The im­mi­nence of the In­ter­net of things

Jamaica Gleaner - - WESTERN FOCUS - Evan Dug­gan, PhD, visit­ing pro­fes­sor, Uni­ver­sity of Alabama at Birm­ing­ham and for­mer pro­fes­sor of MIS and dean, Fac­ulty of So­cial Sciences, UWI Mona; and Din Dug­gan, Esq, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of a global le­gal ser­vices firm and for­mer Gleaner colum­nist.

THE WORLD of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions is a dy­namic and fas­ci­nat­ing one uniquely po­si­tioned within the util­i­ties uni­verse to mean­ing­fully drive eco­nomic growth and de­vel­op­ment. Changes in the sec­tor over the past 30 years have rev­o­lu­tionised vir­tu­ally every as­pect of Ja­maican life – from work­places to homes; ed­u­ca­tion to en­ter­tain­ment; how we wor­ship to how we solve – and in some cases com­mit – crimes.

The over­whelm­ing weight of ev­i­dence sug­gests that in­vest­ment in and ex­pan­sion of tele­com ser­vices con­trib­ute sig­nif­i­cantly to eco­nomic growth. In light of Ja­maica’s need to shed the bur­den of debt and the al­ba­tross of poverty that have stran­gled us in re­cent years, the tele­com sec­tor must be mas­ter­fully shep­herded to un­leash the most lu­cra­tive op­por­tu­ni­ties to in­crease our pro­duc­tiv­ity and growth. No doubt, the reg­u­la­tors, pol­i­cy­mak­ers, and in­dus­try ex­perts par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Or­gan­i­sa­tion of Caribbean Util­ity Reg­u­la­tors (OOCUR) con­fer­ence, sched­uled for Oc­to­ber 26-28 in Montego Bay, will have to think in­tensely about how best to lever­age the sec­tor’s vast po­ten­tial to power growth. To ad­e­quately do so, they must demon­strate a pre­cise un­der­stand­ing of three crit­i­cal items:

1. The re­cent his­tor­i­cal land­scape of tele­com reg­u­la­tion and pol­icy;

2. The in­her­ent dif­fer­ences between tele­com and other ma­jor util­i­ties; and

3. New con­cepts re­quir­ing reg­u­la­tory at­ten­tion, in­clud­ing set­tled is­sues that are yet unim­ple­mented.

Ja­maica’s modern tele­com era be­gan in earnest in 1999 with the Gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to lib­er­alise the sec­tor. The process, com­pleted in 2004, ef­fec­tively broke the sti­fling ef­fect of a mo­nop­o­lis­tic in­dus­try, laid the foun­da­tion for true com­pe­ti­tion, and, re­sul­tantly, gen­er­ated sub­stan­tial ben­e­fits for vir­tu­ally every as­pect of so­ci­ety.

In 1999, per capita mo­bile sub­scrip­tion in Ja­maica trailed the Latin Amer­ica and Caribbean (LAC) av­er­age as well as the global av­er­age. In five brief years, how­ever – in a man­ner sim­i­lar to our cham­pion sprinter, Usain Bolt, rum­bling back from a poor exit from the blocks to roar past his com­peti­tors – per capita mo­bile sub­scrip­tions soared to two and a half times the global av­er­age and roughly twice the av­er­age in LAC. Ja­maicans es­sen­tially re­lin­quished fixed lines in favour of mo­bile com­mu­ni­ca­tions – a phe­nom­e­non that has since be­come sta­tus quo across the globe.

Pro­vid­ing con­sumers with le­git­i­mate op­tions is a key com­po­nent of sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment and one we achieved by lib­er­al­is­ing the tele­com market. If any doubt ex­ists about our ca­pac­ity to lead the globe in some­thing other than sprint­ing, shoot­ing, and scam­ming, we should look no fur­ther than our lead­er­ship in mo­bile telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion pen­e­tra­tion.

