Regulators must be flexible and adaptive: ACMA’s Chris Chapman

As a government agency, the communications watchdog ACMA cannot really pre-empt the government’s decision on how it will change media regulation in light of the recent reviews, or what role ACMA will play. But Chairman, Chris Chapman, did set a confident tone for the regulator’s future in a recent speech, where he argued that the Australian Communications and Media Authority has been good at its ‘day job’ of watching over the media and has also been successful in planning for the future.

“ACMA is meeting or leading world’s best practice,” he said during the Charles Todd Oration in Adelaide.

In the oration Chapman argued that we are moving beyond the age of convergence into a ‘hyper digital’ era, and that things won’t stop changing. It seems unlikely to me that we will settle into a new agreed order or commercial equilibrium in media and communications any time soon,” he said.

The evolution of media “drives a need to empower the regulator to be flexible and rapidly adaptive to changing industry circumstances,” argued Chapman, calling for “regulatory discretion and the exercise [of] forbearance” to be available to the regulator.

The ACMA is not however just sitting and waiting for this to be done for us, or to us.  Recognizing and acting on these necessities in today’s world, we are engaged, energetic and very much alive to the need to continuously re-invent ourselves.”  


Sir Charles Todd was one of Australia’s early telecommunications pioneers. He was responsible for connecting Australia to the world via the telegraph in the 1860s. 

An edited extract of Chapman’s full speech is below.


The ACMA conducts its diverse regulatory activities across a continent that has a number of distinct characteristics.  For example, we have a highly concentrated geographic distribution of population. Canada and Australia are virtually level-pegging as the countries with the most uneven population distribution in the world, with OECD figures confirming that about 65 per cent of the Australian population live in an area that is just 0.5 per cent of the large land mass of our continent…

Thomas Friedman captures the global state of play well in his latest book, That Used to be Us: What Went Wrong With America? And How it Can Come Back.  He sees two of the great challenges facing his country (and it applies equally to ours) as firstly, adjusting to the ongoing IT revolution, and secondly, understanding and working with globalisation.  He sees these, in fact, merging into one major challenge which he calls the ‘hyper-flattening’ of the world.  Tellingly, he recounts how many of the things that inform our current debates had not even been thought of when he wrote that book:

  • Facebook cannot be found under ‘F’ in the index of the first edition of The World Is Flat;
  • Twitter then was a sound;
  • Cloud was something found in the sky;
  • 4G was a parking space;
  • An Application was something you sent to college;
  • LinkedIn was a prison; and
  • Skype was a typo!

All this, he emphasises, in the last 6 or so years, which by coincidence is about the same time I have been Chair of the ACMA, an organization initially thrown together, having to discover and then structure itself and having to subsequently deconstruct and reconstruct itself as new mandates, as new developments, indeed new phenomena, challenge us or speed across our landscape.

With this hyper-flattening, many are of the opinion that we have now begun to enter what could be termed a ‘hyper digital’ era, combining the power of ICT with ubiquitous high-speed broadband, enhanced by analytics, semantic systems, cognitive computing, agent technology and the like.

Australia is right now building out a broadband network to engage with, and grasp the opportunities of, this future global digital world.   The technological changes leading us to this point have often been described as ‘convergence’.  Some history is important here, as today I want to start to move the discussion forward from a focus on convergence, as we have come to understand it, to the broader and more nuanced idea of a networked society.

The ACMA was created to be a ‘converged’ regulator way back in 2005, designed to bring together the threads of the evolving communications universe, specifically the convergence of the four ‘worlds’ of telecommunications, broadcasting, radiocommunications and the internet.  How breathtakingly simple that intent must have seemed.

The four core principal acts which relate to these ‘worlds’ —the Radiocommunications Act, the Telecommunications Act, the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act and the Broadcasting Services Act are now decades old and have become increasingly difficult to apply in this ‘converged’ … now moving towards a networked society … environment.  The age of these Acts is perhaps most usefully illustrated by the observation that they were made before the Internet took off in Australia.

Due to the rapid changes that, as I have said, sped across our landscape, those core Acts have then been incrementally supplemented with amendments, new schedules, a range of purpose-specific Acts (such as the Spam Act 2003 or the Interactive Gambling Act 2001) or Ministerial determinations. These additions have been made reactively (i.e. in response to developments in such seemingly disparate arenas of hardware, software and connectivity, changing social attitudes and behaviours, enhanced citizen expectations and/or globalised economic shifts).

