The telecommunications sector is worth billions of dollars and increasingly underpins every aspect of our lives, from education to commerce to family life. Yet, there is little public information about the physical infrastructure that carries the information highway. This lack of transparency is holding back efforts to connect the unconnected. 

Only a few years ago when mobile network growth was still accelerating, there was an unspoken assumption that it was simply a matter of time before mobile network operators connected everyone on the planet. Now evidence tells us that network growth is slowing and it is unlikely that we will be able to provide affordable network infrastructure for all, based on current trends. 

With half of the world still unconnected to the internet (in India this figure is closer to 60% unconnected), detailed and public information on the extent of telecommunications infrastructure has become essential in order to better understand access gaps and how they can best be addressed.

The spread of new technologies — of fibre optic infrastructure and of new generation High Throughput (HTS) satellites — is redefining what it means to be a network operator.  Whereas previously the complexity and expense of establishing a telecommunications network only made sense on a national scale by operators the size of Airtel or Reliance, we are beginning to see smaller, more nimble and specialized service providers that can tailor services to target rural populations in particular or niche industry markets.

This is creating a more complex network environment that requires a higher level of public transparency in order to understand how investments can best be leveraged to provide maximum benefit to society. Increased transparency is needed in order to identify both duplication of investment and, perhaps most importantly, opportunities for investment in access infrastructure for governments and private investors alike. 

With high capacity fibre optic backbones spread across the country and the dramatic drop in cost of wireless technologies, efforts to address identified gaps in coverage may come from outside the usual suspects of the national network operators. Increasingly, small network operators in the form of local internet service providers, municipal networks, and community-owned networks are enabling local solutions to affordable access challenges. Greater transparency will not only reveal gaps but also help smaller operators better understand how to affordably connect into existing communication backbones.

Public information about network towers and radios will allow regulators and researchers to apply common standards across all operators to establish more accurate network coverage maps. The result will be to accurately reveal where investment is needed and connections are possible.

Currently, claims of network coverage by mobile network operators are often exaggerated. Around the world, the definition of what constitutes coverage varies widely. Factors such as signal strength, indoor vs outdoor reception, percentage of people covered in a given geographic area, and required download speeds are all subject to interpretation.

Whether due to compliance with network roll-out requirements, negotiating roaming agreements with peers, or just the marketing value of big numbers, there are built-in incentives for providers to be generous with their claims. 

Operators often argue that revealing this information would compromise their commercial competitiveness or jeopardize national security. However, there are many instances of operators and regulators, both in India and internationally, who publish infrastructure information. Under the banner of Open Network, Airtel published a map of their towers and coverage, embodying their compelling slogan, “Because you have a lot to say, and we have nothing to hide.”

In other countries, there are many excellent examples of transparency. The Canadian regulator publishes a downloadable list of the location of every tower (together with radio and antenna information) licensed in the country. The French regulator also maintains a detailed map of all fibre to the home (FTTH) deployments in the country. There are many other examples. To quote author William Gibson, “The future is already here — it’s just unevenly distributed.”

We’ve seen examples of how powerful this kind of data can be. Earlier this year, researchers Jonas Hjort and Jonas Poulsen published research looking at the impact of fibre optic infrastructure on employment levels in African countries. Their research revealed a plausible correlation between the two. This was only possible thanks to an open data resource on African terrestrial fibre optic infrastructure. To truly take advantage of increased transparency in the telecommunications sector, infrastructure data needs to be available in an open, standards-based format. This will allow policy-makers and researchers to combine data sets in order to produce new insights into the impact of investment in communication infrastructure. 

We know intuitively that the spread of telecommunications and internet infrastructure is bringing about social and economic transformation but there is frustratingly little evidence as to how this is happening.  We’ve seen how valuable transparency and open data standards can be and we should make every effort to ensure they become the norm in the telecommunications sector.

Clear guidance from the government and regulator on open data standards would open up investment into unserved regions, increase competition from new and perhaps more nimble players, and create new insights from research into the impact of telecommunications investment.

Originally published in The Times of India but republished here due to content blocking in Europe.

Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data