The Univer­sal Ser­vice Fund (USF), es­tab­lished in 2005, rep­re­sents an­other im­por­tant de­vel­op­ment in the tele­com in­dus­try. The USF – fi­nanced by a tax on in­bound in­ter­na­tional calls – is aimed at ac­cel­er­at­ing the de­ploy­ment of, and ac­cess to, the full range of broad­band (voice, data, and video) ser­vices to Ja­maicans. One of the prin­ci­pal projects ini­ti­ated by the fund was the in­stal­la­tion, five years ago, of a fi­bre-op­tic ca­ble ring around the is­land. This project made it eas­ier for tele­com com­pa­nies to pro­vide fixed broad­band ser­vices through­out the is­land.

Yet, un­like Ja­maica’s pace­set­ting sta­tus in mo­bile phone pen­e­tra­tion, our re­al­ity is com­pletely re­versed as it per­tains to fixed broad­band us­age. Ja­maica’s In­ter­net pen­e­tra­tion is a measly 43.4 per cent – lower than the 49.2 per cent global av­er­age and trail­ing al­most every other Caribbean coun­try. This is trou­bling as most of the in­fras­truc­tural in­vest­ments re­quired to dra­mat­i­cally trans­form our stand­ing have al­ready been made. As much as they de­serve credit for their ap­par­ent vi­sion and fore­sight with re­spect to mo­bile In­ter­net pen­e­tra­tion, pol­i­cy­mak­ers and reg­u­la­tors bear the bulk of the blame for short­com­ings in broad­band. They have dis­played a lack of aware­ness of the crit­i­cal dif­fer­ences between tele­com and other util­i­ties.

When com­pared to wa­ter and elec­tric­ity, reg­u­lat­ing tele­com ser­vices is con­sid­er­ably more com­plex in five im­por­tant re­spects. First, when a cus­tomer pur­chases wa­ter or elec­tric­ity from a public util­ity, the cus­tomer (hope­fully) re­ceives wa­ter mol­e­cules or elec­trons in re­turn. With the ex­cep­tion of ca­ble TV, the tele­com cus­tomer re­ceives noth­ing tan­gi­ble from the util­ity. In­stead of re­ceiv­ing en­ergy or mat­ter, the tele­com cus­tomer gains ac­cess to a net­work that may be used to com­mu­ni­cate with and re­ceive in­for­ma­tion from oth­ers.

Sec­ond, not un­like tele­com com­pa­nies, wa­ter and elec­tric util­i­ties em­ploy net­works to pro­vide ser­vice to cus­tomers, how­ever, these net­works are es­sen­tially uni­di­rec­tional – per­mit­ting wa­ter or elec­tric­ity to flow from the util­ity to the cus­tomer but not yet, any­way (in the case of elec­tric­ity), from the cus­tomer to the util­ity. Tele­com nat­u­rally works dif­fer­ently. The tele­com com­pany sim­ply pro­vides a path­way along which the cus­tomer may send and re­ceive voice mes­sages, data, or me­dia, when­ever, wher­ever, how­ever, or to whomever the cus­tomer chooses. In short, tele­com ser­vice is mul­ti­di­rec­tional.

Third, when a cus­tomer re­ceives wa­ter or elec­tric­ity from the util­ity com­pany, as­sum­ing qual­ity is main­tained, the cus­tomer does not care which spe­cific wa­ter mol­e­cule or elec­tron he or she re­ceives. With re­spect to tele­com ser­vices, how­ever, com­mu­ni­ca­tion can­not be ar­bi­trary. When a mes­sage or other packet of in­for­ma­tion is trans­mit­ted through the tele­com net­work, it must be lo­ca­tion spe­cific – Por­tia from Wood Hall doesn’t care to re­ceive mes­sages in­tended for An­drew from Span­ish Town.

Fourth, over the past two to three decades, the tele­com in­dus­try has con­verged tremen­dously as a re­sult of tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions. Net­works ini­tially in­tended for a par­tic­u­lar type of ser­vice have been re­pur­posed to fa­cil­i­tate the de­liv­ery of other ser­vices. In gen­eral, tele­com can be clas­si­fied in three ser­vice classes: (1) voice ser­vice; (2) data ser­vice; and (3) mul­ti­me­dia ser­vice.

