Ringing the changes: telecoms regulation in 2024

Guest comment by Dario Betti

This year will see the discussion of many significant issues within the telecom and Internet law framework. The landscape is evolving rapidly, driven by myriad factors ranging from privacy and security concerns to the rise of artificial intelligence and the imperative for environmental sustainability.

The sector can expect far-reaching implications for how business is conducted, particularly with regard to consumer rights and competition.

Net neutrality has been a subject of ongoing discussion for some time, and 2024 will likely see the debate heighten. Towards the end of 2023, Ofcom revised its guidance, so expect similar revisitation of the issue internationally.

Service tiering (offering different levels of service quality or speed based on payment plans) and zero-rating (certain content or applications being made exempt from data usage limits) may find themselves in the spotlight.

Regulatory changes in 2024 may also address transparency in terms of service agreements, such as offering clearer information about data throttling. Stricter regulations may empower consumers with more robust protections against unfair practices.

Consumers in the Netherlands, Germany and the US have all seen the switching off of 3G networks, and mobile providers in the UK will be retiring 3G this year to allow them to focus on fourth and fifth generation technology. As the shift in priority to 5G spreads across the world, regulatory bodies will deliberate issues such as spectrum allocation, security standards, and privacy concerns associated with 5G infrastructure.

Competitive pressures are creating challenges for Telecom and Media players regarding increasing their average revenues, which in turn is depressing profit margins

Ensuring universal access to affordable and reliable telecommunications services will also be a top priority. While 5G expansion will be encouraged, regulatory initiatives will aim to expand connectivity to underserved and rural areas.

Artificial intelligence continues to redefine many industries, and the telecom sector is no exception. Regulatory bodies will need to take positions on a variety of challenges posed by AI in areas such as network management, customer service, and data analytics. Concerns about bias in AI algorithms and the ethical use of AI applications may prompt the introduction of guidelines and regulations.

Telecom companies deploying AI solutions may face scrutiny to ensure transparency and accountability in their algorithms. Regulators may develop frameworks to govern the use of AI in decision-making processes, particularly where it impacts user experiences and data privacy.

The issue of privacy has become a focal point for regulatory bodies worldwide, with an increasing emphasis on safeguarding user data and communications. In 2024, when important elections will take place in the UK and USA, news coverage of cyber security issues will increase.

Security concerns related to cyber threats and network vulnerabilities will drive regulatory changes.

Crossed wires: an imbalance between Telecom and Internet regulation

Governments and regulatory bodies will likely enforce comprehensive security measures to fortify telecom infrastructure against cyber attacks. This may involve the implementation of advanced encryption protocols, regular security audits, and the establishment of incident response mechanisms to mitigate potential risks.

We can also expect stricter regulations aimed at protecting consumer privacy in the ever-expanding digital ecosystem, and authorities are likely to demand more transparent data handling practices from telecom companies, perhaps with stringent penalties for non-compliance.

The Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector is responsible for about 2% of all global emissions, about the same as the aviation industry, and it is inevitable that the telecom industry’s environmental footprint will come under increasing scrutiny, leading to calls for more effective sustainable practices. In 2024, regulatory changes are likely to focus on reducing the industry’s carbon footprint, minimizing electronic waste, and promoting energy-efficient technologies.

Governments may introduce incentives for telecom companies that adopt green technologies and impose penalties on those failing to meet sustainability standards. Collaboration between regulators, industry stakeholders, and environmental organisations will be crucial in developing and enforcing regulations that promote a more sustainable telecom sector.

The 1990s saw the Communist Block fall and the rise of a global market supported by international structures for business and directives; market-oriented regulations were dominant and there was huge growth for Media, Telecom, and the early Internet.

There became an imbalance between Telecom and Internet regulation: telecom networks were licensed nationally, whereas Internet services were internationally available across national laws, with the large scale and reach of the Internet creating considerable value.

Things changed in the 2020s. The pandemic highlighted the importance of controlling physical borders, and political discord between the USA, EU, China and Russia has intensified opinions that the Internet, Telecom and Media sectors are important security aspects that require increased supervision, defence and regulation.

In 2021 the Chinese government made sweeping changes limiting the power of large national Internet companies, and in 2022, the European Union launched the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and Digital Services Act (DSA), which are designed to address imbalances in a way reminiscent of the Chinese regulations. The DMA aims to ensure a level playing field for all digital companies, regardless of their size. The DSA is supposed to protect consumers from harmful and illicit content.

A more interventionist approach and more local variations will become common in the next few years. China and the EU have started a debate and will be busy in 2024 with the full implementation of their plans. Expect regulation to move from market-oriented globalisation to localised and more protective rules.

While there are multiple regulations in place globally, many have had limited operative impacts

Competitive pressures are creating challenges for Telecom and Media players regarding increasing their average revenues, which in turn is depressing profit margins.  But new and advanced networks are still requiring large cyclical investments. The number of mobile operators is reducing from four to three in most countries, and a similar transition can be seen in broadband networks. New technologies have required new approaches and perspectives from policymakers.

An example is the ongoing deployment of 5G wireless networks.  In several jurisdictions, policymakers are moving forward with subsidy programmes and other efforts to encourage the deployment of advanced networks more deeply into unserved and underserved areas.

Striking a balance between fostering innovation through healthy competition and preventing anti-competitive behaviour will be a key challenge for regulators. Telecom companies contemplating mergers will need to navigate regulatory approval processes carefully, considering both national and international implications.

There are two trends that have not yet seen the full impact of regulation: the implementation of personal data protection; and identity. While there are multiple regulations in place globally, many have had limited operative impacts. The regulation is now mostly in place, and the technology is still developing. The real focus today is on understating how to deploy and to monitor the implementation of these rules.

Customer identity is still crucial for the Internet—it has been an ‘identity-less’ structure—but the anonymity on the Internet is now challenging the protection of minors

The European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was one of the keystones to much of the global debate on personal data, and GDPR implementation and its evolution are crucial topics for the 2024 agenda.

Personal data is still too often leaked or hacked, and economic models that thrive on the sharing of private data are not fully transparent to their users.  The legal implication of these data breaches will be a major concern for 2024.

Increasingly high levels of identity fraud, protection of minors, business impersonation and counterfeiting mean regulatory bodies will renew and redouble their focus on issues related to online identity verification and authentication.

Customer identity is still crucial for the Internet—it has been an ‘identity-less’ structure—but the anonymity on the Internet is now challenging the protection of minors. Age verification is becoming more concerning given the success of online social media and messaging platforms.

Telecom regulators are also focusing on another form of identity: network and sender identity. This leads to issues that include phishing (on email, SMS and voice calls) as well as spam and unwanted calls.  The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced its attempt to roll out an anti-robocall solution for voice calls (known as STIR/SHAKEN), and it announced a new solution for SMS during 2023.  Other regulators will follow soon; we will see governments collaborating with the telecom industry to develop standardised frameworks for digital identity.

Privacy and security concerns, the consolidation of industry players, efforts to address digital identity issues, the integration of AI, and a heightened focus on environmental sustainability will shape the regulatory framework governing telecom companies.

Industry stakeholder contributions to this debate will be essential to ensuring that the telecom sector continues to thrive and shape a future where the mobile ecosystem remains a driving force of connectivity and innovation.

Dario Betti is CEO, Mobile Ecosystem Forum