By APC 15 November 2011
Since the new constitution was approved in 2008, several changes have created new opportunities for democratising the management of the spectrum in Ecuador. On the one hand, several rights to communication have been established, especially the right of universal access to the spectrum. On the other hand, the constitution enshrines an economic model based on solidarity, with a strong role for the state as the agent driving the economy. These constitutional changes have ushered in a new institutional framework for the management of the spectrum, based on three pillars: a body that dictates policy, the Ministry of Telecommunications and the Information Society (MINTEL – Ministerio de Telecomunicaciones y de la Sociedad de la Información); a state regulatory agency, the National Telecommunications Council (CONATEL – Consejo Nacional de Telecomunicaciones); and a further supervisory body, the Telecommunications Superintendency (SUPERTEL – Superintendencia de Telecomunicaciones).
This framework is characterised by a clearer definition of competences, which allows better coordination between these bodies and improved fulfilment of their responsibilities in society and the market. However it is necessary to continue working on legal reform and on processes of institutional strengthening to achieve more transparent, balanced and democratic management of the spectrum.
It must be emphasised that political responsibility for the spectrum is in the hands of the executive branch through MINTEL. While CONATEL is relatively independent, it should be reinforced legally in order to avoid unwanted political interference and to give these bodies the legitimacy they need to do their work. SUPERTEL’s autonomy has been strengthened in the new structure. This body is currently part of a new branch of the state focusing on “citizen participation and control”, created to facilitate citizen participation in the tasks of public decision-making and social auditing.
Legal reforms derived from the constitutional changes are a key process, constituting an excellent opportunity to work for a more democratic model of spectrum management. There is a large gap between the constitutional advances mentioned, the legislation and above all the regulations that govern spectrum management in practice. Two important laws – on communication and on telecommunications – are under discussion. Adjustment of the legal framework to the constitution, as well as these laws, requires the updating of other instruments, like the National Telecommunications Development Plan (Plan Nacional de Desarrollo de Telecomunicaciones), the Connectivity Plan (Plan de Conectividad), and the approval of the Digital Transition Master Plan (Plan Maestro de Transición Digital). Review and renewal of regulations for concessions and service provision are also needed, including those associated with the “free bands”.
An involved and vigilant civil society
Civil society participation in these discussion processes is a priority and should seek to achieve three goals. Firstly, the laws should reflect the progress in the constitution. Secondly, the legal provisions should be coherent and consistent among themselves, so that they reflect in some measure the principle of convergence, and establish clear and sustainable conditions that promote universal access. Thirdly, regulations and future concession contracts should clearly spell out the required standards of service quality and of universal access, with indicators that are verifiable not only by the state supervisory agencies, but also by civil society.
Participation in discussions about the legal framework is crucial, but several methods of participation need to be considered. For one thing, the various existing mechanisms for the defence of rights must be exercised. In addition, it is important that some of the plans for advocacy be aimed at overseeing the granting of future concessions and the fulfilment of current contracts. Because of the interests at play and the lobbying capacity of private operators, these processes must be monitored, as must radio and TV digital transition processes, and those related to auctions or reassignment of wave bands for wireless internet. More equitable use of the available spectrum segments will be possible under the constitutional principle of universal access, but plans for public policy must be monitored to make sure they are in line with the provisions of the constitution. Other aspects of participation have to do with the nascent debate about internet content and educational uses. Some social organisations have strengths and know-how in these fields, which may be an advantage when they participate in putting forward proposals.
Telecommunications: a strategic sector and prioritary public service
The constitution and the Comprehensive Law on Citizen Participation (Ley orgánica de participación ciudadana) provide for the creation of oversight bodies or observatories for the processes of spectrum assignment and service provision since, as already mentioned, telecommunications are both a strategic sector and a priority public service. Therefore, building social platforms to develop these different forms of participation will be highly relevant. It will also be essential to acquire competence in the systematisation and updating of relevant technical and political information for activism to defend the democratisation of the spectrum.
In addition to the issues mentioned above, this study has identified the following points requiring more research to feed into the social debate in Ecuador: uses of the spectrum; structure of concessions and the participation of telecommunications in the market; and the role of local governments and the connections between them and national policies.
The discussion process is focused on and dominated by the technical debate. For this reason, it is necessary to reposition the discussion, bringing in social and political perspectives oriented towards the democratisation of information and communication technologies, and to win allies for this process. Efforts must be directed at creating alliances between social actors who are directly involved with the issues, as well as with other grassroots groups, human rights organisations, professional associations, universities and research centres, among others. The development of a more detailed map of actors is both needed and recommended, as is the design of a comprehensive national strategy which must necessarily include regional initiatives for shaping public opinion. This will require the strengthening of activism and knowledge networks, building on the work already completed.
This is a synthesis of the research conducted in Ecuador [document in spanish] by Marco Navas Alvear for CIESPAL, as part of APC’s initiative Open Spectrum for development, which aims to provide an understanding of spectrum regulation by examining the situation in Africa, Asia and Latin America. This project is part of the ‘Action Research Network’ initiative, funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
Photo by SantiMB. Used with permission under Creative Commons licence 2.0