and, consequently, greater dependency on wireless networks. The pact that regulators tacitly, or explicitly, struck with the communications industry was that so long as the industry continued to extend its services, engage in fair competition, and perform as responsible corporate citizens, the regulators would forebear from heavy handed regulation such that the industry could prosper. Most governments can now proudly point to exceptionally rapid growth of wireless services in their countries. Indeed, for some 15 years now the metric for the success of the telecommunications industry, and of the regulators who helped spawn that success, has been the pace and extent of growth of wireless subscribers. Wireless (primarily mobile) communications networks, particularly in developing countries, are now viewed as the foundation for access to the Internet, as well as to education, health, government and other services. Government, business and society at-large rely heavily on these networks. Yet how reliable are they? Not surprisingly, citizens and governments worldwide are concluding that they are beyond the point where any voice service at all is considered acceptable and are insisting on reliable, sustained quality of service (QoS). In many respects, the wireless industry has become the victim of its own success and rapid growth that has outstripped its networks’ capacity to support such growth in traffic and in some cases has even run up against spectrum limitations and exceeded existing public policy priorities. Companies that do have capital to reinvest in their networks nonetheless must make choices about where to invest. Should they invest in further expansion into rural areas; in improving urban and enterprise services and functionalities; or in network, including backbone, upgrades to improve overall QoS? Today, regulators offer little guidance as to which of these priorities they prefer. The choices regulators and companies do make, of course, incur different business consequences and, of course, the return on investment would certainly differ across these various options. Improving quality of service – QoS – has thus become the next wave for wireless growth and the next great challenge. The obstacles to high QoS are not uni-dimensional. They will not be resolved through either regulatory fiat or solely through increased network investment. In some cases solutions will need to involve steps taken by regulators and industry and may require a managing of expectations by politicians. As the reasons for QoS problems vary and may spring from multiple sources, those seeking to improve the situation will find that QoS problems are indicators of the underlying business challenges faced by those who build, operate and maintain wireless networks. The first steps of resolving any QoS issues are to understand the nature and root causes of QoS problems, to identify the landscape of potential solutions and to recognize that different stakeholders may need to be called upon to take the actions required to solve the specific problems identified in a particular market. As QoS problems can stem from different underlying issues, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for every service provider. The Nature of QoS Problems: Fundamentally, QoS problems result from a mismatch of service supply and market demand. While in some instances this could be addressed by new pricing strategies – i.e. raising prices in order to limit and help shape demand, such an approach is seldom attractive in developing country markets that have universal access goals and where affordable wireless service is essential for domestic economic growth. So, alternatively, wireless operators need to find ways to increase supply by driving down associated costs. ‘Service supply’ can be viewed as the aggregate voice and/or data capacity available to subscribers throughout the day and the accessibility of that service to subscribers wherever they are located within the coverage area of a wireless network. It is better still to consider the input resources needed to generate the voice and data capacity supplied to subscribers. Those input resources include spectrum or radio channels; power or access to power distribution systems; backbone connectivity; cell sites and other infrastructure; the capital required for network deployment and upgrades; and the human resources needed to build, manage, operate, administer and maintain the network. QoS problems occur when wireless service providers are unable, for whatever reasons, to deploy these resources in sufficient quantity – and appropriately distributed over the coverage areas of their networks – ahead of the market demand for the services they support. The Nature of QoS Solutions It is evident that root causes for QoS problems stem from a scarcity in various types or categories of resources – e.g. spectrum, basic infrastructure, human resources, and capital – many of which may not be wholly controllable by wireless network operators. For example, regulators control spectrum availability and each operator’s license provides access to a specified amount of spectrum. The efficacy of their use of that spectrum is limited by the nature of the technology they are able to use within their licensed spectrum, which may or not be dictated by the terms of their license. Solving a spectrum scarcity problem may entail obtaining more spectrum and/or obtaining the right to use more spectrally efficient technology. Access to basic infrastructure (cell towers, backbone connectivity and international gateways), for example, may require obtaining favourable terms for interconnection agreements and may be facilitated by governmental policies related to infrastructure sharing. Then too, many developing countries have severe limitations in the numbers of people trained and experienced in managing core functions essential to building, operating and maintaining wireless networks. These core functions include network design, contract negotiation and management, purchasing, quality and supplier management, marketing and sales, and project management, installation, operations and maintenance, billing and customer support. Deficiencies in any of these areas can limit a network operator’s ability to keep ahead of rapidly increasing traffic demand and maintain superior QoS. Developing country operators can also have more difficulty accessing the capital needed for network investment or may pay a higher cost for capital than do their counterparts in more developed markets. Taken as a whole, the following are some important steps that can assist in uncovering and addressing QoS problems: • as a first step, government and industry must each clearly indicate that QoS is a high priority and a shared responsibility that they intend to address together; and • regulators and industry should conduct case-by-case assessments of where the problems lie and determine which stakeholder is capable of addressing particular problems, e.g., if impediments to QoS are attributable to the import of inferior equipment, then the equipment supplier should he held accountable for improving their product quality. At the same time, to protect against counterfeited equipment entering a market, governments must take steps to ensure that there is strong rule of law protecting trademarks and other forms of intellectual property, and that customs agents are vigilant to the import of equipment ‘knock-offs’ that are always inferior to approved equipment. If there is insufficient spectrum, then regulators need to reassess and, as necessary, assign additional spectrum. If there has been an underinvestment by the operator in network infrastructure, or if the network operator is investing in its business but QoS is not discernibly improving, then the issue may lie in another domain. For example, a company might have problems with access to capital or encounter high costs of capital, or lack adequate incentive to invest in improving QoS over other investment opportunities. QoS investment incentives normally flow from three pressure points – ideally, from customers, but also from government and regulators, and shareholders. Steps to be taken by responsible parties to institute improvements in each of the areas of concern: • once the sources of the QoS problems are identified, the public–private partnership must once again go to work to deliver remedies for each of the identified obstacles; • a system of accountability that involves customers and vigilance by regulators to ensure that competition in the industry is sufficiently effective that unhappy customers can easily switch to service providers who offer better QoS; and • when governments and industry mobilize together as partners, we have seen them succeed even beyond expectations. In the next wave of wireless, where raising QoS worldwide will be another critical aspect of universal access, those who succeed will indeed reap the benefits of having created a reliable worldwide infrastructure for delivery of a panoply of information and entertainment services.