|The wireless world: the globalisation of telecom
|European Commissioner for Information Society and Media
Ms Viviane Reding is European Commissioner for Information Society and Media. She has presented two major legislative proposals to reduce European mobile roaming tariffs and to update Europe’s audiovisual content rules and is currently preparing proposals to revise the rules on electronic communications services to encourage open competition and facilitate convergence. Ms Reding, a long-time journalist for the Luxemburger Wort, was elected President of the Luxembourg Union of Journalists. Ms Reding served as a Member of the Luxembourg Parliament for ten years, and was a Member of the European Parliament for a further ten years before becoming the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth, Media and Sport in 1999. Amongst her awards and decorations are: The St George’s Cross of Catalunya (1992); Gold Medal of European Merit (2001); Robert Schuman Medal (2004); Prince of Asturias International Cooperation Prize (2004); Officer of the French Legion of Honour (2005); and, “Gloria Artis” Medal of Honour, Poland (2005). Ms Reding earned a doctorate of Human Sciences at the Sorbonne in Paris.
“Even in the poorest communities, mobile phones are becoming a bootstrap for development. Wireless is providing a scaleable route into the Information Society for all.” In developing countries, mobile phones are a connection to the world beyond, bringing information, stimulating economic growth and serving a wide variety of initially unimaginable functions. For policy-makers, regulation should “reduce the friction to IP-based services as much as possible” and open the way to a wireless economy, because these are the drivers of the Information Revolution.
Introduction In past years, the pace of globalisation has stepped up dramatically. The quick emergence of new economic powers, notably China and India, is changing the very fundamentals of the global economy. This change depends on information and communications technologies (ICT). An important part of global ICT goods and services are now produced in these fast growth economies. In addition, the global economy is running on communications networks, this economic growth would not be possible without them. This globalising economy presents us policy-makers with new realities to which we have to respond. Traditionally, telecommunications networks were national affairs run by state monopolies offering very simple voice services. How the situation has changed! Today we have substantially liberalised markets populated by increasingly international firms that are competing fiercely across a range of technology platforms (fixed, cable, mobile, satellite) and offering many different services. This revolution is not over. First, the so-called next generation networks are not just offering fast, always-on connections, but will be configured on open Internet architectures. This is crucial as it promotes a logical separation of the services from the physical infrastructure upon which they run. The leading example of this phenomenon is VoIP, where consumers no longer depend upon the switching of dedicated circuits to make calls. Second, consumers and business users now expect their familiar services to be on tap and at reasonable cost wherever they are in the world. Third, and what I find really remarkable, is that the ICT take-up is now leaping ahead in the developing nations – even in the poorest communities, mobile phones are becoming a bootstrap for development. Wireless is providing a scaleable route into the Information Society for All. For policy-makers, the implication is that the regulation of the sector has a fundamental principle to reduce the friction to IP-based services as much as possible and to open the way to a wireless economy – because these are the current motors of the Information Revolution. I want to give just two examples of areas where we have to come together to create open platforms for competition and innovation in the e-communications sector – standards and spectrum. Standards The GSM standard was a landmark decision, which paved the way for the global take-up of second Generation cell phones. From its launch pad in Europe, where 94 per cent of Europeans today have GSMs, this market is still growing at phenomenal rate, penetration is at 33 per cent worldwide with 2.2 billion subscriptions and is projected to reach three billion in 2008 – or one half of the planet! The GSM standard became a global standard because of a strong cooperation between 15 governments in 1987 and its rapid formal recognition as a standard in 1989. Repeating this success through government decision at European level alone is going to be much more difficult in the future. Today, the picture is much more complex, with more sophisticated technologies, more markets and international competition. It is much more difficult to make the case that governments have a viable case any longer to choose in favour of one particular standard. Certainly, we cannot do this in a way that pits one region’s standards against another’s. So, except where we have a real chance of a global accord on a single standard, we have instead to move towards open standards. Taking some examples, if we look at Mobile TV standards, there are already a number of accepted alternatives vying for position. Which one is best? The same is true when we look at the emerging competition between wireless broadband solutions. Surely, it is up to businesses to define attractive business models that will entice consumers to opt for the one they like best! In addition, governments