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The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the critical importance of universal affordable access to internet connectivity. Despite efforts from the different stakeholders, universal affordable access is far from being achieved, as existing national operators focus their efforts on using technologies and building infrastructure in more profitable areas. This means sparsely populated areas, where household incomes are low and infrastructure costs are high, remain unconnected. As a result, there is an emerging consensus regarding the need to do something different from “business as usual”.

Based on recent changes in the telecommunications industry, this paper analyses solutions for the expansion of the telecommunication operator ecosystem. In particular it focuses on the local operator as the actor to fill the coverage and usage gaps left by national operators, in a complementary way. These local operators serve a much smaller and more distinct market, with deeper knowledge of their users, able to provide more affordable connectivity when it comes to serving a local market. Local operators can be further classified into two types: commercial and social-purpose. In the telecommunications world, the latter manifests itself in the form of cooperative self-provision of connectivity infrastructure. Examples of local social-purpose operators are consumer cooperatives, community-owned networks, and even municipal networks whose interest is to meet the communication needs of their communities.

There are a variety of barriers that local operators face because most regulatory frameworks have been designed primarily to cater for national operators deploying their own infrastructure. This paper presents an analysis of solutions that have been implemented by regulators worldwide to address the key barriers faced by local operators, grouped in the following categories:

  • Operator licensing

  • Spectrum licensing and fees

  • Backbone and backhaul infrastructure

  • Financial support

  • Access to network information

Regulatory interventions identified in these five areas are making it more possible for local operators to provide coverage in places where there was none, as well as considerably more affordable telecommunication services in areas where users do not have the disposable income to afford the data packages available from national operators. Based on this evidence, this paper concludes with a set of recommendations for regulators wishing to create a more enabling environment for local operators by replicating and localising the best practices included in this document.