By Ruth Pritchard-Kelly, Vice President of Regulatory at OneWeb
The digital divide and the immediate need for internet provision from space
Almost half of the global population still does not have access to the internet (ITU figures 2018). This “digital divide” is not only an issue in developing countries. Unconnected populations exist in every country, and regulators must find ways to provide universal access to the internet. In the modern, increasingly online-centered world, access to the internet is a basic human right. In unconnected communities, it represents a transformational force. Connectivity is fundamental to education, healthcare, and economic growth. Connectivity is the single greatest benefit a government can provide to its people: from connectivity flows education, health, government services, and most of all, jobs.
In the absence of a united global governance framework, a range of organizations have rallied together to try to map and conquer the global digital divide. Initiatives like UNICEF and Project Connect’s partnership have done a lot to inform programs around education, health, and emergencies. Project Connect stemmed from a need to create a platform to unite the technology industry, academia, and NGOs in forming initiatives to solve these issues.
How satellite technology is best placed to help bridge the digital divide
New satellite technology is the best solution to meet the increasing global data demand. Only space-based infrastructure can provide truly-ubiquitous geographic, low cost, low latency, coverage of the world. The non-geostationary (NGSO) low Earth orbit (LEO) constellations, such as OneWeb, provide the lowest latency to date, and will revolutionize the infrastructure used to provide 4G and 5G. The satellite industry has gone through a game-changing transformation in the last decade; however, regulatory innovation must also happen, and adoption of best practices will increase the rate at which we achieve progress towards this goal – to bridge the digital divide.
Regulation of new technologies has the ability to massively help or hinder progress and innovation
The regulatory implementation and framework around low-orbit NGSO systems presents new challenges in that most countries have regulations for GSO satellites but not for NGSO systems, and changing the regulations of a country to include NGSO systems can take years. To encourage the supply of multiple connectivity technologies, regulators should:
- support technology-neutral regulations (such as blanket licensing) that encourage speedy roll-out of innovative technologies and services;
- have transparent “open skies” policies that promote competition and coexistence which have been proven to boost economies; and
- discourage the finance and treasury agencies from looking to ICTs as a source of income (via auctions or taxes or fees), which only serve as barriers to the introduction of connectivity which defeats the goal of bridging the digital divide.
In this quest for connectivity, certainty and fairness regarding spectrum access is essential. The ITU plays a vital role in the global management of this scarce resource. Its processes are already defined and internationally accepted, and provide an ideal framework to provide protection for all spectrum users as well as the environment, via initiatives like its Sustainable Development Goals.
Collaboration: how to bind governance and execution
Innovation and progress are not possible without collaboration. For new regulatory practices to have the greatest impact these efforts will have to leverage the combined strength of industry, policy-makers, and regulators. OneWeb for example, has committed to chairing a global alliance of organizations for ‘Responsible Space.’ One of the key pillars of ‘Responsible Space’ is to support policy outcomes through collaboration.
The dream of fully bridging the digital divide is on track to be a reality, and I’m so incredibly proud to work for OneWeb for this reason. The industry already has all the key elements in place to make global connectivity a reality: technology, launches, satellites, as well as commercial operators across the globe. There is a long way to go in bridging the demand for connectivity and ensuring everyone can connect to the global marketplace. Congruence between regulators and practice is the last step towards achieving this.
I look forward to discussing these issues in more depth in the Forum session “Broadband today – and tomorrow: from wireless broadband to gigabit strategies” at ITU Telecom World 2019 in Budapest this September.