Selling off the nation’s 4G future

By Hochen Tan 賀陳旦  / 

Tue, Apr 30, 2013 - Page 8

It is widely accepted that the Internet played a large part in the rapid identification and tracking down of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers. The amassing of images, revealing where the suspects went and when they were there, as well as their identities, could all be achieved due to the rapid collation of huge amounts of data.

The unprecedented, almost superhuman manner in which the pieces of the puzzle were put together owes much to the ubiquity of mobile phones with built-in cameras in the hands of snap-happy members of the public on the day of the run. Pictures were quickly uploaded for online “detectives” to share and sift through.

If such an atrocity, heaven forbid, happened in Taiwan, would the nation be able to mobilize in the same way?

On March 29, the third call for public consultation was issued for fourth-generation (4G) spectrum licensing regulations as part of the rules governing the management of mobile broadband services, and on April 11, the National Communications Commission delivered a report to the legislature, stating that the new regulations are set to be announced next month or in June.

Furthermore, the winners of bids to operate 4G services are to be announced in November, with the deposits for the tendering process to be received before December.

This version of the regulations, then, would seem to be the final consultative version, the version that is to be ratified.

The problem with this is that this licensing process, which should offer so much hope, has become smothered in dollar signs.

Article 89 of the regulations outlines the nature of the tendering and bidding processes, and also details deregulation measures, such as the transfer of frequency user rights between operators.

Compared with previous frequency licensing events, this is a rare breakthrough indeed, one that is extremely generous to operators and, coming as it does from a regulatory body, a surprisingly selfless move.

Nevertheless, moving the industry goalposts in this way does not so much cater to the strengths of 4G technology, other than merely making it possible for operators to secure further deals after they have won the initial licensing bids, allowing them to generate more money from selling on frequency rights.

The suspicion is that this licensing method is not being implemented so much to benefit the industry, as it is to fill the government’s coffers.

Many other countries regard the emergence of 4G technology as a policymaking opportunity to address the urban/ rural divide, and implement the social benefits of universal broadband access.

By contrast, in Taiwan’s regulations there exists merely the symbolic requirement for a unified disaster-warning messaging grid, and for the installation of Cell Broadcast one-to-many geographically focused messaging systems, with absolutely no other obligations for the government.

The requirements made on 4G operators in the regulations are also pretty vague, only stating that within five years of implementation, 50 percent of the population is to have access to 4G services. This is essentially saying that as long as the Greater Taipei area is covered, nobody is going to make a fuss.

As for other regions, well, that would depend on whether the market can support it.

The most ridiculous part of the whole process is how accommodating the regulations are to potential bidders. All an operator needs to do to be eligible to apply for licensing certification is build 250 high-speed base stations.

When there are tens of thousands of base stations out there, the 250 base station requirement is nothing short of a joke, and open to abuse. For example, with the aforementioned deregulation of the transfer of user rights, together with the fact that new owners of the rights have four years in which to set themselves up, there is nothing to prevent a new generation of “mini-networks” from cropping up, allowing the frequency rights that operators hold to lie fallow until such a time as firms can make a profit by selling them on.

This situation is not so far removed from the “Taipei Beautiful” urban renewal project, under which landowners stood to receive all kinds of benefits for planting a bit of greenery here and there, reaping rewards worth many times their initial outlay.

What kind of policies are these?

Many countries view contracting out the 4G spectrum as a major opportunity for kick-starting their economies and supporting rural areas.

However, the commission’s proposed regulations are self-limiting and run counter to current global policymaking trends and are aimed at driving up bids in one big auction-fest.

This kind of money-minded, short-sighted policy and procrastination is bad for Taiwan, and another missed opportunity.

It is not just that the nation has fallen behind in online crime detection and prevention during the Internet age, or that 4G will only further widen the north/ south divide.

This is a real opportunity and historic moment for the nation, and I urge the authorities to reconsider their approach.

Hochen Tan is a former chairman of Chunghwa Telecom and is chairman of the Taiwan Ecological Engineering Development Foundation.

Translated by Paul Cooper