Tra­di­tion­ally, tele­com com­pa­nies em­ployed fixed wire-lines to carry voice calls. Mo­bile net­works were ini­tially de­signed for trans­mit­ting voice calls, wire­lessly. And ca­ble net­works were de­vel­oped specif­i­cally to con­vey mul­ti­me­dia sig­nals. Tech­no­log­i­cal progress and ad­vance­ments in com­put­ing have en­abled all three ser­vices to be car­ried on any net­work.

Fifth, the tele­com in­dus­try is ar­guably more vul­ner­a­ble to the im­pact of dis­rup­tive tech­nolo­gies than any of the other ma­jor util­i­ties. This is pri­mar­ily at­trib­ut­able to the breath-tak­ing pace at which com­put­ing and dig­i­tal en­gi­neer­ing are de­vel­op­ing. Ap­pli­ca­tions such as What­sApp and Skype (some­times called ‘over the top ser­vices’) al­low for in­stant in­ter­ac­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion us­ing the tele­com net­work with­out com­pen­sat­ing the util­ity provider in a man­ner con­sis­tent with tra­di­tional voice trans­ac­tions.

While the fore­go­ing dis­cus­sion is es­sen­tial, the con­fer­ence must pro­vide some clear in­sights into the im­por­tance of the fol­low­ing is­sues and per­haps some sig­nal of the rel­e­vant par­ties’ in­tent to ad­dress them.

Dig­i­tal con­ver­gence – or per­haps more ac­cu­rately, the con­ver­gence of dig­i­tal in­dus­tries – in­volves the in­te­gra­tion of the value chains of hith­erto in­de­pen­dent in­dus­tries in all or com­bi­na­tions of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, con­sumer elec­tron­ics, broad­cast and print me­dia, soft­ware, and en­ter­tain­ment. The ‘con­verged’ en­ti­ties launch real or vir­tual busi­nesses that pro­vide dig­i­tal prod­ucts and ser­vices, for ex­am­ple, us­ing a con­nected smart­phone to read e-mails on your TV. This phe­nom­e­non, which is al­ready top­i­cal in Ja­maica and the re­gion, is ex­pected to have even more sig­nif­i­cant con­sumer im­pact in the com­ing months and years by en­abling in­ter­ac­tions in­volv­ing play­ing, com­mu­ni­cat­ing, col­lab­o­rat­ing, and shar­ing in­for­ma­tion in a va­ri­ety of novel and di­verse ways.

This emer­gent in­no­va­tion is crit­i­cal for na­tions, na­tional pol­i­cy­mak­ers, and reg­u­la­tors. It has sig­nif­i­cant im­pli­ca­tions for gover­nance, pol­icy, and reg­u­la­tion, which de­mands thought, plan­ning, and ap­pro­pri­ate in­ter­ven­tions to es­tab­lish vi­able poli­cies and reg­u­la­tory frame­works to fa­cil­i­tate its in­evitable ‘in­tru­sion’ in our so­ci­eties and to en­cour­age ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­iours that will con­trib­ute to long-run in­cen­tives for both com­pe­ti­tion and the pro­tec­tion of ci­ti­zens.

The in­her­ent dif­fer­ences between telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions and other util­i­ties, as well as the emer­gence of dig­i­tal con­ver­gence and its im­por­tance, bring into sharper fo­cus the need, and com­pelling mo­ti­va­tions, for a sim­i­lar reg­u­la­tory con­ver­gence through the es­tab­lish­ment of a sin­gle reg­u­la­tor to in­te­grate the ICT-re­lated func­tions in a uni­fied regime in­stead of through mul­ti­ple func­tional reg­u­la­tors. In Ja­maica’s case, there seems to be con­sid­er­able blur­ring of the bound­aries and in­evitable in­ef­fi­cien­cies that re­sult from the cur­rent du­plica­tive ar­range­ments of hav­ing these sim­i­lar oper­a­tions re­side sep­a­rately in the Of­fice of Util­i­ties Reg­u­la­tion, the Ja­maica Broad­cast­ing Com­mis­sion, and the Spec­trum Man­age­ment Author­ity. Yet we con­tinue the long­stand­ing de­bate and seem­ingly un­re­solv­able dis­agree­ment about an idea whose time, frankly, has come.

