12 November 2003

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Communicating through Next Generation Networks

Transport and Communications Minister Censu Galea speaks at least weeks’ Third Generation Networks Conference organised by the Malta Communications Authority

As the computer age begins to stretch into the new millennium, there has been a consistent major shift to global communications and information sharing. This is best achieved by the convergence of computing, telecommunications and software technology. Novel networking technologies (e.g., cable, wireless and other high speed/bandwidth networking options) and phenomenally successful applications (e.g., web) are now working together to provide consumers with a plethora of choice for service delivery channels.
We are seeing the proliferation of mobile handsets with increased functionality, networking people on an unprecedented scale, bandwidth demand growing at sustained rates, and petabytes of distributed shared data. This emerging technological reality offers opportunities that will dramatically transform society. The next generation network is the "Holy Grail" of electronic communications - promising to combine technological efficiency with service diversity.
Next Generation Networks (NGN) is a catch-all phrase for the type of infrastructure that will enable advanced new services to be offered by mobile and fixed network operators in the near future, while continuing to support all of today’s existing services. Traditionally, in order to be able to deliver a new type of service, operators would have to add another layer to their network. This incremental style of network design worked but certainly was not efficient. In the new design paradigm, any network that is to be deployed should be able to support multiple or "converged" services - allowing voice, video and data to flow over the same infrastructure. Fibre optic backbones serve to transport ever-growing quantities of information and over the past few years, the build out of fibre optic cables in Malta has proceeded at an accelerated pace such that most localities are now served by this vital medium.
In its e-Europe 2005 Action Plan, the EU has identified three pillars fundamental for achieving the goal of having Europe as the world's most advanced Information Society. These are:
• broadband connectivity
• third generation cellular technology
• digital television
Next generation networks can serve as the underlying architectures for all these three mainstays of the Action Plan and this is why it is so important to ensure that their importance is identified, discussed and addressed. The Maltese Government is highly committed to the e-Europe 2005 Action Plan.
The Malta Communications Authority has commenced the process of public consultation and subsequent compilation of appropriate supply side strategic plans in all three key areas and these plans are due to be announced prior to Malta's accession to the EU in May of next year.
Broadband penetration in Malta is well over 20,000 cable and DSL lines. This works out to be more than five per cent of the population. This compares extremely well with most EU member states and providers of broadband services in Malta are to be congratulated for their success so far. However this progress has to be sustained so that momentum is not lost and take-up continues to increase to reach the targeted 50 per cent of all Internet connections by the end of 2005.
There are now close to 300000 mobile phone subscribers in Malta amounting to 75 per cent of the population. Malta was amongst the first countries to deploy the so-called "2.5G" mobile services that serve to bridge the gap between the second and third generation of mobile telephony technology. Take up of these advanced services is encouraging and the latest mobile phone handsets seem to fly off the shelves of local retailers despite handset subsidies not being provided by the operators. Taken together these facts seem to indicate that the Maltese public is extremely attached to their mobile phone and associated convenience and this is an encouraging sign as the local operators - Go Mobile & Vodafone - start to make plans to move to the third generation of cellular technology. However before they are in a position to do this Government must state its strategy on aspects such as spectrum allocation, coverage, rollout and infrastructure sharing.
The promise of digital interactive television - whether provided terrestrially, via cable, satellite or now, even a phone line - is highly exciting since the Maltese are avid viewers. Although there are only four local terrestrial stations, consumers are used to receiving multiple channels using an antenna, a satellite decoder or a feed from Melita Cable. There already is a company interested in commencing provision of digital terrestrial television, which bodes well for the medium-term future when the analogue television switch off will take place.
Next-Generation Networks will need forward-looking regulation as existing concepts are shattered. Regulators should be proactive in encouraging broadband uptake and creating environments that will act as catalysts for the adoption of appropriate access technologies. The new EU regulatory framework is premised upon the principle of technology-neutrality and is service rather than network focused.
Malta is required to transpose the framework into law and much has work has been carried out to prepare for the implementation of the various applicable Directives. The innovative dynamics and global importance of a key business sector does not, in itself, provide a logical justification for regulating it less, but only for regulating it differently. The challenge is to determine how telecommunication services should be monitored and regulated in the future, given their rapidly growing dynamics and global economic impact. The Malta Communications Authority has to take the necessary steps to ensure it is in a position to face this challenge and the organisation of this conference today is an excellent start.

Copyright © Newsworks Ltd. Malta.
Editor: Saviour Balzan
The Malta Financial & Business Times, Newsworks Ltd, Vjal ir-Rihan, San Gwann
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