Photo licensed CC by Saad Sarfraz Sheikh: http://goo.gl/C086b
Last year’s Arab Spring brought communications technologies into focus in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. While the conversation has often been dominated by talk about social media and censorship, the post-revolutionary transition has shed light on the need to reform media and communications policy and infrastructure in the region. Yet the topic of spectrum allocation and regulation, which determines the frequencies that are assigned to broadcasters and other wireless technologies, has remained one of the least understood policy areas—despite the fact that spectrum reform can dramatically improve democratic access to both traditional and new media, and could be most easily achieved at this critical moment of broader policy overhaul in the region.
On Thursday, May 3, the Open Technology Institute sponsored a conference, Spectrum for Democracy: Securing the Gains from the Arab Spring, with Access and Free Press at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. The event had two main goals: to explain how spectrum can be used to better support democracy, and to bring together policymakers and thinkers from transitional MENA states with US experts to discuss specific strategies for reforming spectrum policy in the region as part of the overall transition.
In the keynote address, Columbia Professor Eli Noam set the stage for the day, urging the audience to remember that while communications technologies can lead to more democratic governments and more freedom, this concept is not new to the digital age. Looking back at the spread of radio and television, he asked, has there been any evidence that either technology has enhanced democracy? And while the Internet’s power to enable advocates of liberty has been well-documented, the technology similarly enables enemies of liberty. He spoke of the potential for a “virtual arms race” for surveillance and censorship technology—technologies often produced in Western democracies, which have ended up in Arab Spring countries as tools of repression.
With Professor Noam’s words in mind, the morning panel was tasked with defining spectrum policy and its specific potential in transitional states.
Michael Calabrese, the Director of the Wireless Future Project at OTI, gave an overview of spectrum policy, titled, "Spectrum 101." OTI advocates for more unlicensed spectrum both in the US and overseas as a path for development. In particular, Calabrese highlighted the “Use It or Share It” concept, which aims to prevent unused spectrum from going to waste, even if it is exclusively licensed. Oliver Sylvain, a professor at Fordham Law School, added further historical background by discussing the spectrum issues that have come up since the Radio Act of 1927, when US policymakers first began to regulate it as a fixed resource.
The panel then turned to the democratizing goals of opening access to spectrum. Chris Riley from the U.S. State Department outlined the active and passive restrictions which impede goals related to both economic development and freedom of expression. He emphasized the importance of connecting policy solutions and technological solutions, especially in discussing unlicensed use of spectrum and interoperability (requiring that hardware made by different carriers operate on each other’s frequency bands, which encourages competition). The connection between the Internet and freedom of expression resonated strongly with human rights groups; Gustaf Bjorksten, Technology Director at Access, underscored the need for spectrum policy which encourages not only growth and commercial competitiveness, but also full and safe participation in society.
The afternoon session addressed the practical challenge of reforming spectrum policies in the MENA region. In preparation for the event, participants from Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, and Morocco worked with US spectrum experts on country-specific papers. Each pair presented drafts of their papers for feedback and discussion. They will ultimately be submitted to the Journal of Information Policy for publication in a special issue.
A number of general principles and common “best-practice” ideas were identified for further discussion. Generally, participants agreed that spectrum regulation should emphasize transparency, access, competition, and openness. In practice, in most MENA countries this will require either formalizing (in Egypt, for example) or reforming (in Tunisia) the licensing process in order to make it transparent and easy to navigate, with clearly defined objective criteria. Information about allocation and assignment should be made publicly available, and data on actual usage would assist advocates of the “Use it or Share It” system.
License-exempt spectrum use, which allows devices to operate on unused bands of spectrum without a license, was highlighted as a way to encourage innovation, promote community radio and television, and improve access to the Internet, particularly in rural areas. At the moment, even operating WiFi hotspots, perhaps the best-known example of a technology that was developed on unlicensed “junk” bands of spectrum, requires a license in these countries—and, although used almost universally, is in fact illegal in Egypt.
Finally, the discussion looked ahead to the digital switchover—scheduled for 2015 in the MENA region—when broadcasters will move from analog to digital signal. Rather than auctioning the spectrum that will become available, governments should be encouraged to use the digital dividend to promote wireless connectivity in rural areas and encourage independent broadcasting.
At the end of the day, Jochai Ben-Avie, Access’ Policy Director, and Tim Karr, Senior Strategy Director at Free Press, urged participants to continue these conversations in the region. Although the work of reforming spectrum policy will not be easy, this transitional moment in the MENA region offers a real opportunity to reshape the dialogue in a way that furthers democratic and development goals.