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Challenges and opportunities for freedom of expression in the networked environment

2. The Physical Layer

info: Submitted by Lisa Horner on Thu, 2008-05-29 16:38.

The principles

a) All people should have affordable and equitable access to the means of receiving and disseminating opinion, information and culture.
b) Regulation to achieve equitable access should be tailored to local conditions and should be flexible, subject to ongoing evaluation and review.

Rationale and detail

a) All people should have affordable and equitable access to the means of receiving and disseminating opinion, information and culture.

A lack of physical access to communications platforms for much of the world’s population is undermining the values of accessibility, diversity and openness. Inequitable access is resulting in digital divides both nationally and internationally along lines of wealth, gender, disability and ethnicity as well as between urban and rural areas. Policy should aim to provide affordable and equitable access to the communications platforms, in the very least those that are necessary for people to be able to participate fully in public life.

In the process of operationalising this principle, stakeholders need to define what constitutes ‘affordable’ and ‘equitable’ in the context they are working in. Different indicators can be used to measure levels of access to communications platforms in a given context:

  • Availability – the proportion of the population who has access to a platform if they want it.
  • Penetration – the proportion of the population who actually has access.
  • Capacity / speed – relevant in particular to internet communications and usually measured as upload and download speeds in megabits per second.
  • Price - international comparisons are usually made in purchasing power parity prices, disaggregated in the case of networked communications by speed or quality of service.
  • Quality of access/service – the reliability of the service, e.g. audibility of broadcast, quality of internet connection. No internationally comparable measures exist.
  • Fit with the needs of users – addresses the issue of whether people use the communications they have access to and whether they can they do what they want or need to with them. No internationally comparable quantifiable measures exist.

National and international service providers should strive to perform well on all of these measures.

In striving for affordable and equitable access, the question also arises as to which communications platforms people can reasonably expect to have access to, given local resource and geographical constraints. As defined in the public interest values, people should have access to the means of communication that are necessary to participate in cultural, political, economic and social life. These will vary depending on the context, and whether local, national or international public life is the focus of interest. However, the internet is becoming increasingly central as a necessary tool for participating in international public life, and expanding access should therefore be an overarching policy goal.

b)Regulation to achieve equitable access should be tailored to local conditions and should be flexible, subject to ongoing evaluation and review.

All countries are at a different stage in the roll out of communications platforms and have different social, political and economic factors affecting the state of markets and access. There is therefore no ‘one size fits all’ regulatory model to achieve universal and affordable access to communications. International frameworks and agreements should therefore grant national governments sufficient flexibility to build their own regulatory systems to meet specific local conditions and needs. However, the aim of these should always be to create affordable and equitable access for all. This might involve preventing companies abusing monopoly power, for example through charging disproportionate amounts for access to international gateways or failing to roll out access to less lucrative markets, and promoting the entry of new players into the market, including those from community/not-for profit sectors. Space should be provided for small-scale initiatives (private or community-owned) to improve access for different groups rather than relying solely on large operators. Regulation should always strive to overcome market failures that are undermining universal access, recognising that substantial public investment may be required to do this.

Whilst regulatory frameworks should be flexible and adaptable to specific contexts, there are a number of principles or standards that they need to adhere to in order to be effective. For example, WTO guidelines in the Agreement on Basic Telecommunication Services state that regulation should:

  • Safeguard against anti-competitive practices
  • Establish interconnection with suppliers providing public networks or services
  • Administer non-discriminatory universal service obligations.
  • Use transparent licensing criteria.
  • Establish a regulator independent from any services supplier.
  • Use objective, timely, transparent, and non-discriminatory procedures for allocation of scarce resources such as radio frequencies, numbers, and rights-of-way

In sum, regulatory bodies should operate independently and should be neutral and transparent. To uphold the value of participatory governance of communications environments, regulatory frameworks should be defined through a process of public participation or consultation. Regulatory policy should be evaluated and revised on an ongoing basis to remedy failures, adapt to new technologies and meet new demands.

Regulation at the national level will not be sufficient to achieve affordable and equitable access to communications. International regulation is also required, for example to address the disadvantageous position of developing countries in international communications markets. In the case of the internet, the backbone networks that host most of the network’s content are owned by western companies. These often charge smaller networks, based in the global south, high fees to use and access content on their networks, and this pushes up costs for users in developing countries . Similarly, developing countries are often dependent on rich country governments and companies to provide them with hardware and know-how. Achieving equitable access should not be hampered by the costs incurred by local manufacturers and service providers for participating in international markets and accessing international critical infrastructure resources.