|Supporting Regional Telecommunication Associations: Interview with Brian Goulden
The Southern African Development Community Information Policy Reform Support (SIPRS) project, which ended in June 2004, provided technical assistance and capacity building to the Telecommunications Regulators Association of Southern Africa (TRASA), based in Botswana. Brian Goulden, former SIPRS project director, spoke with DOT-COM about the role of TRASA as a regional regulatory association, how SIPRS provided assistance to the regional association and how TRASA is now used as a model for other regional regulatory associations such as ARICEA (Association of Regulators of Information and Communications for Central and Eastern Africa), WATRA (West African Telecommunications Regulatory Association) and ATRN (Arab Telecommunications Regulatory Association).
DOT-COM interviewed Brian Goulden on July 26, 2004. Here are some excerpts from the conversation
Q: What do regional regulatory associations such as the Telecommunications Regulators Association of Southern Africa(TRASA)do?
Regional regulatory associations act as influencers of regional harmonization on ICT policy and regulatory issues in individual countries. These associations act as advocates and champions of regulatory independence for their members.
Regional regulatory associations also seek to share information on latest ideas and key changes in technical, legal and business processes in ICT globally. They give advice and support to the members in their efforts to keep abreast of the sector issues.
Q: How has TRASA has been able to promote attractive and sustainable economic development in telecommunications industry in the Southern African Development Community (SADC)?
The work that TRASA has done to make policy consistent, transparent, and reasonable has made a positive impact on the investment climate in the region. TRASA has developed a broad span of policies and regulatory processes, codes, and guidelines that create more certainty for the potential investor. Reasonable levels of certainty are what investors are looking for they want to know that they arent going to lose their investment because of frivolous or unreasonable policy decisions by local governments.
Q: Why is regional harmonization important?
The goal [for SADC] is to lower trade barriers throughout the region so that it will be one large market. Therefore, to support regional investment, market integration, and inter-operability, SADC needs harmonization of telecommunications (as well as other industries). TRASAs role is to support this harmonization in telecommunication.
Q: Can you give a few examples of issues that TRASA has successfully focused on?
One example where harmonization of policies has been important and successful is the issue of numbering i.e. the format for telephone numbers, number of digits, common emergency services, etc. Numbering becomes increasingly important for integrated infrastructure, growth of services, and cross border telecommunications services (for mobile phones) being offered. For three years, TRASA has worked to harmonize the numbering system so that the telecommunications infrastructure can grow and increase the ease of use between countries.
TRASA has also been working to create standards for consumer protection policies and charters that individual countries can adopt. By TRASA creating standards for consumer protection, which hopefully will be picked up by the member governments, the operators cannot suggest that they arent necessary or important. TRASAs focus on consumer protection policies and charters signal to the operators that these issues are important, and that they shouldnt try to resist them. The fact that TRASA is the one generating these policies tells the operators that all of the regulators in the region are thinking the same way about protecting consumers.
When TRASA first started, it focused on interconnection of telecommunications systems, especially between fixed (traditionally government monopolies) and mobile (mainly new, private sector operators). Many of the new mobile operators were having great difficulties in getting agreements with the fixed line operators, who were reluctant to allow interconnectivity because they saw these new operators as taking away their business. This is the typical attitude of a government- owned monopoly, when the reality is that interconnection leads to increased businesses opportunities for the monopoly and new operators.
TRASA created a framework for the interconnection agreements, which led the way for individual country agreements to be developed. It was a classic example of regional regulators working together to develop a best practice approach to a key challenge with which they were faced.
Q: Can you explain the relationship between TRASA and the SIPRS project and its predecessor projects?
SIPRS (and its USAID/RCSA funded predecessor programs Regional Telecommunications Restructuring Program and the RAPID Task Order) has had a close relationship with TRASA. Consultants and TRASA representatives worked together as equal partners in researching and identifying needs and developing solutions and interventions. TRASA was treated as though they were our paying clients.
At the same time, part of our role was to build capacity within the organization. In the process of doing the work, we had to bring on TRASA staff to gain hands-on expertise and experience so they could do it themselves develop position papers, etc, and enshrine that capacity within TRASA and member institutions.
Q. What are some of the greatest challenges facing regulators in Southern Africa?
The biggest challenge for all regulatory bodies is to keep ahead of technology and industry developments, which are constantly evolving. It is hard for regulatory bodies to keep on top of developments, note what is happening in other parts of the world, what policies or technologies are working and not working. This fact is true for whatever industry, anywhere in the world. . To address this issue, TRASA was the initiator of the NetTel@Africa program (also USAID-funded), which is designed to provided academic learning opportunities for regulators and other stakeholders in ICT. NetTel@Africa will build the intellectual and academic capacity within the region to analyze and track ICT and telecommunications policy issues.
It is also important to note that actions that take place in other parts of the world, (such as when the FCC makes decisions in the US), may have impact on other countries. The regional regulators associations need to take account of these actions. Ideally TRASA would also be a vehicle for lobbying other institutions in other parts of the world on the impact of these decisions on the Southern African region.
One significant challenge is to carry forward the guidelines created by TRASA into implementation within national regulatory bodies not always easy for individuals within their own organizations because of the competing pressures from various stakeholders.
Q: How do you work with governments who are not well placed to commit to the types of reforms we are looking for i.e. governments with monopolies or duopolies?
This is a tricky balancing act between individual country needs (national pride, etc) and regional integration. Our approach to working with governments who still have monopolies or policies that are counter-productive is to keep demonstrating the advantages of freeing up monopolies by showing them that monopolies do not actually generate any resources. Instead monopolies consume themselves versus generate wealth for the country.
TRASA tries to keep out of political issues and focus on business, global economy, and position within region. This is about economic development not politics.
Q: Is TRASA a model for other parts of the world?
The TRASA organizational concept has been transferred to other parts of the world including West Africa, COMESA (the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa which covers southern, central, eastern and north Africa), and the Arab States in North Africa and The Middle East.
TRASA is also a good model for other regions because there are many similarities between governments and areas. For example, in West Africa, Nigeria is a dominant economy (though the Francophone countries are also very strong collectively). In the Arab countries, Egypt is the dominant economy. In general, there are fewer differences than similarities the technology is all the same and consumers are basically the same working with either corporate clients or private citizens, they all need telecommunications for similar reasons and have similar resources.
The key lesson is that while people are very aware of their own needs, the governments and others may not know what those needs are, so there always needs to be a way for people to communicate with government about their needs. This is especially true in rural areas, where many urban dwellers make assumptions about the needs for communication. But when rural areas get access to communication methods, their needs are very sophisticated and real.
Q. What will the impact of digital convergence be?
The long-term impact will be the blending of the different regulators. Right now, most countries have a telecom regulator and a broadcast regulator. Due to digital convergence, these will most likely combine to create a multi-media regulator. The focus will most likely shift from technology/infrastructure to content (which may or may not be a good thing).
South Africa is already leading the way, with ICASA (Independent Communications Agency of South Africa). Botswana is currently combining their broadcasting regulatory board and their telecommunications regulatory body. Mauritius has a joint activity and Malawi and Tanzania both have combined their postal, courier, broadcasting and telecommunications regulatory bodies into one communications regulator.
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) will be a battleground for many governments. I keep telling the regulators, their role is not to ban anything, nor to protect any industry, but to create access. This may not be a popular sentiment but it needs to be said.