What are African ICT regulators doing in response to COVID-19?

As the demands and loads on the communication networks increased so did the pressure on National Regulatory Authorities to not only keep functioning but to solve unprecedented issues. Here are some experiences from the NRA’s in the programme.

As many countries faced extraordinary measures a lot of pressure fell on the shoulders of ICT regulators who had to deal with unprecedented situations in various aspects of regulation. Increased demand for data and connectivity was only one facet of a complex situation that oftentimes involved all aspects of the telecom regulation ranging from broadcasting to support primary education, information campaigns and short codes as well as issues relating to infrastructure, licensing and consumer protection.

In May SPIDER did a small inquiry among partner national regulatory authorities about the various responses to COVID-19 emergency and it became clear that many countries were facing similar issues. However, the most common issue in terms of number of countries and projects was focused on information: securing access to information through allowing citizens to access information for free, introducing short codes or using other broadcasting services such as television. This also includes measures to deal with disinformation that spread through various media. This has also been a topic brought up by various key actors such as for example the World Wide Web Foundation that have published a COVID-19 Policy Brief on Misinformation & Freedom of Expression.

The second point of business was ensuring that the increased demand for connectivity was met with increased capacity. The sudden surge in load on the networks required a multifaceted approach that entailed additional spectrum allocation, infrastructure sharing as well as extending licenses that would have otherwise expired.

The third most common issue was various forms of emergency communication and Public Protection and Disaster Relief (PPDR) measures to ensure the collection of information as well as the response to emergencies could continue uninterrupted despite the increased load on communication networks. SPIDER support team from CRASA underlined that in times of such a global crisis it is important to harmonise this work regionally so that divergent approaches do not hamper neither national nor regional response to emergencies.

Among other issues were the increased reliance on mobile money and the increased importance of consumer protection that came as a consequence of the strict lockdowns that were imposed in several countries. In tandem with this finding it became clear that digital financial services were a key component in managing and mitigating the social and economic fallout of the pandemic. In response, ITU held a 10-episode long webinar series dedicated to various aspects of Digital Financial Services. The topics range from curbing the threat of the pandemic, to consumer protection and interoperability of systems. The seminars are still available here.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced those who can to move online overnight it has also underscored the importance of connectivity affordable communication and access to telecommunications for all. The unprecedented reliance on telecommunication and ICT regulation have shoved ICT Regulation into the limelight and today no-one can claim that access to mobile phones and Internet is a luxury.