The importance of strong and adaptive ICT Regulators in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and for future poverty reduction

Policy brief by SPIDER and PTS - June 2020

Long-term support, cooperation and exchange of experience is vital for regulatory authorities in Sub-Saharan Africa to ensure crisis resistant ICTs

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The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to change how they access public and private services and even interact. Without any time to plan, services and communication has moved online almost overnight, but many countries do not have the ability to use digital as the “new normal” for work, schooling and other public services. Rural communities are particularly vulnerable as the degree of broadband access is very low in rural areas, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. Of the 25 least connected countries in the world, 21 are in Africa. These countries risk being left further behind if the crisis expands or repeats.[1]

The quality and availability of communication within a country depends on the strength and capacity of the ICT regulator which establishes the requirements of services, and follows up that these are delivered. This includes coverage of remote and rural areas, connectivity, and consumer
protection. The ICT regulators strive to ensure that as many as possible have access to the services and information they need and that no one is left behind.

ICT Regulators also play a central role in supporting various actors in providing their services online. Support to the public and the private sectors is not only a short-term investment during the pandemic but an investment in the future and a mitigation of economic decline brought on
by this crisis. The unprecedented demand for connectivity and data for all citizens is being met in a variety of ways:

Infrastructure sharing

In any given country there is communication infrastructure that is not used to its full potential. The unused capacity of dark fibre network built by one actor for one purpose can be used by other actors for other purposes. There is also the sharing of cost in building infrastructure together, e.g. towers and base stations in rural areas, where the business case for parallel infrastructures is not a viable option. This kind of collaboration requires a legal framework and conditions to be established and enforced.

The lockdown has brought about increase in online activities which have led to huge pressure on infrastructure, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) has therefore approved resource sharing by Mobile Network Operators during this period. This includes fibre optics cables and other resources in the event of cable cuts and other unforeseen developments.

NCC, the ICT regulator in Nigeria

Additional spectrum allocation

Digital communication must take place within allotted bandwidths so that the different signals do not interfere with each other. Just as with physical infrastructure, spectrum can be allocated and re-allocated in different ways to meet changing needs. Also, by implementing technology neutral spectrum regimes, upgrades of spectrum bands can be made quickly to relieve the network of congestion.This has both technical and legal aspects and is the responsibility of the ICT regulator.

For example, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ICT regulator in Mozambique (ARECOM) has provided additional spectrum for mobile and telecommunication operators for free. They have also extended all spectrum licences, which were to expire during the state of emergency.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the CRASA Members have been sharing best practices in the initiatives and interventions to fight the pandemic. For example, ICT regulators in the region had to temporarily release High Demand Spectrum (HDS) in order to meet the increased demand for ICT services and applications. This was in additional to the already allocated spectrum to be used for Public Protection and Disaster Relief technologies. In allocating this spectrum, regulators had to coordinate with their neighbours (Cross-Border) so as to mitigate any risk of harmful interference.

CRASA, Communications Regulators' Association of Southern Africa

Access to emergency services

When networks become congested, it is crucial that emergency services and responses to national disasters have access to communication. Regional regulatory organisations and ICT regulators collaborate to review, harmonise and implement measures for Public Protection and Disaster Relief, for example emergency numbers, both nationally and regionally. 

To facilitate ease of use by the public of the COVID- 19 Call Centre services, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) temporarily assigned the Ministry of Health the code 919 for the operation of the COVID-19 Call Centre services. This also harmonized the telephone number or code that can be used on all the telephony networks in the country.

UCC, the ICT regulator of Uganda

The ITP programme ICT Regulation – Policy and Practice by SPIDER and PTS supports regulatory development in Sub-Saharan Africa by providing expert support to meet an ever-changing ICT environment to create a level playing field for operators and other business actors and safeguard the interests and good service for end-consumers.

SPIDER, PTS, private sector and regional regulatory bodies support national regulatory authorities in Sub-Saharan Africa to address their strategic and evolving regulatory needs. When new needs arise, the programme identifies Swedish authorities or companies to provide the appropriate expertise. This is a unique Swedish collaborative capacity building approach that is long term to yield results and flexible enough to meet a changing reality. It is a model that can be adapted to other contexts with similar ICT regulatory challenges beyond sub-Saharan Africa.

This Sida, The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, supported model is more than just a pedagogical ITP programme, it is an adaptive and forward-looking programme that meets the partner regulatory authorities at their point of need and works collaboratively through emergent challenges to satisfactory conclusions. 

As part of a long-term vision, the partnership is exploring how to support newly formed regulatory authorities in the region, which are most likely hit hardest by the current pandemic.

This is part of the partnership’s desire for a legacy of equitable access to ICT for all in the region, thus leaving no one behind. To achieve all these ambitious aspirations, there is need for continued investment in this unique model of ICT regulatory capacity building.

A continued and even expanded capacity building of ICT regulators plays a key role in meeting the current challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, and long term it plays an equally key role in supporting a regulatory authority that provides stable rules of play for the market, promoting a good investment climate and ensuring a stable economy and society for long-term poverty reduction in Sub-Saharan Africa.

John Owuor

Director, SPIDER

Ola Bergström

Director for International Affairs, PTS - The Swedish Post and Telecom Authority

[1] From COVID-19 Crisis Response: Digital Development Joint Action Plan and Call for Action by World Bank, ITU, GSMA and World Economic Forum.