The need to get in tune with tomorrow

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 November, 2004, 12:00am

The advent of a new technology often makes old rules obsolete, rattling incumbents in the industry and forcing governments to change or adopt rules.

In the communications sector, there have been fundamental regulatory reforms in many jurisdictions in response to the new order or, more precisely, the new disorder in the converging environment.

While convergence is becoming a clich?, it was a visionary concept 25 years ago. It was Nicholas Negroponte, a teacher in my college, who started using that term in 1979, when he was raising money to build the now legendary Media Lab at MIT.

He used a chart on which there were three overlapping circles symbolising the 'broadcast and motion picture industry', the 'print and publishing industry', and the 'computer industry' to illustrate his prediction that digitisation and developments in the computer industry could cause the communications industries to come together, and that they should be studied and developed as a single craft.

To academics working in institutes of higher learning, the key word is study. To government officials like myself working in the competitive environs of Hong Kong, the key word is develop.

My responsibility is to ensure the institutional framework in Hong Kong will continue to be capable of facilitating the development of the communications industry as a single craft.

I said at the CASBAA Convention last year that the government was examining the duties of the Broadcasting Authority and the Office of Telecommunications Authority to determine if they should be rationalised. We also discussed convergence under Digital 21 Strategy published in March this year. We have taken our pledge seriously, and have developed a more concrete idea. Our intended way forward is to set up one lean and skilled responsive regulator overseeing the entire electronic communications sector.

We want a single regulatory body that responds to converging technologies and services. We are now witnessing, rather than predicting, how convergence operates, and how the blurring of boundaries between the internet, broadcasting and telecommunications is a foregone conclusion.

It is ineffective for two regulators to decide on issues such as whether third-generation multimedia service falls under the broadcasting or the telecommunications regulatory regime.

We need a regulator with a broad vision to formulate quick and well co-ordinated responses to facilitate the provision of more new services and put in place appropriate measures to safeguard public interests, such as the protection of children and young people from contents distributed through emerging media.

We want a regulator that is lean and skilled. I am referring to a new regulatory philosophy as exemplified by the international paradigm shift from detailed rule-making to competition-based regulation of the communications sector.

Detailed rules and guidelines could quickly become obsolete, inoperable and, worse, hurdles to innovation and investment. It would be more appropriate to adopt a new regulatory philosophy that the regulator will intervene only when necessary and beneficial to address market failures.

We want a regulator that is responsive to competing demands from different sectors. Communication between the regulator, the public and the industry is of paramount importance in shaping the regulatory framework in the converging environment.

The industry would welcome less regulation so broadcasters could explore new advertising formats and telecoms could offer new services to expand revenue sources. Innovative services would also bring consumers benefits of enhanced diversity and choice. In striking the right balance, the regulator has to be sensitive to the aspirations of the public and the needs of the industry. To make this possible, I envisage an active tripartite arrangement where the regulator works as a partner with the industry and public stakeholders.

In 1998, the Hong Kong government brought information technology, telecommunications and broadcasting together for the first time under one bureau to steer co-ordinated policies for these fast developing industries. It is now time to deepen the alignment from the policy level to the regulatory level.

This is a thumbnail sketch on the way forward for the development of the future regulatory institution for the communications sector in Hong Kong. We intend to consult the public on the details of this proposed institution in the coming months.

It is a big step forward, but one that will allow us to exploit the use of the multitude of emerging technologies.

As we venture into these uncharted waters, we welcome expert contributions from all members of the community. Together, we will tune into tomorrow.


John Tsang Chun-wah, Secretary for Commerce, Industry and Technology, delivered these remarks last week at the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association's annual convention.