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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Improving internet connectivity during the COVID-19 pandemic

by Vrinda Bhandari.

Introduction

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced all of us to live, work, learn, and communicate online. This has led to an increase in the demand for reliable, efficient, and speedy internet access during the pandemic. However, those who are already disadvantaged are suffering greater digital exclusion during this time, in the form of inadequate internet connectivity. Thus, countries, especially developing countries have been presented with an opportunity to deploy different regulatory and policy tools to improve internet access and provide meaningful internet connectivity to their citizens.

In my recently published paper for the Digital Pathways at Oxford Paper Series, I try and understand how Covid-19 has served as a catalyst for positive regulation in improving internet connectivity through the discussion of initiatives taken by four governments - Panama, South Africa, Kenya, and the State of Kerala (in India). Specifically, I ask two questions:

  • What regulatory and policy steps were taken by governments and regulators to meet the increased demand for access to the internet during the Covid-19 pandemic?
  • What changes in regulation are necessary to nudge mobile network operators (MNOs) to work with governments to ensure continued and affordable access to the internet?

The paper examines the different approaches that have met with some success in the four countries and provides various policy options for governments to maintain and improve internet connectivity during the pandemic. In this blog post, I will be summarising the various policy options that are available to governments.

Temporary allocation of spectrum by regulators

Low spectrum allocation adversely impacts network infrastructure and performance; reduces the reliability and quality of mobile broadband services; and can affect the future deployment of mobile broadband technologies. Thus, one option available with governments to maintain efficient and reliable internet connectivity during a crisis is to temporarily allocate unassigned spectrum to MNOs in a fair and non-discriminatory manner. Through the four cases discussed, the paper found that spectrum allocation is a viable option during an emergency only in cases where the total (permanent) allocation of spectrum to MNOs has been inefficient. Thus, while this option was expressly considered/offered by all four countries, there was uptake only in Panama and South Africa. Despite the opportunity cost to allocating spectrum free of charge (in terms of foregone revenue from auction proceeds), both these countries pursued this method in view of the insufficient existing spectrum allocation and by attaching certain conditions to the allocation of spectrum.

The regulators in Panama and South Africa temporarily allocated spectrum to MNOs through the passage of emergency resolutions and regulations, which set out:

  • The frequency of spectrum that was open for temporary allocation;
  • The duration of the temporary allocation;
  • The application procedure and the requirements that needed to be met by applicants, such as demonstrating network performance (as in South Africa);
  • Whether the temporary allocation was free of charge or not - in both Panama and South Africa the allocation was free of charge; and
  • The conditions or expectations that were tied to the allocation of spectrum, in the form of reduced data costs or network expansion that could benefit the users.

While allocating spectrum during an emergency, countries should take care to ensure that such spectrum allocation does not become permanent; affect the long-tem spectrum allocation plan of the regulator; and does not reduce the overall competitiveness of the sector, by entrenching the dominance of a few players. The paper also briefly discusses alternative innovative approaches to spectrum management that could have been employed by the regulators.

Temporary freeze on internet and mobile payments

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to stay at home. This has meant that people are even more reliant on the internet to work from home, to study, to have any medical consultation, to stay in touch with friends and family, or to consume online entertainment. At the same time, the impact of the pandemic has been the hardest on the marginalised sections of society, who may find it difficult to keep up payments on their internet or mobile bills.

In such a situation, another policy option that can be considered by governments is to put in a place a temporary freeze on internet and mobile payments for a certain period of time, as was done in Panama. Drawing from the Panamanian example, any government considering such a temporary freeze can use a legal instrument that clearly defines:

  • The duration of the temporary freeze on payments, i.e. the time period for which payment of any internet or mobile bill can be suspended and deferred;
  • The criteria for intended beneficiaries, depending on whether the benefit is expected to be universally applied or restricted to a smaller identified class (as in Panama);
  • The method of repayment, specifying the time period over which the pending bills have to be paid, the number of instalments, and whether the repayment is interest free;
  • Whether there is any impact on the credit history of an individual if they avail of this measure - In Panama, the government clarified that there would be no impact on credit history or the quality of services offered by MNOs.