The vast ma­jor­ity of coun­tries that have ef­fected this in­te­grated reg­u­la­tory ar­range­ment sim­ply ap­ply the now well-es­tab­lished no­tion of tech­no­log­i­cal neu­tral­ity, which at its most ba­sic, as­serts that all tech­ni­cal in­fra­struc­tures should be reg­u­lated in a sim­i­lar man­ner. But de­spite sev­eral use­ful ex­am­ples and re­sults that ex­ist world­wide, this change is seem­ingly be­ing re­sisted on the Rock by both reg­u­la­tors and the reg­u­lated alike.

The In­ter­net of Things (IoT) has been de­scribed as an ar­range­ment whereby things – ob­jects, an­i­mals, and peo­ple – equipped with unique iden­ti­fier are en­dowed with the ca­pa­bil­ity to trans­fer data over a net­work with­out re­quir­ing hu­man-to-hu­man or hu­man-to-com­puter in­ter­ac­tion. The early re­ac­tions to the con­cept have re­gen­er­ated some of the in­credulity that ac­com­pa­nied pro­gres­sive an­nounce­ments of other re­mark­able, but now com­mon­place, ICT con­cepts. The pro­gres­sion to­wards im­ple­men­ta­tion, how­ever, has gained tremen­dous mo­men­tum, and ap­pli­ca­tion is now im­mi­nent.

Smart cars, smart homes, even smart re­frig­er­a­tors are all be­com­ing in­creas­ingly com­mon­place across the globe. We in the Caribbean must (per­haps for the first time at last) be proac­tive in an­tic­i­pat­ing (even from the ex­pli­ca­tion of the con­cept) the reg­u­la­tory im­pli­ca­tions for both the fa­cil­i­ta­tion of these in­no­va­tions and the pro­tec­tion of in­di­vid­u­als who de­ploy them. There is al­ready an enor­mous vol­ume of avail­able lit­er­a­ture and mod­els to guide our be­hav­iours. We must lever­age these to cre­ate a frame­work suit­able to our own re­al­ity.

With num­ber porta­bil­ity – the abil­ity to se­curely and cost-ef­fec­tively in­ter­con­nect to route phone calls and trans­fer cus­tomer tele­phone num­bers among com­mu­ni­ca­tion ser­vice providers – fi­nally im­ple­mented in Ja­maica, we must ad­dress an­other key ICT-re­lated de­ci­sion thought to be set­tled and agreed and should have by now been ticked off as an ac­com­plish­ment. In­stead, in­ex­pli­ca­ble pro­cras­ti­na­tion has stalled its full and fi­nal im­ple­men­ta­tion.

The com­mis­sion­ing of the IXP in Ja­maica has re­mained im­mi­nent for over two years since the phys­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties were im­ple­mented. IXP en­ables lo­cal net­works to ef­fi­ciently ex­change in­for­ma­tion through di­rect in­ter­con­nec­tion from within the coun­try rather than through trans­ship­ment ar­range­ments with over­seas providers, thereby sig­nif­i­cantly en­hanc­ing the qual­ity and trans­mis­sion speed of In­ter­net oper­a­tions and con­sid­er­ably re­duc­ing cost.

The fail­ure of tele­com ser­vice providers in Ja­maica to com­mence peer­ing – or shar­ing data among them­selves – is es­sen­tially rob­bing Ja­maicans of faster, more ef­fi­cient ser­vice con­nec­tions and slow­ing the pace of tele­com in­no­va­tion.

This fail­ure to launch, as much as any ac­tion or in­ac­tion on the part of the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion providers, un­der­scores the im­por­tance of creat­ing a pro­gres­sive and proac­tive reg­u­la­tory en­vi­ron­ment in the Caribbean. The sec­tor is too im­por­tant to the eco­nomic out­look of so many of our peo­ple to leave its stew­ard­ship to chance.


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