The world’s leading digital media and regulatory policy journal

Miami talks: reports from the LATAM TMF

The traditional spring TMF devoted to Latin America and the Caribbean took place in Miami, Florida, on 15 and 16 May 2023. CRISTINA MURRONI reports on a discussion that included network fees, AI and the data economy

The reality and the future of connectivity

Closing the digital divide may be easier for small islands, where 3G/4G mobile services have reached 100 per cent of the population and there is no evidence of a gender or urban/rural divide, according to a speaker from the English-speaking Caribbean. Conducting surveys to discover  which communities are unconnected and what barriers they face is essential for filling connectivity gaps efficiently. In larger countries, as many as 30 per cent of the population remains unconnected: remote areas and sparsely populated regions are still a challenge, requiring public points of access, at least initially, and reliance on all technologies for coverage. Spectrum has a leading role to play not just for mobile connections, but also for emerging solutions based on the use of satellites. A dedicated session explored the potential agenda items at the WRC-23 meeting at the end of this year.

The panel explored which regulatory approach would enable the more immersive and more interactive internet environment expected in the near future – the Metaverse. A technology-neutral approach and collaboration at all levels are key components of success. The symbiotic relationship between players creating both content and connectivity has benefitted the industry. The availability of more locally relevant content, for example, addresses one of the demand-side barriers to greater connectivity that are especially relevant in Latin America – the others being digital literacy and the cost of devices. On the supply side, a key barrier that needs addressing is to ensure spectrum prices are consistent with growth.

Network fees in Latin America.

The twin forces of competition and regulation are driving down the price of connectivity while new technologies and increased traffic drive up the need for investment in digital networks. The result is that traditional telcos have found themselves under financial stress. In order to ensure sustainable investment in the network, they argue, the global platforms that drive and monetise most of the traffic should be required to contribute a ‘fair share’. Platforms counter that they already provide investment in various parts of the network.

The twin forces of competition and regulation are driving down the price of connectivity while new technologies and increased traffic drive up the need for investment in digital networks.

One side of the argument holds that fair share contributions are just one of the ways the industry can support network investment and that significant improvements could be made if platforms collaborated on traffic management by specifying and minimizing data flows that are not requested by the user, such as when app updates are available. Extending the scope of universal service fund contributions to platforms could be another example of non-distorting contributions, or perhaps the debate should shift to the best way to increase, or subsidise, user charges. Another perspective holds that there are already incentives to collaborate between content and network providers and that mandating ‘fair share’ would complicate and distort the market. Several panellists argued that the jury is out on this issue and more information should be gathered before reaching a conclusion.

Digital financial services and the data economy

In Latin American countries, informal, cash-based economies are significant, and the conversation on digital financial services began by looking at the success of e-money initiatives in other regions of the world. Moving towards e-banking has improved the productivity of small traders and rural farmers, boosting the economy, but it also means that cybersecurity must be developed in parallel. This contrasts with the current perception that, while cybercrime is increasing, budgets devoted to online security remain low. There was a strong call for the creation of cybersecurity agencies in the region, for an increase in financing and resources dedicated to cybersecurity and for concerted action at all levels of public policy, from education to policing. In this field, cooperation is paramount not just among regulatory bodies, but across government layers and departments, so that electronic payments can be accepted everywhere and e-money becomes one of the facets of digitalisation. Security is only one of the critical issues in a data economy. The panel argued that data management can affect not only the competitive process, but also the fundamental interests of society, individuals and citizens. Privacy, security or the protection of the democratic process have to do with data much more than they have to do with physical infrastructure. It is paramount that countries put rules in place to protect the privacy and security of data. Many questions remain: how can a global economy be policed without jurisdiction and who is in charge of enforcement?

The changing face of AV distribution and consumption

The impact of streaming services on traditional broadcasters has been disruptive, but consumer choice has increased and in many countries, this has also led to booming content industries and greater representation. The experience of smaller countries, however, is that the traditional local broadcasters remain under existential threat with little or no benefit to the native creative industries. Panellists from other areas of the world also reported the negative impact of the streaming boom on cinema production and exhibition, adding however that a positive and collaborative approach with streaming platforms could be successfully developed. The spread of piracy and its threat to security and to content creation was addressed by one panellist who suggested a systemic approach was required to eradicate the practice,  now largely driven by international criminal organisations.

Creating a safe environment for artificial intelligence

The social and economic transformation driven by AI is providing undeniable benefits. But the technology presents both overt and invisible challenges. One is the way in which algorithms, used to model preferences, herd users into echo chambers where dissenting views are progressively excluded over time, leading to epistemic and knowledge limitations and undermining the basis for shared values and tolerance in society. The World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology has called attention to AI’s role in the selection of the information and news that people read, the music that people listen to and the decisions people make, as well as in their political interaction and engagement.

The Caribbean AI Policy Roadmap was developed to drive AI policy in the Caribbean and to serve as a guide for small island states. It is based on six principles: resiliency, governance, transformation, upskilling, preservation of Caribbean culture and sustainability. Since life has shown that intent in the boardroom does not always translate to results on the ground, a big part of the governance framework is devoted to ensuring that there are clear indicators for measuring responsible AI.

Speakers from digital platforms discussed the mechanisms used to ensure the AI powering their algorithms fulfils all the criteria for privacy, security, fairness, and inclusiveness, and the transparent initiatives to bring stakeholders around real examples of AI governance. Transparency is key and has to be done in a way that is relevant to the user. The panel also debated the current AI regulation in draft in the EU. It adopts a risk-based approach and is likely to become a de facto standard for countries that have not proposed their own rules.

Most of the speakers declared themselves optimists about the development of AI and its impact on society, as the general feeling is that the risks can be managed and its opportunities could transform economies for the better.

This event was sponsored by Millicom Tigo, Cisco and Frontier Economics