The 2019 edition of the Congresso Latinoamericano de Telecomunicaciones (CLT), the annual Latin American forum on public policy for information and communication technology (ICT) was held in Cordoba, Argentina recently. The four-day event saw the attendance of most of the important regulators, including Ajit Pai, the chairman of the US’ Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Counterpoint Research also attended the event.
Deliberations mainly centered around four key issues that will have an impact on the future of the telecom landscape in the region over the coming years – the need to have more efficient and effective spectrum management and auctions, connecting the disconnected, regulations, as well as security, privacy, and data protection. Below are the key takeaways of the deliberations at the event.
- Spectrum Management and Auction (4G-IoT-5G)
The incoming 5G technology will need much more spectrum than any of the previous generations. But before getting to 5G, efficient and effective sprectrum management and auction needs to start right now with 4G and IoT, as LATAM lags in the rollout of 4G and has not yet started the meaningful rollout of cellular-IoT.
There are delays in 4G spectrum auction in many countries, and several operators are still waiting for spectrum to increase their network coverage. The introduction of 5G will require even more spectrum to cover the low, mid, and high bands. Concrete action is required to ensure that LATAM countries do not fall behind in obtaining the spectrum required for IoT and 5G. So far, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico have announced their intention to auction 5G spectrum.
Exhibit 1: LATAM 5G Spectrum Adoption Announced
Source: ANATEL, ANA, IFT
Discussions at the 2019 CLT was on whether spectrum auction should be a tradeoff between cash or service. Some countries treat spectrum as a cash cow and believe auctions will bring much-needed funds to government coffers. Others, such as Chile, understand that it will be more efficient if the distribution of spectrum requires the operator to compete in tenders instead of paying a fixed fee. This methods sets targets for the operator for network rollout to increase coverage as well as supply of access devices.
- Connecting the Disconnected
There are around 100 million people in LATAM that still don’t have access to the internet and an additional 80 million that don’t have adequate access to the internet. According to regulators, associations, like ASIET (Inter-American Association of Telecommunications Companies) and many private companies acknowledge that access to the internet will provide economic benefit. However, there is still not an adequate understanding of the digital divide.
The gap is not due to a lack of supply. Some form of internet, wired or wireless, covers almost 85% of LATAM population. But only 55% is connected. The problem lies in the lack of the ability of the population to pay for the service.
Most LATAM regulators have a budget to decrease the access gap. There is an El Servicio Universal (Universal Access) fund in most LATAM countries. However, these funds are highly underutilized. The main problem is regulatory as the public sector does not know how or where to deploy the money. Further, the public sector is slow to formulate any type of regulation, and as a result, not much gets done. LATAM regulators know that they need to speed up ideation and implementation.
In Brazil, for example, the telecom regulator Anatel is working on driving “Gobierno Digital” to attract more investment and connect the 30% of the population that does not have internet access. Brazil has set a target to bring down the percentage of the population without internet access to 10% in 2025. Another example is Colombia, which is sitting on almost US$90 million for providing internet access. While the government gets the interest from the fund, current laws prevent the regulator from doing much about putting to use the fund for increasing internet access.
There is a need for new and updated policies, that would not only regulate current telecom operators but would also include other players in today’s communication ecosystem. Companies such as Facebook, one of the sponsors of this event, are as incumbent as a traditional operator. Therefore, LATAM countries need a more modern, flexible, and convergent regulation.
The other issue is multiple regulators. Currently, most countries have more than one regulatory entity in charge of all regulatory process. Further, each municipal area has its own rules. This makes the network rollout a hideous bureaucratic burden for the operator. There is a need for unifying regulatory entities within a country to align the national, provincial, and municipal processes. Recently in Argentina, a judge ruled that a municipal body cannot overrule the national order allowing the building of antennas. This was a good precedent and other countries, such as Colombia and Brazil, agree with the need to bring in such practices into their countries.
Security and privacy are necessary across all verticals. This issue came up as IoT is still in its infancy in LATAM, and 5G might take few years before it enters LATAM. There is a lot to do about it as security and privacy are key for IoT and 5G success. Many regulators already acknowledge that this is an important issue and are taking the companies and industry associations.
Besides the four major issues, the event also saw discussions around harmonization of the network to make roaming easier across LATAM. Many LATAM countries are in favor of slowly working on removing roaming charges. This would require even more harmonization in the frequency used. Further, interesting deliberations also took place on the need to close the gender gap in terms of access to appropriate technology as well as encouraging girls in Science Tech and Mathematics (STEM) careers. While there is a necessity to connect those at the bottom, it is equally important to bridge the gender gap when it comes to internet access.
The theme of the 2019 CLT was ‘Accelerating the Digital Transformation of Latin America’. To achieve this, LATAM needs to learn from its past mistakes. Most LATAM countries have enough experience to understand that they not only need to work together, but also with the technology leaders to accelerate digital transformation in the region.