Q&A: The Role of Regulation in a Digital Age

Feb 06 2017
By B. Rose Kelly
Source Woodrow Wilson School

This Q&A is part of a series featuring panelists who will participate in the Princeton-Fung Global Forum. This public event, to be held March 20-21 in Berlin, is being organized by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Register here.

Today’s digital landscape is constantly in flux, and it can sometimes be unclear how to govern a Web 3.0+ world. Who is responsible for overseeing the web? And can all digital consumers have access and choice within the internet’s changing ecosystem?

These are the types of questions internet regulators grapple with on a daily basis. In this Q&A, Fátima Barros, head of the Portuguese National Regulatory Authority for Communications (ANACOM), describes why regulation is important and how ANACOM addresses these important digital quandaries.

Barros will be a panelist at the upcoming Princeton-Fung Global Forum, “Society 3.0+: Can Liberty Survive the Digital Age?” in the session “Panel 6: Living with – and Regulating – Web 3.0+”.

Q. You’re head of the Portuguese National Regulatory Authority for Communications. What is the role of a regulator like ANACOM?

Barros: Our main task is to promote competition in the communications sector, including electronic and postal communications, in order to ensure that consumers have more choices and quality at better prices. As a European regulator, ANACOM also plays a part in the construction of the internal market along with the other regulators of the European Union.

To properly perform this role and to ensure a high standard of regulation, ANACOM is committed to a culture of excellence and follows the principles of independence and transparency.

Q. What is the mission of ANACOM, and how do you work to achieve it?

Barros: ANACOM has, as its mission, the regulation of the communications sector, including electronic and postal communications. Moreover, ANACOM assists the government in these areas.

In order to carry out its mission, ANACOM has a wide range of competences, including promoting the connectivity of networks and services; promoting the availability of the universal service (internet for all); and protecting the rights and interests of consumers and other end users.

ANACOM also ensures the efficient management of the radio spectrum, including its planning and supervision, and approves the National Numbering Plan, which defines the format and structure of numbering resources.

To accomplish these tasks, ANACOM is granted with powers of regulation, supervision and oversight and has also granted sanctioning powers.

Q. What are some of the biggest challenges facing regulators around the world?

Barros: The internet and digital technologies are transforming our world dramatically. Regulators will have to adapt to increasingly convergent markets, with the confluence of platforms on which the various products are provided. On the end-user side, new trends are emerging, with a growing convergent use of all the terminals we have available today. For example, users buy package services, including voice, data and television.

But there are still barriers that prevent citizens and businesses from fully benefiting from the digital economy. Regulators have a crucial role in eliminating these barriers and creating a level playing field for all players in the market, while guaranteeing the rights of the end users, including those who are more vulnerable.

Regulators should also define new approaches to stimulating competition in the industry. In particular, regulators should strive to reduce the risk of the emergence of duopolies, a situation in which only two suppliers dominate the market.

But the biggest challenge for regulators may be related to the fact that these new, rapidly developing technologies are characterized by low levels of investment, at least in some areas, and there is also an increasing relevance of over-the-top content (audio, video and other media transmitted through the internet), which has a strong impact on the market structure.

In this context, a new regulatory approach that is more dynamic, more pragmatic and more stable is needed. We still believe that competition drives investment and is the best way to achieve connectivity for all. To that end, regulation should be flexible and more targeted, especially to deal with less attractive areas, where there is little demand and the costs of building the networks is high.

Q. How does one govern an ever-changing technological world? How do we maintain transparency and accountability?

Barros: Technology makes the world change every day. As such, regulators should make forward-looking decisions and follow future-proof models of regulation.

We do not have magical crystal balls, so we have to rely on technical, well-grounded, high-quality expertise and follow transparency and accountability principles. It is more and more necessary to promote the dialogue with consumers and stakeholders and anticipate innovation and technological change.

As such, regulators should review all major measures and decisions on a regular basis and should develop a comprehensive and meaningful set of performance indicators. All major decisions made by the regulator shall be fully justified and made publicly available. Finally, appropriate channels of complaint and possible redress should be available in relation to both the actions of the undertakings and to the actions of the regulator.

Q. At past conferences, you’ve referenced the European Commission’s Digital Single Market strategy. Can you explain what this is, and how did it come to be? How will it help Europe’s economy?

Barros: The Digital Single Market strategy of the European Commission aims to open up digital opportunities for people and business and enhance Europe's position as a world leader in the digital economy.

The Digital Single Market is one in which the free movement of persons, services and capital is ensured and where individuals and businesses can access and exercise online activities under conditions of fair competition — and with a high level of consumer and personal data protection. These are fundamental regulatory objectives that we strongly support as regulators. The strategy is built on three pillars. Firstly, access: It creates better access for consumers and businesses to digital goods and services across Europe. Secondly, the environment: creating the right conditions and a level playing field for digital networks and innovative services to flourish. Thirdly, the economy and society: maximizing the growth potential of the digital economy.

The Digital Single Market strategy is essential for Europe’s economy, as it can create opportunities for new startups, creating jobs and transforming public services. An inclusive Digital Single Market strategy offers opportunities for citizens, provided they are equipped with the right digital skills. Enhanced use of digital technologies can improve citizens' access to information and culture, improve their job opportunities, and it can promote modern open government. It also is a driver for growth, ensuring that Europe’s economy, industry and employment take full advantage of the digitalization of the world. The European Commission has presented a very ambitious overhaul of European Union (EU) electronic communications rules in order to meet Europeans' growing connectivity needs and boost Europe's competitiveness.

In the Commission’s understanding, promoting investments in high-capacity networks is increasingly fundamental for education, health care, manufacturing or transport. To meet these challenges and prepare for Europe's digital future, the Commission put forward three strategic connectivity objectives for 2025, which will be included in the digital agenda and will serve as basis for a Gigabit Society, one where citizens and businesses benefit from widespread connectivity of one gigabit per second, low latency and reliable performance delivered by robust, future-proof fixed and mobile technologies.

In a nutshell, the objectives aim at providing one gigabit of data per second to public services and enterprises relying on digital technologies, at least 100 megabits per second to all European households, rural or urban, and five gigabytes should be commercially available in at least one major city in each EU Member State by 2020. Five years later, all urban areas as well as major roads and railways should have uninterrupted five gigabyte coverage.

The achievement of these objectives puts a heavy burden on the shoulders of governments and regulators, but we believe we will get there. The new code for electronic communications, currently under discussion at the European level, will provide, I believe, the right tools for regulators to deliver what is expected in areas like access, spectrum, universal service, end-users’ protection and governance.