Should Public Policy Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way?
It goes without challenge that the subject of the Internet of Things is among the most widely debated and discussed topics in our industry in recent memory. Rightly so; it serves as the fastest growing part of the communications sector. The mere existence of this newsletter from a highly respected institution proves the point.
From what has been written in the past in this forum, much is focused on development, on uses, on technical concerns, on platforms. In the course of reading the fine contributions to this newsletter there is another avenue of conversation that needs our attention: the role that public policy plays and the role that public policy makers should play in the IoT market.
As has been laid out carefully in prior writings, IoT is underpinned by the evolution of cheap communication, cheaper storage and computing, and more sophisticated analytics. But make no mistake, that even in the face of migration to more liberalized markets worldwide, the communications sector remains regulated, and we must be wary that rule makers may get in the way.
The best of technical ideas, even those with obvious societal benefits, can face the unexpected worst of barriers, sometimes from government policy, as they enter the worldwide market. Ask Skype or WhatsApp as they readied for their respective global audiences. In a very thought-provoking report last year the Internet Society reported that the primary reason that half the planet’s human inhabitants are unconnected is government policies.
The authorities or governmental bodies with this say in 'what can', 'what can't', 'what should be' is growing as fast as individuals with the title of 'president' in some companies. We have telecom regulators, competition authorities, and privacy commissions – each with a continuing sense that they must do something meaningful to justify their existence. Twenty years ago only 14 countries in the world could claim that they regulated their communications market; today that number is over 200. Rules abound. Each creates regulations or set policy; often by people who plainly don’t understand the technical nuances of a technical marketplace.
Combine the fastest growing segment of the communications sector with un-harmonized global rulemaking and we could very well face the largest obstacle for growth and the realization of benefits for IoT.
Having served as both an advocate of and an architect for communications public policy for over three decades on four continents, I have often viewed the policy impact akin to the waterbed – push down here, and watch it rise over there – something economists call the 'law of unintended consequences'.
The hope is to develop this conversation further by taking a closer look at the regulatory and public policy issues surrounding the emerging Internet of Things (IoT). There has been much written on the differences between M2M (Machine to Machine) and IoT or even IoE (Internet of Everything). But for the sake of these articles, they will be treated as overlapping, and will address policy topics that each and all present. For simplicity reference will be to IoT – and will make distinctions only when M2M or IoE demand a policy distinction.
As IoT gains wider reach, the regulator has little choice but to take on an expanded role. History tells us that, but what issues are regulators most concerned about? When viewed from afar, the regulator’s mind is often mysterious, its critics would say less than transparent, and its decisions are perplexing. Over the next few articles we expect to expand this thinking. This is by no means intended to be critical to the role of regulators – I know only too well what that role is, having served as one for over a decade. The goal here will not attempt something unrealistic by trying to solve all of these concerns, but rather to bring awareness to those who are developing the platforms, the products, and the deliverables that the IoT market hopes to realize.
In general terms policy issues that have made an appearance on the IoT frontier are:
- Privacy – who gets to see what? Privacy and data protection have gained significant public awareness – but there are many differences in approach around the world.
- Security – how can we protect? This topic differs from privacy but is often incorrectly used when mentioned in the same thought. Given the growing incidents of data breaches, and the potential for unauthorized intrusion, it is important that the role of the authority be defined beyond 'self-regulate'.
- Access to (public sector) Information; while privacy is an important policy issue and certain protections can be employed, what happens to those protections in downstream use? In the use of personal data that was seen as protected, several high profile cases and some university research projects have debunked the notion of full anonymization. So who gets access?
Scarce resource pressures
- Spectrum policy – changes to IoT platforms will have a profound impact on existing uses of radio spectrum. Devices (or sensors) are unmanned, often difficult and/or expensive to reach, and costly to change. What guidelines are needed to determine best use, especially in the 5-15 year planning horizon – would it be those that benefit the most people, or those that deliver the most value? What future role should the regulator (or at least the part of government that monitors spectrum use) play concerning interference, or assuring fair use of assigned spectrum? This can be seen as a slippery slope when you take into account licensing, type approval, enforcement.
- Are we establishing a further scarce resource – namely the identification of device processes? Given estimates of many billions of connected devices by, say, 2020, who will be responsible for the allocation of identifying numbers? Is this a national or global issue?
- Might IoT prompt further liberalization of the communications market – i.e., who governs the control of the market devices; what is regulatory compliance? (And whose rules?). Or on the other hand is this beyond the reach of existing authority and present legislation, so the regulator chooses to forebear?
- Roaming – will a device relying on wireless connectivity and intended to work in one market easily adapt to a neighboring market? Will the car or the tractor be less effective if it crosses a national boundary? Will that car be more expensive to operate?
In coming articles each policy issue will be explored using the following broad approach: what elements make up that particular policy – what is important and impactful (and what isn’t); how can it be dealt with; what are the anticipated benefits or impacts and what are the costs or risks. Every attempt will be made to not just raise questions, but to offer direction or answers.
Again the intention here is to arm those who are planning, developing and building this evolution with the awareness of a broader set of issues that might result in starting the necessary advocacy efforts to ensure we see the benefits of the IoT revolution.
Andrew Haire with more than 30 years of experience spanning four continents has been associated with some of the industry’s most successful telecom initiatives. He advises both governments and communication providers and is an expert in industry policy, market growth, strategy, technical opportunity, and economic structure. His portfolio included architecting major policy frameworks in the telecoms, technology, and postal sectors, as well as serving as regulator and ICT policy for 10 years at Singapore’s iDA, soon after its inception in the year 2000.
He serves on the Board of the International Institute of Communications in London, and is Chairman of its US Chapter. Mr Haire holds a degree in engineering in the United States, attended the advanced management program from Harvard University. He has delivered papers / speeches on policy and regulatory frameworks in Asia, Europe and North America.
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