Regulators Choose Universal Access Route to Bridge Digital Divide
Telecommunication regulators from more than 80 countries delivered a powerful message to world leaders convening in Geneva for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) at the end of 2003. They identified a series of steps nations can take to bridge the digital divide and called upon countries to open their information and communications technology (ICT) sectors to greater competition. They further identified the kinds of regulations and practices needed to promote universal access to ICT services.
Participants at the 4th annual Global Symposium for Regulators (GSR), hosted by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), included international organizations such as the European Commission, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, as well as academic and non-governmental organizations. Participants prepared a blueprint of what should be done to ensure that global access to the tools of communication is extended to all of humanity.
The guidelines call for support for regulatory reform at the highest level of government. This means treating ICTs as a tool for development rather than a source of government revenue. Some of the key measures backed by national regulatory authorities include technologically neutral licenses (authorizations to provide services that do not distinguish on the basis of technology used, including fixed line or mobile cellular, for example) that enable service providers to use the most cost-effective technology to provide services, and reducing regulatory burdens to lower the costs of providing services.
The regulators agreed that the lessons learned from developing countries’ initial experiences with mobile cellular services should now be applied to a broader range of ICT services to foster universal access. These include providing services in a competitive framework, and using new technologies that offer both innovative services and affordable pricing options to a wide range of end users.
Regulators gave the nod to innovative, low cost technologies that will achieve long term financial self-sustainability, greater use of public access options that respond to the needs of local users, and the promotion of government measures such as tax incentives, reduced customs tariffs and national manufacturing of ICT equipment. The blueprint identified by regulators would lead to greater competition, more open markets and spark investment.
The measures also recognize that further steps may be needed to achieve ubiquitous access to ICTs in rural areas or to users with special needs, for example. Universal service funds are one option that complements regulatory reform when developed as a mechanism within a broader market-oriented approach to achieving universal access.