Bringing together national and international spectrum regulators and policymakers, academics, and corporate representatives, this panel explored the ways in which spectrum policy can be reshaped to support long-term economic growth and encourage the transition to, and preservation of, democracy.
Jochai Ben-Avie, Policy Director at the digital rights movement Access (AccessNow.org) and the moderator of the panel, opened the session by discussing how conversations about communications policy in historic moments like the Arab Spring tend to be dominated by talk about social media and censorship. He argued that the post-revolutionary transitions in these countries highlight the need to reform media and communications policy and infrastructure in the region and indeed worldwide. Yet, the topic of spectrum allocation and regulation, which determines the frequencies that are assigned to telecoms, broadcasters, and other wireless technologies, has remained one of the least understood policy areas—despite the fact that spectrum reform can dramatically improve democratic access to both traditional and new media and is a powerful tool for promoting development and expanding access to communications technologies.
The panelists went on to debate whether spectrum is a finite or infinite resource, the roles of national and international spectrum regulators, potential differences in spectrum policy geared towards urban and rural areas, the relationship between different business models and ways of conceiving spectrum management and allocation, and how quickly spectrum policy and regulations can - and should - change. There was an emphasis on the media, technology, and governance mechanisms and institutions built on and for spectrum as an ecosystem. A general consensus was reached on the need to think of spectrum policy as dealing with more than the vital and necessary technical issues of harmonisation and compatibility, and to pay more attention to considerations of who has access to the spectrum and how it is used.
Paul Conneally of the ITU, argued that spectrum is a finite resource, and should therefore be managed by a global body which would do the detailed work of properly managing spectrum allocation and international interoperability. He detailed the history and continued work of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in managing international spectrum policies. Because of the spectrum conservation done by the ITU in the 1960s and 1970s he argued, a spectrum crunch which would have left behind developing countries today has been prevented. Further advances in spectrum policy should be done undertaken in conjunction with regulators from around the globe, and that careful policy regulations would be needed for an unpredictable future.
Paul Mitchell, the Senior Director of Technology Policy at Microsoft, stated that he does not believe that the spectrum is finite, on the contrary, spectrum is actually an infinite resource because it is immediately regenerated and recreated after its use. He pointed out that large parts of the spectrum are allocated and underutilized. For example, in the case of the landlocked US state of Nebraska, the marine bands are not used at all. The challenge is not dividing up spectrum, but figuring out how users can co-operatively use the same resource at the same time. Highlighting the importance of spectrum reform, he said that “the things we know how to do technically have dramatically outpaced what our current allocation system is.”
Claudia Selli, EU Affairs Director of AT&T, agreed that spectrum can be used in more efficient ways, but warned that in the coming years, regulators, corporations, and users will be confronted with a spectrum crunch as mobile data usage skyrockets. Because of this, she argues that regulators should make more of the spectrum available for use. Parallel with their work to release more spectrum, governments must continue to work on policy that harmonises spectrum.
Kate Coyer, the Director of the Center for Media and Communications Studies at Central European University, explained that thinking of spectrum as a scarce resource replicates the traditional broadcast framework being applied to an environment where scarceness is not the problem. She asserted that the problem is a regulatory regime that focuses on property rights, seeing spectrum as something that can be bought and sold, rather than seeing it as a space for encouraging media pluralism and diversity. A country’s media environment is affected by its spectrum policy. She stressed the importance of democratic institutions and independent regulatory authorities. Governments are needed to make that space so that the spectrum is not dominated by large corporate interests.
Moez Chakchouk, the CEO and Chairman of the Tunisian Internet Agency (known more commonly by its French acronym, ATI), emphasized the importance of using innovative broadband policy to spread access to rural areas. Before the Tunisian revolution, Tunisia had one of the most complicated regulatory regimes, which Mr. Chakchouk is now involved in reforming. As he encounters first-hand the the relationship between spectrum policy and democratic institutions while reforming communications policy more broadly in Tunisia, he emphasized that policy cannot be just about how to make money, but how the community can benefit.
The variety of questions from the audience to the different panelists exemplified the complexities of spectrum policy’s relationship with democracy and development. One member of the audience inquired about how the ITU coordinates spectrum policy on an international and global level, eliciting a detailed response from Paul Conneally. Other questions focused on what the transition to new spectrum policy would look like, and how quickly it could be accomplished. When asked about how quickly spectrum policy can change to an open spectrum policy environment, panelists generally acknowledged the necessity of slow, incremental changes. Paul Mitchell pointed out that the current system is approximately 100 years-old, and that even changing from analogue television broadcasting to digital television broadcasting in the United States took over a decade to sort out. Paul Conneally emphasized that evolutionary change is necessary so as not to upset the current harmonization of spectrum policy. As it stands now, telecommunications infrastructure is currently built around a property model for spectrum, rather than a shared commons approach.
Each of the panelists approached spectrum policy from a different vantage point, varying from emphasis on the technical difficulties of developing spectrum policy to pointing out that policies cannot be developed without first having a clear regulatory framework in place. Several panelists agreed that there must and will be a shift from the property model of spectrum, in which leases to parts of the spectrum are auctioned off to private entities, generally the highest bidder, to a shared model. Spectrum policy designed with democracy and development in mind is about more than just technical allocations, but also where and for whom the spectrum is allocated. Kate Coyer asked most succinctly: “who has access to the airwaves?”