“The events and challenges of 2020 have been a true testament to Malta’s robust communications sector,” says Jesmond Bugeja, CEO of the Malta Communications Authority (MCA), who explains that, as an industry it saw an unprecedented rise in demand, showcasing more than ever the importance of uninterrupted telephone, internet, mail and delivery services.
“The strain on the sector was inevitable – yet telecommunications and postal operators alike rose to the challenge and took it in their stride. In fact, disruptions to communications services have been minimal, and the sector remains as strong as ever,” says Jesmond. “This would not have been possible without the reliable communications infrastructure that the MCA has fostered over years of careful regulation, close industry cooperation, ongoing investment, promoting innovation and future-driven initiative.”
The strength of Malta’s communications sector was amply demonstrated in the European Commission’s Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) 2020, which monitors the digital progress of EU member states in the field. With an overall connectivity score of 58.7, Malta ranks 10th among member states in connectivity – and fifth overall – and performs better than the EU average in all coverage indicators.
Jesmond explains that the results Malta achieved in DESI have shown that Malta has a well-established and competitive communications industry, reliable networks and enhanced connectivity, all of which put the country at the forefront of digital progress in the EU. “However, technological advancements are constantly transforming our immediate and long-term future. Therefore, maintaining our competitive edge with regards to the digital sphere is extremely important.”
The CEO says it is positive to note the continued investment in the communications sector, especially in new technology areas such as IoT (the Internet of Things), high-speed networks and 5G. “This continued enhancement of the local communications infrastructure will open the door for opportunities for local investment as well as to attract new opportunities for international business, including start-ups, and research and development companies.”
Speaking of 5G, Jesmond asserts that Malta’s telecommunications infrastructure is more than ready for the market to develop. “Back in 2017, when the European Commission published the 5G Action Plan, the MCA began preparing a five-year work plan with the aim of facilitating the deployment of 5G networks in Malta. A national risk assessment of 5G networks was also carried out in 2019,” he explains. Currently, Malta boasts three mobile phone network providers that offer 4.5G services nation-wide, with one of the operators having already invested in 5G-ready infrastructure.
“In 2021, we are expecting to see extensive roll-outs of 5G. This technology has the potential to change the way we live, work, and play. 5G does not simply enhance mobile coverage and data speed. It is purposely designed to be the first generation of cellular networks to enable the digital transformation of society and the economy at large.”
Turning towards the Authority’s activities in 2020, Jesmond explains that, indeed, all of what the MCA had worked towards in the past was put to the test during the year that will go down in history. “Communications infrastructures, including postal, have taken the load in their stride despite the inevitable strain stemming from various quarters. Communications players focused almost exclusively on ensuring an ongoing supply of communications services to their clients, and they also reacted by providing additional services and solutions to assist people in their business and social lives under the new forced regime.”
As the national regulator, the MCA has been the liaison between operators and Government, and throughout the past year, the focus has shifted to uninterrupted service provision. “Meanwhile, in terms of regulation and measurement, the Authority continued with the required coordination with the European Commission, as well as other bodies, such as the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) and the European Regulators’ Group (Postal), which see that the results are gathered, summarised and made public.”
From a leadership perspective, the CEO asserts that, when the pandemic was first reported in Malta, the MCA was swift to react and shifted its operations remotely. As the concept of remote working wasn’t new to the Authority, the transition was smooth, and its work was able to continue without interruption. “Adapting is key in these critical situations and, as the National Regulatory Authority for communications, it was important to be vigilant and react instantly in case of any fall-out in communications, whether electronic or postal.”
Despite the challenges of the past year, 2021 is already shaping up to be an exciting one for the CEO, who will begin his role as Vice-Chair of BEREC for the duration of one year. “I am humbled and honoured to be occupying such a prestigious position. Being elected as Vice-Chair is a sign of trust from our European colleagues in the regulatory work that the Authority is doing, both in the national and international spheres. It is a challenge which we face with a high degree of responsibility, commitment, and determination.”
Jesmond explains that this appointment marks the first time that the MCA and Malta will be occupying such an esteemed position within BEREC. “It is a significant step forward for us as we continue steering the discussion in the telecommunications industry and shaping the European agenda towards a forward-looking digital society for the benefit of Europe and its citizens.”
Furthermore, the Authority will have its hands full following the imminent transposition of the European Electronic Communications Code (EECC) Directive into Maltese law. This, the CEO asserts, is in fact one of the key priorities of the MCA in 2021.
“The EECC updates the regulatory framework, dating back to 2009, to reflect evolving technologies and developments in the way people communicate. It aims to encourage investments in very high-capacity networks, by relieving service providers from some of their regulatory burdens. Additionally, it will bring a renewed focus in communications markets, taking into account new, over-the-top services (such as WhatsApp and Skype) to increase regulatory stability, promote investment in very high-capacity networks and enhance consumer protection.”
In its capacity as advisor to Government on communications policy and regulation, the MCA has over the past two years provided advice to Government on the transposition of the Directive into Maltese law. “We understand that Government is expected to consult on the transposition of the EECC shortly,” says Jesmond. “The EECC places a stronger emphasis on incentivising investment in very high-capacity broadband networks; promoting more efficient spectrum management to support 5G rollout; and ensuring effective consumer protection and engagement.”
Among the series of new objectives and tasks set out by the Directive are strengthened consumer rules to make it easier to switch between service providers, affordable and adequate broadband internet access to be available to all consumers, irrespective of their location or income, and for people with disabilities to have equivalent access to electronic communications services. “The MCA has commenced work on a number of new initiatives to implement the relevant provisions of the EECC, which should gain traction in 2021 following transposition.”
2021 will also see the continued evolution of the regulatory landscape, including the introduction of new initiatives, namely a review of the roaming regulations, eCommerce rules, and the Postal Services Directive, as well as the announced Digital Services Act for Malta, which is earmarked to be a cornerstone for regulating digital services in the EU.
“Additionally, the new Von der Leyen Commission announced an ambitious programme that, among other measures, aims to tackle online platforms that have remained largely unregulated until now,” says the CEO. “Exciting times are ahead of us, and as the telecoms sector begins the journey towards ‘intelligent connectivity’, we have to continue ensuring that the right regulation is in place in this regard, for the benefit of society.”
This interview is part of a serialisation of 50 interviews carried out with Malta’s top CEOs, featured in the bumper edition of MaltaCEOs 2021 publication, which was recently released. Despite the many challenges of 2020, this is the largest edition to date.
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