There is a school of thought, prevalent in certain parts of Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, that says the only good regulation is no regulation. That may be true for some highly developed nations in certain advanced markets with reasonably self-regulating players. But under many circumstances, and especially for developing nations, unregulated markets simply won’t work. Indeed, poor regulation — or no regulation — can be downright detrimental, both to the growth of the particular market and to the country’s overall economic growth.
This is particularly true in the telecom arena, which has the potential to significantly stimulate a country’s overall economic growth — but only if the liberalization of its telecom sector is promoted thoughtfully. Why telecom? Because a strong telecom industry brings with it a wide range of beneficial “network effects”: Disparate markets are connected, making it easier to share knowledge, and labor productivity is increased. Numerous studies have shown that a properly regulated, competitive telecom market can increase revenues for telecom players and boost foreign investment and promote technological innovation in the sector, which ultimately benefits a country’s entire economy.
A study published in the journal Telecommunications Policy found that a fully competitive telecom sector’s contribution to its country’s overall economy can be as high as 3.38 percent of GDP, compared with just 2.33 percent in monopoly markets. And research by the World Bank published in 2002 found that lowering telecom costs by 10 percent in a particular market can increase trade by 8 percent.
Given the benefits of well-coordinated regulation, it is incumbent on a country’s government to work to put together a package of policies and regulatory mechanisms that can effectively promote telecom within its borders and leverage the virtues of a strong telecom sector throughout the economy. What, specifically, is the government’s role in this process? To operate at the highest, policy-making level to promote the development of the sector, the national economy, and society as a whole. That means establishing the sector’s primary objectives, enacting telecom laws and statutes, and ensuring that sector-specific policy concerns stay in line with other national policy issues such as trade and the environment. And it means establishing the regulatory body that will actually determine and carry out regulations, and cooperating with industry players in developing policy.
To that end, the first order of business for the government in developing a successful national telecom policy is to stay out of regulatory implementation and instead set up an independent body to carry out regulatory policy. It should be independent not just institutionally but on several other fronts as well: The government must allow it independence from political influence by giving it a distinct legal mandate, appointing regulators for fixed periods, and protecting them from arbitrary removal. The entity must remain independent financially through an adequate, reliable source of funding and the legal means to fund itself. Finally, it must remain independent commercially by maintaining a high degree of transparency in the appointment and functions of regulators and board members. Together, such policies will boost the credibility, transparency, and long-term sustainability of the regulatory body, thus making the sector that much more attractive to potential investors.
Second, the government must set policies that reduce its degree of ownership in the telecom sector’s incumbent players. Curtailing the level of government ownership has been shown to increase foreign investment and encourage new entrants. Not that the government will have a smaller role to play in the sector — it must continue working with regulators and industry players to create a strong, competitive market.
Third, the government needs to establish guidelines for the financial obligations of telecom operators, removing such onerous payments as the royalties some governments still demand from telecom operators, but maintaining corporate taxes at levels that will sustain the government’s regulatory efforts, research programs, and Universal Service Funds for promoting telecom service in rural and less-developed parts of the country. Reducing such payments will, in the long run, boost innovation by encouraging industry players to reinvest at higher rates and new players to enter the market.
Few areas could benefit more from liberalized telecom regulation than the so-called MENA region — the Middle East and North Africa. The region’s telecom development lags other parts of the world in several critical areas: Foreign direct investment in telecom amounted to just 0.07 percent of regional GDP, compared with 0.47 percent for Latin American and the Caribbean, according to the World Bank. Furthermore, telecom revenues contribute just 2.1 percent to the region’s GDP, compared with 3.5 percent for the world as a whole. And just 0.8 percent of the population is signed up for broadband, compared to 4.2 percent worldwide.
There are a few small indications that telecom liberalization will soon have an impact on the MENA region. In Jordan, for example, where the telecom market is now fully open to competition, mobile penetration has grown from 2.5 percent of households in 1999 (when the cell phone market was still a monopoly); to 23 percent in 2002 (when it was a duopoly); to 60 percent in 2006, as a fourth operator entered the fray. Not surprisingly, Jordan’s GDP growth topped 6 percent last year. And in Morocco, mobile phones are used by 40 percent of the population now, compared with only 1.3 percent in 1999, because of reforms such as the creation of an independent regulator, the opening of certain market segments, and the privatization of the incumbent telecom operator. Partly due to this trend, Morocco’s GDP was up 7.3 percent in 2006.
Eventually, intelligent liberalization of telecom regulation would benefit every country throughout the MENA region, promoting competition, improving technology, and lowering costs. Better yet, consistent regulatory policy throughout the region would boost its overall economic development, thanks to the virtuous “network effects” of telecom as it reaches beyond each country’s national borders.
Bahjat El-Darwiche ([email protected]) is a principal with Booz Allen Hamilton based in Beirut. He focuses on telecom sector liberalization and growth strategy development, policy making and regulatory management, corporate management, corporate venturing, and corporate restructuring in the Middle East.
Chady Smayra ([email protected]) is an associate with Booz Allen based in the firm’s Riyadh and Beirut offices. He focuses on strategy development and due diligence assignments in the context of sector development strategies, market liberalization, regulatory reform, and business development in the telecommunications sector in the Middle East.