The surge in research and development and innovation in new technologies taking place in the last five decades has meant growing importance of telecommunications for national economies and the growth of international trade in the telecommunications service. The global Information Communication and Technology market has been estimated to be $ 4.7 trillion in 2012, and this has been spread throughout the globe with highest penetration growth in China, India and Latin America but also reaching the African continent. This technology has contributed to the emergence of the New World and the New Economy, it has played the part of a social and economic enabler (look at the North African spring experience) and it has given a boost to innovation and the emergence of new services.
The telecommunications revolution has not spared our country and we had in the early nineties one of the first experiments outside the United Kingdom of mobile technology in the form of Telecel, which was later bought by Vodafone, and this found a worthy rival after a few years in the launch of Go mobile by the then telecoms incumbent Maltacom. In the meantime we have seen the introduction of Voice over Internet Protocol, Internet Protocol Television and social networking, besides the setting up of a large number of software companies, i-gaming companies, internet banking etc. In a nutshell, this meant a surge in foreign investment, in employment opportunities, new challenges in education institutions to supply the numbers required of ICT graduates, as well as new opportunities for research and development, start-ups of new business and the emergence of a new young entrepreneurial class.
The trick behind this success is the trade off found between market liberalisation and regulation. The Malta Communications Authority (MCA) is by far the most successful Maltese regulator. Established in 2001, it is the statutory body responsible for the regulation of the electronic communications sector and ecommerce. It is also responsible for policies and strategies related to initiatives addressing the more expansive use of ICT among business and citizens, and the bridging of the digital divide. Throughout the years (and I have direct experience of this during my short spell as Chairman of Maltacom plc ten years ago), the MCA has conducted its business with moral and sapiential authority , acting fairly and justly with service providers. Effective regulation meant increased investment, more job opportunities, greater economic growth, a better quality service and lower prices, higher penetration and an impetus to technological innovation. It is indeed a balancing act as entrepreneurs and investors are seeking returns to their investments, consumers are looking for affordable quality, choice, innovation and quality of service, and the regulator is interested in widening access, guaranteeing efficient competition and consumer protection.
New technologies are creating new challenges to regulators. The latest two trends – M2M (Machine to machine) technology and the “Internet of Things” ( radio tagging and the “chip” which can identify objects) are opening up a can of worms that go beyond economic regulation… ethical, moral and privacy issues that so far have not been fairly regulated are reaching the top of priority lists of both Governments and regulators. The principles of independence, accountability, transparency and predictability in our Communications regulator will be severely challenged in the years to come.
Joseph FX Zahra