Expanding Telecommunications Services in a New Age

How Legal Traditions and Licensing Procedures Impact Telecommunications Industries Around the World

One would expect that lawmakers rely on economic, social, and technical analysis to support their decisions. However, in reality lawmakers’ decisions are often influenced by subjective considerations and politics. When economic, social, and technical analysis is referred to, it is often presented by parties with a vested interest. This is particularly problematic in the telecommunications industry where those without political capital historically remain left out of the decision-making process.

To address the need for reliable analysis, a group of researchers and policymakers convened at the first Telecommunications Policy Research Conference (TPRC) in 1971. Continuing this tradition, the 47th annual TPRC brought together industry players, academics, and regulators from around the world. Staying true the conference’s roots, many speakers presented research on the various ways radio spectrum could be better allocated in order to address economic, educational, and other social disparities – like political participation and housing.

I had the pleasure of presenting my research at this year’s conference. Over the past two years, I built a database of the telecommunications industry’s critical points of analysis, and then used those points to support the arguments put forward in my paper ­– Expanding Telecommunications Services in a New Age: How Legal Traditions and Licensing Procedures Impact Telecommunications Industries Around the World. The paper was selected as a Finalist for the conference’s Student Paper Competition and was featured in the “International” panel.

I first became interested in the digital divide while working on infrastructure improvement projects in Latin America throughout high school and as an undergraduate. My hometown, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, also struggled to address the digital divide, but not nearly to the same extent as what I saw on those trips. While the work I did generally aimed at improving essential infrastructure and economic opportunity, I noticed that many communities I worked in also lacked any recognizable form of telecommunications infrastructure.

When I started travelling outside of Pennsylvania and Latin America, I realized the digital divide was a common issue that practically all countries share. This is demonstrated by the efforts of members of international organizations, such as the Global Systems Mobile Communications Associations (GSMA) and the International Telecommunication Institute (ITU).  It was not until I began work as a Research Assistant for Professor Dale Hatfield that I understood how the level of economic and social development in each country, at least as it relates to telecommunications industries, is heavily influenced by decisions about how to manage and regulate radio spectrum use.

Two issues influence the telecommunications industry the most – the balance of power between government branches and radio spectrum licensing. So, Professor Hatfield and I agreed it would be worthwhile to research how legal traditions, like common law and civil law, and licensing procedures, like auctions and comparative hearings, influence the quality of services and prices of telecommunications providers in each country. To do this, I created two separate regression analyses. This allowed me to measure the relative legal advantages for a civil law country as opposed to a common law country, and of using auctions as opposed to comparative hearing to assign spectrum.

One of the regression analyses indicated that civil law countries’ legal traditions give them a major advantage over common law countries. This may be explained by the differences between countries in respect to how power is shared between branches of government. In civil law countries, decision-making authority is traditionally concentrated in the hands of the executive branch and agencies, often at the expense of the judiciary and legislature. Alternatively, in common law countries the balance of power is more evenly shared between branches. This is observed in the exercise of judicial review and some legislatures’ ability to limit the scope of agencies’ authority.

Civil law countries do have at least one major advantage built into their legal systems: they have been able to achieve much higher Internet access, subscription rates, and broadband speeds – all without significantly increasing consumer prices. This ought to provide encouragement for regulators in countries that are struggling to keep up with telecommunications development to experiment with policies that have proven successful in civil law countries. It also indicates that perhaps they should place more faith in their agencies to make effective radio spectrum management decisions.

Licensing procedures also strongly influence outcomes in the telecommunications industry. The second regression analysis indicated that countries that use auctions to assign radio spectrum have delivered cellular and internet services to more people, and at lower costs, than countries that rely on comparative hearings. Interestingly, many countries still use comparative hearings to assign radio spectrum. This may be because comparative hearings, at least in theory, give the regulators conducting the hearing greater discretion in selecting the licensee.

It seems that auctions commonly lead to positive outcomes for consumers, faster broadband speeds, and, when conducted properly, can even help introduce competition by reducing the amount of market share in the hands of the leading operators. Again, this should encourage regulators to experiment with more dynamic approaches to spectrum regulation. In the paper, I concluded that a best practice has already been established – auctions with minimum criteria for participation and/or buildout requirements – and I encourage regulators to pursue that approach in the future.