are not usually best placed to decide between competing technologies. We know that if we choose the wrong standard we can lock our economies into long periods of economic underperformance, while market-led solutions have consistently been shown to provide a much better environment for technology selection. But governments do have a role to play. In particular, we have to provide certainty where we can. We have a duty to eliminate uncertainty by insisting that standards setting procedures are open, streamlined and independent. We have a duty also to make sure that the standards adopted are open and interoperable. Governments can also help standard setting by working with standards agencies to adapt legal systems to tackle emerging problems, such as, patent ambushes. Standards should also offer legal certainty as to the intellectual property rights, IPR, that are embedded in standards to make sure that they are fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory. We as governments have a duty to reduce unnecessary uncertainty and delays in standard setting procedures and we should certainly all condemn the abuse of standards as a non-tariff barrier to slow down or stop free access to markets. If we can achieve this, we will have made a large contribution to reducing a friction that is putting the brakes on development. Spectrum I mentioned the emerging wireless economy. We are seeing a massive increase in the economic potential of radio spectrum just at the time we are developing technologies that will free-up much of the spectrum that is currently occupied. This will reduce substantially the problems of interference management. This is a very large potential win for development and we should not squander the opportunity by making the wrong choices. For example, new digital techniques such as digital television are expected to increase the efficiency of the use of broadcast spectrum sixfold. This means that we can have many more channels and choice, it also means that these prime frequency bands could be available for the new services that are now coming onto the market. Already today, wireless-based services are estimated to represent €200 billion, or 2.5 per cent of the European economy. Emerging services include mobile television broadcasting and the various different types of wireless broadband, such as cellular networks, mesh networks, WiFi and WiMAX. The new services also include those that will exploit the coming ‘Internet of things’ that will network together all radio-based devices, such as detectors, sensors, actuators and identifiers. This flowering of wireless technologies, at the same time as we have the chance to rethink our spectrum use, can be called a ‘digital dividend’ and gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink the way we use this valuable natural resource. Because these technologies are by nature portable, or even mobile, we have to move on this together. We are not yet in a position to make fully flexible ‘software radio’ devices that can adapt to whatever frequencies are allocated to them in any particular jurisdiction. That is a few years away. That is why we have to make a fundamental change now. If we want to get the benefits of the digital dividend, we have to look for economies of scale. This means agreeing common spectrum allocations worldwide, just as in 1986 EU Heads of State agreed to reserve 900MHz spectrum band for GSM, and common approaches to spectrum management. It is particularly important to recognise this second point: the way we manage the allocation of spectrum has to change. Just as we as governments should not be in the business of mandating standards, even if it was successful in the past, so with spectrum we should as a matter of principle try to get out of rigid command and control allocation. That approach made sense in the past when our spectrum needs were few and the security of supply for essential public interest services gave paramount importance to the prevention of interference. With modern technologies this approach is outdated, but if we want the full pay-off from the digital dividend we have to change in a coordinated way. We need to move progressively from a command and control paradigm to a flexible regime based on market principles, where fixed allocations are special cases rather than the norm. The digital dividend Finally, as I noted at the start, wireless provides the best hope we have to bridge the digital divide. We have seen this in the imaginative use of GSM phones in developing countries, not just as a means of talking on the phone but, for example, the way that pre-paid cards can act as a way of monetising credits for people without access to traditional forms of financial services, such as a simple bank account. The development of services such as mobile broadband and WiMax offer scaleable solutions for real broadband access, not just in low-income communities but also in sparsely settled areas in developed communities. For this to happen, however, it is essential that we sweep away barriers to the development of these services. In particular, we need enough flexibility in spectrum allocation so that high-speed broadband can be offered using wireless. We are a long way from this now, but the barriers are bureaucratic not technical. In addition, we should put an end to counterproductive trade barriers, such as tax regimes, IPR and standards requirements that effectively put mobile services out of reach of poorer communities. I believe that wireless solutions will provide a practical way to connect the world. Both these barriers are our responsibility – as policy-makers – to take down.