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Dalsie Green Baniala, former Telecommunication, Radiocommunications and Broadcasting Regulator, suggests regulators everywhere face an expanding remit. (Source: ITU)

In most areas of the world, connectivity and content are regulated, sometimes heavily, sometimes less so. Most of the time, the rules are complex. Most of the time, the effort is probably framed for sizable countries. And most of the time, it requires significant resources.

Small states lacking those resources face inherent difficulties, as Dalsie Green Baniala, outgoing Regulator of the Vanuatu Telecommunications, Radiocommunications and Broadcasting Regulator (TRBR), explained recently in an exclusive interview for PTC. “A principal need [for us] is simply getting to a catch-up stage [in understanding] the evolution of the market and services, and to develop an appropriate regulatory framework for all the requirements involved,” she argues.

Scale apart, these issues, she says, are probably the same ones facing regulators everywhere. She acknowledges the complexity that lies in such a dynamic industry is part of the regulatory puzzles and sometimes problems. But she argues a much larger challenge is to “get people to understand why regulatory action is important, and in particular, the need to address at a senior level the issues involved.” She continues: “If this can’t be done, we [as a society] will be held back.”

Here, it is not hard to see the background challenges: Vanuatu is geographically isolated, deep in the South Pacific. Composed of an archipelago of about 80 islands, it is located between New Caledonia and Fiji, a little over 1,000 miles from Australia. Its total population is less than 300,000, far below that of even midsized cities in many countries.

As a result, its very remoteness means that getting affordable communications to and around the country has been an historic challenge. Recently deployed subsea cable connectivity (to Fiji, and on to the major economies of the Pacific) has substantially eased cost and difficulty in international communications and propelled new services. Seeing the utility of better connectivity, the Vanuatu government now has clear enthusiasm for more international broadband connection.

Access matters in an economy which consists of primary produce, tourism and an unusual array of business services. Offshore financial services have also become more significant. In some cases, file sharing networks have also located themselves in Vanuatu in order to benefit from a territory lying outside the major regulatory systems.

Should regulation expand?
A micro market sees regulatory issues highly concentrated. At the market level, the regulator’s office oversees two main mobile and four Internet providers. Included with core functions and roles on promoting sustainable market competition, are management of spectrum usage and consumer protection responsibilities. The regulator also administers and implements Vanuatu Government’s Universal Access Policy, considered both unique and ambitious which promotes a “play or pay” approach. The regulator also administers the policy account for this.

The regulatory environment has proved occasionally controversial, with Ms. Baniala’s own position seeing resolution at Vanuatu court level. But, more widely, the environment has necessarily been one of change. Vanuatu, in common with other countries, has moved towards an independent converged approach in regulating services. Broadcasting and media sectors have now joined telecommunications in the TRBR regulatory sphere. This brings in prospective additional issues not only in domestic content but also in possible regulation of OTT services if required.

Beyond this lie more territories in which regulatory action may be needed and may involve increasingly blurred responsibilities. “I have to work outside the [strict] scope [of my current responsibilities] to get people to move forward,” she says, indicating particular priorities. “Data privacy is for me very important,” she says. “It is an issue I want to see regulatory focus on.” AI development and application should also be a focus of interest.

She acknowledges there is much to be done as mechanisms to regulate these areas do not exist, nor are they well understood. She addresses many scenarios where policymakers will likely need a better grasp of the implications of what is happening.

High profile ideas to help rural communities in Vanuatu provide exciting possibilities, she suggests. Projects such as using drone delivery of drugs to remote parts of Vanuatu should be welcomed, but also understood as representing potential privacy issues, given the technology involved. “We know of course these drones collect information [and this may involve personal information], so we should be prepared for this,” she says. “The priority is, therefore, awareness and education.”

Ms. Baniala also backs more Internet governance alongside a major expansion of online services providing e-government in health and education in Vanuatu. She wants to see major improvements in e-service delivery, particularly of government services covering health and education. Putting all this in a consistent framework will be a challenge, she admits. As a result, she anticipates the next generation of regulation will not be a closed ended, but rather open and flexible to accommodate changing demands.

This regulatory adroitness will come at a cost. Expanded responsibilities clearly require additional resources for regulators, she acknowledges. For small states such as Vanuatu, this is also an ongoing crunch point. TRBR derives financial support from the Australian government, and the World Bank, as well as statutory charges on operator license fees, but clearly the necessary capacity building in this area is not a low-cost initiative. While there is scope at the national level for regulatory policymaking, there is a clear need for a regional approach as well, she argues, where the Pacific Islands should come together and look for commonalities in regulatory approaches.

She acknowledges this remains a demanding requirement, but one that needs exploration. One of the paths, she suggests, could be initiatives such as the Pacific ICT Regulatory Resource Centre that has supported both its nine-country membership as well as some non-member island states. “This could be addressed at PTC level, too,” she says.