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‘KL calling’ – Asia report

The IIC Asia Forum 2024 took place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 5 and 6 February with discussions covering the investment environment, WRC-23, digital trade agreements, opportunities for the creative industries and the regulation of AI.  CRISTINA MURRONI reports

Delegates were welcomed with an overview of the Malaysian telecommunications market, where demand for mobile data and fixed broadband services has been driving robust sectoral growth. The national broadband initiative and various universal service projects both helped to bridge connectivity gaps. This played a major part in sustaining growth, which is projected to continue until 2027 at a compound annual rate of 4.1 per cent for mobile data and 7 per cent for fixed broadband. Service providers are now expanding into new digital domains: media, entertainment, enterprise solutions, digital financial services and marketing technologies. A major imminent change is the shift from a single wholesale network policy to a dual network policy, expected in the first half of 2024.

Creating an optimal investment environment

A leading telecoms provider explained that expansion in new digital sectors becomes necessary when traditional markets are saturated, while customer demands continue to require investment. The strategy is then to expand into new industries such as digital banking, data analytics and cybersecurity, and into other national markets in the region. Another panellist observed that digital transformation has shaped a multilayered environment, where a new, significant layer of public digital infrastructure makes it all the more important that government and industry work together. According to an international operator on the panel, an optimal investment climate is mainly about achieving a good risk-reward balance with three strong priorities. Firstly, investments should be customer-driven rather than technology-driven. Secondly, the telecoms sector needs to maximise value from existing assets and infrastructure, including spectrum. The third priority is to set and achieve CO2 emission targets not as a form of compliance, but as a strategy that is good for customers and society. All Asian countries have a digital economy roadmap, but additionally, the panel observed, there is a need for an orchestrator who can bring together the objectives of economic growth, inclusion, quality of advancement, innovation and investment returns.

WRC-23 and 5G/6G realities

Some of the most interesting outcomes of the World Radiocommunication Conference 2023 (WRC-23) were those concerning earth stations in motion (ESIM), which deliver a satellite signal to objects in motion, such as a ship or  car. It is a booming sector, and there is a need to harmonise the use of higher spectrum bands for ESIM. WRC-23 saw a proposal to establish a future agenda item for WRC-27 to study the use of aero ESIMs and maritime ESIMs in the Q/V band. Another controversial issue discussed concerned the amount of power (EPFD or electronic power flux density) that low earth orbiting (LEO) satellites are allowed to emit in order to avoid interference with geostationary satellites sitting 60 times further away from Earth. These limits were set in the ‘90s, when the LEO satellite industry was in its infancy, and the current LEO players argue that geostationary operators are over-protected, forcing LEO operators to use many more satellites in order to have effective capacity and coverage. The compromise reached was to establish the need for more EPFD technical studies, reporting the results at WRC-27, but without any regulatory consequences. Spectrum in the upper 6GHz (U6) band is sought by both 5G operators and those working in the Wi-Fi space and requires that the interests of both are recognised. Different regions were proposing different approaches, with Europe broadly arguing for allocation and the Americas pushing for the whole of the 6 GHz band to be unlicensed. The decision was that the U6 band is now the harmonised home for the expansion of mobile capacity for 5G-advanced and beyond, although national regulators can explore options for sharing with unlicensed users.

Different regions were proposing different approaches, with Europe broadly arguing for allocation and the Americas pushing for the whole of the 6 GHz band to be unlicensed.

The mobile sector was focused on the identification of more frequency bands for international mobile telecommunications (IMT) in order to continue building connectivity and increased traffic. WRC-23 achieved globalised harmonisation across the 3.5 GHz frequency range, an important step for economies of scale and reducing the cost of equipment and devices. Affordability is a key issue for the expansion of connectivity and adoption, and the way spectrum is auctioned can have a strong impact on this. The discussion explored the possibility of moving from auctions that maximise government revenues to solutions that look at incentives for agreed socio-economic goals using advanced telecommunications solutions.

Facilitating a vibrant cultural and creative economy

The entertainment and media industries, and gaming in particular, have grown faster than the rest of the economy in the Asia region. In addition to their economic relevance, these borderless industries confer a soft power that helps create an enabling environment as well as attracting investment. Local film producers, game developers and artists can reach a wider audience, generating additional revenue streams for local producers. This session discussed the critical enablers for success in the cultural industries, which include the foundations around data, governance and public and private collaborations, as well as talent and workforce development. Having strong governance and infrastructure collaboration across the digital industries can make the difference in spurring the development of, and capturing the opportunities created by, the content industries. Policy needs to underpin every stage of the creative economy, from the initial stages, through talent capacity incubation, to location promotion.

A voluntary code of conduct may be the right way to regulate this industry, according to a regulator, particularly if the code is the result of consultations with the general public and stakeholders from the entire ecosystem. A balanced representation will ensure policymaking focuses on what the industry needs in order to flourish. International best practices can be adapted to the specific national context and included in the code. The panel concluded with an overview of the trends observed in the industry: as consumers become more discerning, they show an appetite for local stories, and localisation of international IPs – giving a local twist to an international format – is a major trend. Expansion of the range of content genre is another: pushing the boundaries, creating a buzz by pushing the boundaries and targeting music or gaming fans are some of the best examples.

Digital economy trade agreements: implications for the telecoms, media and technology sector

A regulator from a small country reported that the biggest issue in digital trade agreements is the fragmentation of rules and approaches across the world. Therefore, their focus shifted away from market access and towards building consensus around the difficult issues, starting with like-minded small countries and gradually expanding. It was soon clear that no one country, no single regulator or industry had the model answer and the best approach was a practical one that included both industry and government. Another panellist observed that reaching international agreement becomes easier when regulators act as enablers, ensuring that robust systems are in place nationally before discussions with other countries. For example, reaching an agreement on international payments is less likely if the countries involved do not have their own working system in place. There are models for digital economy agreements that work as starting points.