My research also helps to confirm something I suspected while travelling abroad and throughout the rural U.S. The digital divide is influenced by both physical and political barriers. Indeed, the regression analyses indicated that political factors play an even greater role than several factors others have relied on to explain the observed disparities. I know this to be true because I controlled for several traditional explanations, including rural population, population density, GDP per Capita, and Corruption Indices. Yet, when compared to legal tradition and licensing procedure, these factors have only a slight, if not insignificant, impact on telecommunications outcomes. Therefore, politicians and telecommunications providers can no longer point to economic and physical variables to explain their shortcomings.

Taken together, the research on legal tradition and licensing procedure helps to explain why there are often large disparities between countries. I understand this marks a major departure from much previous thinking on the subject. My hope is that my research will help others to understand how legal tradition and licensing procedure can be used as mechanisms to better develop telecommunications markets.

Freddy is Managing Editor of CTLJ, Volume 18 and a Research Assistant for the University of Colorado’s Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship. His study and research focus on identifying legal solutions for the issues that arise out of emerging technologies and increasing access to critical technology infrastructure in underdeveloped communities.

Saving Our Spectrum: Handling Radio Layer Vulnerabilities in Wireless Systems

Two of the greatest challenges of the modern technological age are security and privacy. Spectrum, specifically at the radio layer, is particularly vulnerable to attack. How can we better protect our devices and infrastructure? Speakers and panelists at the Silicon Flatirons Center’s Saving Our Spectrum: Handling Radio Layer Vulnerabilities in Wireless Systems Conference came as close as one can to answering this complex question.

A key development in the telecommunications industry is marked by the shift away from the use of wires and fiber to transmit signals to wireless. And while wireless networks reduce capital expenditures, and have great potential in tough to reach places, the world’s increased dependence on radio comes at a cost. Radio receivers, unlike wired connections, cannot be physically protected from attack. This is because in order to function, they must be open to signals.

Professors Hatfield and Gremban led off the conference’s primer with a discussion of three common types of attacks on these systems: sniffing (listening to wireless transmissions for unencrypted signals), spoofing (one user masquerading as another), and jamming (blocking signals to specific or several devices). One of the difficulties in addressing the radio layer vulnerabilities of 4G and 5G networks is that attacks can occur at any layer, meaning both our devices and the network are potentially vulnerable to attack.

Consumers can protect their devices but are limited in their ability to do so. Certainly, one can download any number of applications from the app store that assure consumers of the app’s ability to detect IMSI catchers (or stingray) devices, which helps combat sniffing, but those applications are known to produce false positives, meaning they alert customers to nonexistent threats, and they are not as effective at stopping bad actors as one would hope. This raises the question – if end users can do little to protect themselves, can, and should, companies being doing more to protect devices by securing the network and improving the hardware of our devices?

For the mobile communications companies selling devices and telecommunications equipment, that possess advanced technology and the know-how to address the aforementioned vulnerabilities, there is little incentive for them to make improvements that would secure devices. Adding hardware that would address vulnerabilities in the devices would be expensive, but probably not impossible according to some panelists.

Though it may be some time before we see security features in our devices, more and more companies, advocacy groups, and regulators are attempting to address the vulnerability issue by experimenting with new systems and methods. One way this is being done is by using artificial intelligence and machine learning to detect and respond to attacks on devices and at other layers. AI is particularly useful because of its ability to quickly isolate atypical interactions on the network. Additionally, DARPA’s Spectrum Collaboration Challenge (SC2) is “using AI to unlock the true potential of the RF spectrum,” and promises to deliver some viable solutions as well, so the outcome of that competition will be worth following.

Finally, the 3GPP (Third Generation Partnership Project) has used sophisticated technology to address vulnerabilities to improve user authentication process. This helps networks determine whether users are who they say they are, which helps in instances of spoofing. With each generation of cellular network technologies improving on the last, we have been able to improve our ability to authenticate users – and this trend has held true for 5G. 

Despite the high number of attacks, the situation is not as dismal as it once appeared. In fact, there are already several viable ways to secure radio layer vulnerabilities. These include requiring device manufacturers to include protective features, such as advanced hardware and encryption technology,  before delivering the devices to customers, increasing uses for AI applications, and doing what we have done in the past: hoping that new cellular network generations will lead to improvements in authentication processes.

Though the hope is always that something will be done to totally secure our devices and networks, we must recognize our own technological constraints, as well as the capabilities of bad actors. That said, the three examples outlined above seem to be viable solutions and demonstrate stakeholders’ increased awareness of the issue at hand

Freddy is Managing Editor of CTLJ, Volume 18 and a Research Assistant for the University of Colorado’s Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology, Entrepreneurship. His study and research focus on identifying legal solutions for the issues that arise out of emerging technologies and increasing access to critical technology infrastructure in under-served communities.