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Gov’t: Communications sector regulation requires full review


Tribune Business Editor

The Government has determined that “a comprehensive review of the legal and regulatory framework” governing the electronic communications sector is now critical given the speed at which it and associated technologies are evolving.

The draft Electronic Communications Sector policy, unveiled for industry and public consultation late last week, identified the regulation of What’s App and other so-called over-the-top (OTT) service providers; cyber security; and the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and the Internet of Things as key challenges that will have to be addressed.

“The Government is aware of the ongoing regional discussions at the CARICOM level, and amongst regional regulators, regarding the complex issues to effectively regulate OTT services such as What’s App, and service providers such as Meta, Tik Tok, Netflix, Amazon and Microsoft throughout the Caribbean,” the draft policy said.

“While the Government supports a collaborative approach between all stakeholders to the issue of OTTs, as proffered by the secretary-general of the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU), the Government firmly believes that The Bahamas’ policy and legal framework should be properly aligned with market developments.... URCA is therefore requested to continue to engage with its regulatory counterparts regarding OTTs, and to accordingly advise the Government.”

Similarly, the policy added: “In light of emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), big data, distributed ledger technology (Blockchain) and digital/crypto currency and the Internet of Things (IoT), the Government and URCA are confronted with a key challenge of how best to protect citizens and residents of The Bahamas, ensure fair markets and enforce regulations, while simultaneously allowing these new technologies, services and service providers to flourish....

“As The Bahamas embarks upon digital transformation, the security and resilience of the telecommunications infrastructure from cyber-attack becomes critical to our continued progress and national growth. Cyber attacks can involve the theft or destruction of data/information; the theft of financial assets or services; or the destruction of network infrastructure. S

“Such attacks can be directed at the Government, firms or private individuals, and significantly disrupt communications services dependent on functioning communications networks. The Government will therefore support the development of a new generation of technologies and regulatory measures that protect against cyber attacks and maintain a resilient telecommunications infrastructure that provide secure, trustworthy and sustainable electronic communications services and networks in The Bahamas.”

Summing up what this all means, the draft sector policy said: “While some amendments were made to the legal and regulatory framework since 2009, having regard to above stated changes, the Government considers that a comprehensive review of the legal and regulatory framework is now necessary.

“The Government, in conjunction with URCA, will review the existing legal and regulatory framework to ensure that it remains relevant, responsive and applicable to the rapidly evolving technological advances and changes.” Capacity building, too, is required.

“The Government is aware that proficiency in information and communications technology (ICT) in The Bahamas is still relatively low among ICT professionals and the general populace. This is especially the case for regulatory experience and expertise, and translates into a skills gap which in turn signposts untapped benefits that ICTs and the electronic communications sector could potentially deliver to the socio-economic development of The Bahamas,” the draft sector policy said.

It also called on regulators to submit a revised National Spectrum Plan so that “a very valuable state asset” is maximised for the benefit of mobile providers, radio stations and their consumers alike. The Government hinted that a new Plan should be among URCA’s priorities given that the present three-year version expires this year.

“The Government is aware that the current National Spectrum Plan expires in 2023 and therefore expects URCA to formulate and submit the revised National Spectrum Plan to the minister in accordance with the Communications Act,” the draft policy said. “Spectrum is critical to any electronic communications service or network that requires wireless technologies.

“The increase in the provision and take-up of mobile services and the introduction of new wireless broadband technologies, such as Long-Term Evolution (LTE), have significantly increased the demand for spectrum. There is also the need to assign spectrum to enable the roll-out of 5G technology. These and other factors have made spectrum a very valuable state asset which must be managed efficiently and effectively....

“The Government considers that it is imperative that appropriate regulatory measures are adopted to maximise the economic and social benefits from the use of spectrum as a potentially scarce resource. URCA is the custodian of radio spectrum on behalf of the people of The Bahamas,” the policy continued.

“The Government also considers it important that URCA continue to review and assess spectrum management activities to ensure that radio spectrum is used efficiently by licensees, at prices which reflect as closely as practicable the value of this potentially scarce resource, and recover the costs incurred in the regulation and management of spectrum in a fair and non-discriminatory manner.

“The Government is cognisant that these objectives should be achieved through appropriate allocation of spectrum bands, assignment of an appropriate quantum of spectrum to licensees, setting incentive-based prices where appropriate, and claw-back or redistribution of spectrum where use of the spectrum is not consistent with established policy objectives and international best practices.”

Elsewhere, the Government gave its backing for URCA’s revisions to the sector’s consumer protection regulations and urged that they be properly enforced. “The Government is aware of the prevailing concerns by consumers regarding the quality of service of electronic communications services throughout The Bahamas,” the draft policy said.

“While the Government commends URCA’s efforts in this regard, the Government urges URCA to revise its quality of service regulatory measures where necessary to effectively address consumer concerns, and to enforce the consumer protection regulations and service quality regulations to ensure the reliability and availability of electronic communications services on all islands of The Bahamas, if the objectives outlined in this policy and the Act are to be achieved.”