A New Approach to Telecom Regulation in the Times of COVID-19

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the world, forcing people into their homes, electronic communications have played and will continue to play a vital role in supporting families, businesses and individuals. Accordingly, electronic communications regulators across the globe are adapting their approach to regulation. Compliance with regulatory obligations continues to be important. However, regulators recognise that the impact of COVID-19 means that it will not always be possible to meet these obligations. In such circumstances, industry should take decisions that support critical services, vulnerable people and those who are relying on communications services. Some examples of this new pragmatic approach to regulation is provided below.

  1. Increased demand for capacity: Many countries have introduced social distancing measures (closure of schools, closure of certain types of businesses and facilities), and many companies that were not forced to close have voluntarily switched to home-office regimes. Some electronic communications providers have reacted to the unusual situation and increased free minutes and mobile data plans or even offered unlimited mobile data to keep customers connected during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, some streaming platforms are offering free membership to help people cope with prolonged times of isolation at home (e.g. Amazon Prime Video is streaming kids’ movies and TV for free).
As a result, electronic communications traffic has significantly increased for teleworking, online teaching and entertainment purposes, raising worries that this could result in network congestion. Internet access services providers and Internet exchange hubs have reported record-setting increases in Internet traffic in recent weeks. For example, DE-CIX in Frankfurt, one of the world’s busiest Internet interconnection hubs, has reported a new all-time traffic peak of more than 9.1 Tbits/s and relayed some interesting statistics (e.g. 10% average data traffic growth, 100% rise in video conferencing or 50% growth in Content Delivery Networks traffic). The number of voice calls has also increased significantly – for example, AT&T and Sprint in the US have reported 44% increase of voice calls and 88% increase of Wi-Fi calling.

This increase in traffic may risk creating network congestion and may require the use of traffic management measures to avoid it. The European net neutrality regulation (Regulation 2015/2120) prohibits operators from blocking, slowing down or prioritising traffic. On the other hand, the Regulation allows the operators to apply exceptional traffic management measures to prevent impending network congestion and to mitigate the effects of exceptional or temporary network congestion, provided that equivalent categories of traffic are treated equally. The Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) and European Commission issued a joint statement, encouraging a responsible use of such exceptional measures to prevent network congestion.

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[Source: The National Law Review's Website]