Having a clear narrowly tailored legal instrument that lays down the obligations of the MNOs, avoids a situation as in India, where the industry body, the Cellular Operators Association of India and the regulator, TRAI were at loggerheads about the nature of the obligation placed on MNOs. TRAI had wanted the MNOs to ensure continued service to all prepaid SIM card owners during the period of the lockdown, whereas the MNOs wanted to restrict it only to the "underprivileged and needy customers", so as to avoid an unjustified subsidy for a larger customer basis.

Prohibition on price increase

Similar to the temporary freeze on internet payments, where MNOs are required to continue service for a limited duration, even in cases of non-payment by users (albeit with an obligation to pay back), this regulatory measure prohibits a price increase in the data plans during the period of the emergency/pandemic. Such a measure was put in place in South Africa through the Electronic Communications, Postal, and Broadcasting (ECPB)Directions in March, although the ECPB Directions were amended in May 2020 to remove such restrictions.

Implementation of tax measures

In order to encourage MNOs to pass on certain benefits to consumers, in the form of reduced data costs, governments can implement various tax measures, such as reducing Value Added Tax, as in Kenya, where the VAT was reduced across the board from 16% to 14% with effect from 01 April 2020. In Panama, the government introduced a "Solidarity Plan" or "Plan Solidario" as a temporary support program to mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19. As part of this Plan, the government offered MNOs income tax deduction on any contributions in cash or kind or any other services towards the government's crisis efforts. Partially in response to this, all the MNOs in Panama came together to announce a "Solidarity Mobile Plan", which was a free basic package for accessing the internet.

Support to telecom infrastructure service providers

Another option available with governments, while not directly regulatory in nature, involves coordination and cooperation with the telecom infrastructure service providers to ensure uninterrupted internet service during a lockdown. This is because practical problems such as inadequate/interrupted power supply, or the necessary municipal officials not being available may affect the service providers.

The State of Kerala in India was unique amongst the cases discussed in the paper in that the Kerala State IT Department worked with the Kerala State Electricity Board in identifying the mobile towers that were exclusively reliant on Diesel Generator (DG) sets, and monitoring the regular supply of diesel to these towers during the national lockdown. This was done to prevent major power outages that could disrupt cell service. In South Africa, to support the legal obligation for continued service by ISPs and MNOs, the telecom infrastructure providers were given regulatory support, in the form of prioritised infrastructure approvals, postponement on license fee renewals, and temporary deferment of wayleaves.

Utilisation of the un-utilised money in the Universal Access Fund

Countries such as Kenya and India have a form of a universal access fund, which comprises of mandatory contributions by MNOs. For instance, in India, a universal access levy is statutorily levied on MNOs to contribute towards the "Universal Service Obligation Fund", which is aimed at ensuring widespread, non-discriminatory, and universal access to ICT services in India. A large amount of money is lying un-utilised in the funds in both these countries (estimated to be INR 51,500 crore in India) and this money can potentially be re-directed by the government towards specific connectivity measures during an emergency, such as reducing data costs or improving network resilience. Alternatively, as in Colombia, governments can temporarily suspend the payment obligations into these universal access funds for MNOs, so that the savings can be passed on to the users.

Provision of zero-rated access to specific websites

In some countries, such as in South Africa, data costs are fairly high, leading to real concerns about affordability and accessibility to the internet during a pandemic. In such a situation, providing zero-rated access, i.e. free access, to certain important health and education websites, may help keep citizens up to date about the latest medical information and research about the virus; as also help students access online educational resources. Consequently, the South African government passed a law requiring MNOs to provide zero-rated access to certain government and local educational websites. Currently, over 1000 health and education websites are offering zero-rated (i.e. free) access to their content.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that zero-rating is a complex issue, especially as the debate in India demonstrates. Hence, any government adopting such a policy should consider the following factors:

