Nº 6 2013 > Global Symposium for Regulators

New apps, new delivery platforms

New apps, new delivery platforms

 ”Moving to the next level: New apps and new delivery platforms” was one of the sessions of this year’s Global Symposium for Regulators (GSR‑13). The following article captures highlights from the debate.

Converging delivery of content

”In the past, broadcasting was mainly terrestrial, which we all knew: the television set that we watched in our homes. In recent times, new media have crept into that space, where people are actually watching or receiving broadcasting through the Internet. Increasingly, the devices we use these days, whether television (which, apart from being audiovisual, can now serve as radio and Internet) or smartphones (which also have the capacity for video, radio, voice and so on), are pretty much converging in terms of the services they offer us, and the medium used to offer these services,” said Paarock VanPercy, Director General of the National Communications Authority of Ghana, opening the session, which he moderated.

There is no longer a clear distinction between network operators, on the one hand, and broadcasters, on the other. Instead, there is now a range of players active across multiple parts of the value chain, from content creation, to connectivity, to device manufacturing. Consumers are able to access whatever content they want, whenever they want. Content is also increasingly being bundled together with telephony and broadband services, through so-called triple-play or even quadruple-play offers. This converged environment poses new challenges for regulators. 

Digital broadcasting and online content delivery

Presenting the GSR discussion paper on digital broadcasting and online content delivery, John McInnes, Senior Associate at Webb Henderson, asked what the threshold should be for regulatory intervention. ”Given the speed of technological change, it is important that regulation is sufficiently flexible to be able to keep pace. One way of achieving this is by introducing technologically neutral licensing, so that regulation does not act as a barrier to change. Another option is to move away from detailed regulation to a more principle-based framework, which gives flexibility to adapt to change,” he said. 

Mr McInnes asked whether over-the-top (OTT) services — which include e‑mail, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), video-on-demand, e‑commerce and online advertising — should be regulated. One argument in favour of regulation in this area is that it would level the playing field for telecommunication operators, who remain subject to very detailed regulation in most countries. But given the global nature of the Internet, how and by whom should regulation of over-the-top services be enforced? 

There is also the matter of access bottlenecks. In most countries with established regulatory regimes, there are already well-developed rules on ensuring access to telecommunication networks in order to promote competition. However, there has been very little regulatory intervention to date to deal with other potential access bottlenecks, for example access to premium content. An important question for regulators will be whether competition and merger-control laws are sufficient to prevent new access bottlenecks emerging. 

A key focus for regulators in the converged environment is consumer protection. Different regulators currently diverge in their approach to content regulation, perhaps reflecting different national concerns and priorities. 

The increasing use of online content services means that there is an ever-increasing amount of data available to network operators and over-the-top service providers about consumer usage habits. Regulators need to decide what control there should be over the use of these data, what degree of transparency should be given to consumers about how their data may be used, and how user consent should be applied in practice. 

Another hot topic for regulators is net neutrality. Essentially, this is the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. The explosion in online content consumption places huge demands on telecommunication networks, and potentially offers incentives to discriminate between different sources of Internet traffic. All operators have traffic management policies, but at what point do these impinge upon net neutrality? Is it necessary to regulate to protect net neutrality?

In the new converged environment, is it still appropriate to have separate systems of regulation and regulators? There are advantages, for both licensees and consumers of converged regulators, according to Kathleen Riviere-Smith, CEO of Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority of the Bahamas, and one of the panellists. She said that moving from separate regulators to a converged regulator in the Bahamas had been beneficial but had also presented challenges. 

Ms Riviere-Smith explained that ”As a converged regulator — with utilities, competition and content under our purview — we are the single authority that deals with the issue. It is better for the licensee and for consumers, because at the end of the day we can look at the issue holistically versus, say, three different regulators looking at one issue, and not necessarily coordinating and collaborating with each other, and sometimes making contradictory decisions.” 

Regulating content?

Regulating content and regulating the medium are two very different tasks. One speaker from the floor told participants how, as a manager at a radiocommunication regulatory authority, he had responded to a request to open a radio station. “I was in charge of frequency management, so I allocated frequencies to the group of associations that had made the request. One week after the opening of the radio station, the radio broadcasts began to attack the government and criticize the head of State. At once, the head of cabinet came into my office and asked me to ban the radio station because the content was unacceptable. I replied ‘I do not manage content, only the medium. It is not possible for me to prohibit people from saying what they think. There is content and there is the medium. I have allocated the frequency. If the group does not pay, I will take away the frequency. But as for the content: go to the Ministry of Information. It is their job to deal with the content.’” 

Regulators certainly face a challenge in dealing with content, said Ms Riviere-Smith, noting that “It is a lot easier to deal with network issues and network problems, than with content issues and content problems, because when it comes to networks it is quite easy to draw the boundaries, but when it comes to content it is a whole new ballgame.”

Panel member Carlos Raúl Gutiérrez, President of the Board of Costa Rican telecommunication regulator, SUTEL, and President of the Latin American Forum of Telecom Regulators, REGULATEL, pinpointed another of the challenges that regulators now face, asking ”Under these converged conditions, how do regulators protect the personal data of consumers, including health data? How do they protect consumers in terms of the quality of the connection they are getting?” 

Another panel member, Mohamed Sharil Tarmizi, Chairman of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (one of the world’s first converged regulatory authority), commented that content censorship is something new for telecommunication regulators. ”It is virtually impossible to block something coming from outside your jurisdiction. But there is always a line that can be drawn. And that is to follow the laws of your land. For example, in Malaysia, pornography — particularly child pornography — is not allowed. And we block those websites,” he said. 

There is a fine line between civil liberties and individual rights, content censorship and content regulation, and respect for the laws of the land. Regulators continuously struggle to manage these aspects in the context of technological convergence. 

In order to conform to a country’s laws, it may sometimes be necessary to block content. Child pornography is something that all are in agreement on blocking. But where does incitement to hatred or violence fall in the spectrum of censorship versus freedom of speech? Ultimately, freedom of speech is vital, but it must come paired with responsibility.

The challenge for the regulator is how to manage the content available on new apps and new platforms. In Malaysia, for example, traditional print media are more heavily regulated but, for the new online media, a lot of the regulation is passed over into the hands of the consumer or the user. At the end of the day, it is a question of balance.

In the United Kingdom, the self-regulation model has worked well, and is being taken up by industry in order to avoid a more hard-line regulatory approach. A number of Internet service providers, including some cable companies, are going for a default setting that does not include access to pornographic or gambling sites. A user who wants access to such sites actually has to opt in.

Convergence is here to stay, and the user does not distinguish between the delivery infrastructure and the content that is being delivered. There are definite benefits in being a converged regulator, but regulators need to consider how to react in the current challenging context.



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