As they experience the confluence of entertainment and ecommerce, companies want to see a cross-border data regime that makes sense both from the regulatory side and for business. A panellist stressed that the involvement of the private sector is crucial for the implementation of trade agreements, urging policymakers to go beyond the traditional ecommerce chapters and look at what would make a difference to trade on the ground. Another promising approach is the pursuit of outcomes that ensure interoperability rather than aiming for full harmonisation.

Countering harmful online content

An independent regulator established specifically to deal with online harms presented a regulatory approach that is based on the three pillars of prevention, protection and proactive change. It is a complaints-based system, where preventative actions are based on research and protection is designed as a safety net for those harms that have fallen through the cracks of the systems put in place by online players. Change is focused on the concepts of systemic regulation and safety by design. Another regulator described its new duties to provide guidance on harm-reduction processes, such as risk assessments, and to set out codes of practice on how online services can comply with regulation. Research is critical, because it establishes the evidence needed for a clear understanding on which to take decisions. Since the global platforms are operating at scale, a degree of consistency in the regulatory regimes is an important incentive to improve compliance.

In response to this need, the Global Online Safety Regulators Network was founded, rooted in a commitment to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Speakers observed that 2024 is the year of the election megacycle and, therefore, dealing with false and harmful content is especially important. Misinformation is one of the more difficult types of content to regulate, because it’s not a clear harm, nor it is necessarily illegal.  It is mainly addressed through media and information literacy, as well as a fact-checking effort, but what can be done to stop it at source? Several speakers echoed the view that media literacy has to be complemented by shared responsibilities and ‘cleaning’ of the information environment. There is also a need for research that helps understand who is more susceptible to misinformation. Recent studies in one Asian country highlighted some unexpected results: younger people, those who attended digital skills programmes (provided by government or tech platforms or civil society) and those who live in urban areas are more susceptible to misinformation. The higher someone’s education level, the more receptive they are to misinformation.

Mitigating consumer harms caused by unsolicited communications,scams, phishing and fraud

Many governments have adopted mechanisms to deal with cybercrime, implementing laws and regulations around the functioning of online platforms and payment systems, including protection of data. On the one hand, there are technical solutions for combating fraud: a regulator reported collaborating with the banking regulator, operators and banks and using pragmatic measures such as blocking foreign text messages or stripping URLs from the texts. On the other hand, regulators often work on transparency and consumer awareness: a code of practice for telecoms operators helps consumers to stay informed about the status of the security of each operator, while dedicated websites can show safe ways to be online.  Another speaker put the spotlight on digital identifiers, arguing that work on security has to involve not only SMS, but also IP messaging through apps, as well as improving safety and security by design. There must be clear rules on who can use telephone numbers but also social media handles and web domains. For example, should anyone be allowed to buy a website domain that resembles that of a bank?

A more resilient customer base can be achieved through education and building awareness around the latest or most common scams, argued another regulator. Businesses should place high priority on protecting customers; they should have strict security measures in place and be open about how they use customer data. Working with operators to mitigate these incidents is the way forward. Increasing awareness, boosting education and using technology are the means to create an environment where customers are able to make responsible business decisions. Solid legal frameworks are also key to encouraging responsible business practices. A speaker from a global company confirmed an uptick in the number of scams and frauds detected in the Asia Pacific area (and also worldwide), even as the public’s awareness of scams has increased. The company takes a multifaceted approach to the problem, mostly through technology with inbuilt security features, such as AI-enabled spam and phishing filters.

Spotlight on DNS

This session focused on the next round of gTLD (generic top-level domain) programmes in the Domain Name System (DNS), expected to open in 2026. This is an expansion of the programmes launched in 2009 and 2012 which sought to offer new, short and long-form domain names, also available in non-alphabetic internationalised domain names (IDN). Policymakers and regulators can currently apply for geographic names or flag problematic names to ICANN, while businesses can apply for brand TLDs or new IDNs. The latter is a welcome response to the need to preserve languages and cultures and reach non-English speaking users. This work will increase universal acceptance of domain names and email addresses in all software applications, through the testing of universal accessibility  compliance, also spurring economic growth. Another initiative is the creation of a centralised platform for registration data to be used for cybersecurity investigations.

AI governance: global initiatives to foster responsible innovation

A representative of the software industry provided an overview of current AI regulation across the world. The EU rules focus on a tiered risk category of AI users, with the top tier of unacceptably high-risk use cases, such as social monitoring or predictive policing, that are prohibited; then a very specific subset of high-risk use cases, such as AI controlling critical infrastructure, that has very precise reporting and registration requirements. Use cases categorised as limited risk have specific transparency obligations. For example, a business whose customer service board uses AI has to ensure that its customers know that they are interacting with an AI system.

In the United States, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has a leading role in the executive order laying the ground for AI regulation and guidelines. China is the only APEC economy with regulations already in place: the Cyberspace Administration of China oversees obligations that include labelling and tagging content produced by AI, moderation and other requirements covering  training data. According to another industry representative, a broad ethical governance framework is fine, but in order to apply the principles, specific technical standards are needed and these are yet to be agreed.  The core issue is to decide how to make data available to the organisations that are creating large AI models without compromising on privacy, security and other cultural sensitivities. The strong focus on the rights of the individual needs to be countered with adequate exemptions for responsible organisations that use the data in the interest of the individual.

The Asia Forum was sponsored by Axiata.