  • Zero-rating is often technically complex to implement, since ISPs may not have the technical architecture to distinguish amongst the websites visited by a particular user; and hence, will be unable to determine whether the user is accessing a COVID-19 zero-rated website or a regular website;
  • A zero-rating pandemic policy may limit the zero-rated websites to health and educational websites. However, as a matter of practice, with many websites, notably YouTube, it is difficult to distinguish between the educational and entertainment value of the website;
  • Any requirement, as imposed in South Africa, that the zero-rated website must be a "local" educational content website, may run into the problem that even "local" websites host third party non-local content in the form of embedded videos and text or store the content on a foreign cloud server. Theoretically, access to these websites will not be "local", and hence, they will fall outside the intended benefit of the government's zero-rating policy;
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, zero-rating inherently involves privileging certain websites and content over the other, whether the decision is being taken by the government or MNOs or both. In the long run, this can threaten and potentially undermine net neutrality.

Regular monitoring of network capacity

Maintaining reliable and uninterrupted access to the internet also involves ensuring that the back end of the entire telecom infrastructure service system works. Thus, governments can coordinate with MNOs to regularly monitor network performance to assess whether there is sufficient network capacity to meet the increased demand for internet access during a pandemic. Collecting the requisite data will help the government form empirically sound policy. For instance, in Kerala, much before the national lockdown was announced, the State IT Secretary held a meeting with the Telecommunication Department and and all the MNOs in the Kerala Circle to understand internet consumption pattern, bandwidth utilisation, and network capacity in the state. The MNOs had agreed to increase network capacity by 30-40% if required. However, as it turned out, based on the periodic reports that were submitted by MNOs, the government and the MNOs realised that there was no need to increase server capacity or allocate additional spectrum. Similarly, in April, the Kerala State IT Department issued a government order approving the upgradation of networks from 3G to 4G by MNOs in specific tower locations, which had otherwise been delayed.

Conclusion

By examining the regulatory response in Panama, South Africa, Kenya, and India (specifically Kerala), the paper presents various policy options that can be used by a government to improve maintain and improve internet connectivity during a pandemic. Although the paper is situated within the COVID-19 pandemic response, the policy options can be used in any emergency situation that creates additional stress on the existing digital divide and infrastructure. It is worth noting that the paper only focuses on temporary regulatory measures that are intended to maintain and improve internet connectivity during the period of an emergency, although these may have medium to long-term benefits as well.

However, any regulatory measure undertaken by a government to improve internet connectivity during an emergency should be capable of having a tangible impact in the short-term, apart from/ in addition to any medium or long-term benefits. This is because in an emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic, any increase in the demand for the internet or reduced capacity to afford continued internet services requires immediate and urgent policy intervention. For instance, in Kenya, the pandemic expedited the approval of the innovative Loon Project, that is aimed at using the high altitude internet balloons to bring 4G coverage to underserved and remote areas of Kenya. While this is certainly an innovative example of positive regulation, it may not have the desired short-term effects given the complexity and scale of the project. The Kenyan government also constituted a COVID-19 ICT Advisory Committee that was commissioned to submit a report on the methods of improving "universally affordable connectivity" within six months. However, there is an opportunity cost of establishing a Committee in the middle of a pandemic, in that the government's time and money could have been better spent in pursuing other positive regulations.

References

AA4I (2020): Alliance for Affordable Internet, Meaningful connectivity: A new standard to raise the bar for internet access.

Bhandari(2020): Vrinda Bhandari, Improving internet connectivity during COVID-19, Digital Pathways at Oxford Paper Series No. 4, Oxford, United Kingdom.

European Commission (2017): European Commission, Zero-rating practices in broadband markets.

GSMA (2020): GSMA, Keeping the world connected: Development challenges in times of COVID-19.

Hadzik (2019): Senka Hadzic, A global south perspective on alternative spectrum policy, Research ICT Africa Policy Brief 1: December 2019.

ISPA (2020): ISPA, COVID-19: Most frequently asked questions for ISPs.

ITU (2020): International Telecommunications Union, Pandemic in the internet age: Communications, industry responses.

Vrinda Bhandari is a practicing advocate in Delhi.

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