In the majority of cases, these changes have been ‘tacked on’ to existing legislative constructs (i.e. those established in the core Acts).  And it logically follows, for this reason, that every supplementation to a core Act is inevitably based, to some extent, on dated concepts set out in that legislation. As all of us are aware, the most recent attempt to grapple with this from a more holistic perspective was the recently completed Convergence Review.  The Government is currently considering the recommendations of that Review before responding and so, as a Portfolio team player, I proffer no pre-emptive suggestions.

Suffice it to say, however, that we at the ACMA, meanwhile, have simply been getting on with our day job while continuing to build on our informative and highly valued and cited work in the convergence space.   These two threads, doing our day doggedly and relentlessly and yet bridging to the future with forward-thinking work programmes such as spectrum re-farming, numbering plan reform and telco service paradigm shifts, builds a solid case of delivery on our adopted purpose; “making media and communications work in Australia’s national interest” – a sentiment that would put a smile of Charles Todd’s face, given his own immeasurable service to Australia’s national interest.

And similarly early in my term as Chair, I set an aspirational standard for the ACMA (as a convergence oriented organization) to be measured against in delivering on that purpose, namely:

‘To be, and to be recognised as, the world’s best converged regulator’.

I provocatively adopted this goal to stretch the organization and to drive the ACMA towards world’s best practice.  The standard has been part of ACMA internal transformation and business planning activities over the last four or so years.  It has been articulated externally in our annual ACMA rolling 3 year corporate plan since the 2009-2012 plan was published in 2008.

Because measuring converged communication regulation performance in a globally valid way is inherently problematic, we chose to take a narrative approach using descriptive case studies rather than one of meaningful measurement.  Judging the world-class nature of the case studies was based initially on an internal assessment, which was then validated with internal and targeted external peer review. Last year, we exposed for further external assessment the first preliminary assessment of the ACMA performance against this standard on our beta website, 

We will shortly be publishing a more definitive assessment in October. This will document a total of 98 activities which have been identified where the ACMA such an assessment can be made.  There are many areas where we are ‘world leading’.  There are, in this assessment, 37 case studies where we consider the ACMA is actually meeting or leading world’s best practice.  And let me do the maths for you – there are, equally, 61 activities where we would like to be (but have yet to declare) such an assessment.  As this is more art than science, a lift from the current 1/3rd proportion to a 2/3rds ‘world leading’ assessment (of our work activities case studies) just might allow us to declare ‘Mission Accomplished’.

And as a learning organization, we will be inviting any interested party to review this iteration of the ACMA Meeting Our Standard project, and join the conversation about our performance. That conversation is a vital sanity check on our assessments.

The narrative framework of our assessment captures the fundamental tasks of any regulator in a convergent environment, central to which is delivering outcomes in the public interest. I personally feel we can legitimately claim, with our current 1/3rd assessment, to have already gone a considerable way to meeting our standard. In any event and far more importantly, I think this leaves the agency well positioned to be the future regulatory centre point for a digitally connected Australia and its evolving networked society.  We have the strategic vision, we have demonstrated capability right across our bench and we have the energy to deliver on that positioning. So expect no respite from the ACMA, especially as we further live to our brand strapline of ‘Communicating, Facilitating (and if all else fails) Regulating’ … the ‘if all else fails’ bit does not actually appear in the written version of the strapline!

This notion of work in the public interest is internationally common ground.  Neither Australia nor the ACMA is divorced from the globally shared imperative to come to terms with public interest issues in an environment of communications and media convergence.  I earlier touched on the Convergence Review.  An important, but perhaps not obvious, element of the ongoing convergence debate is that ‘convergence’ itself is not a stable concept. 

Original concepts of convergence stemmed from digitalization, which during the 90’s broke the nexus between the shape of content and the container which carried it – for example a voice call was no longer solely defined by being carried on a plain old telephone network.  This has meant that regulation constructed on the premise that content can be controlled by how it is delivered, or that delivery systems are defined by the user service they carry, has increasingly lost its force, both in logic and in practice. 

In fact, it would seem that markets have almost totally now digested digitalization with the ACMA, as the regulatory facilitator, playing a critical role in completing important parts of a practical digitalisation project (the switchover to digital television).  However, the challenge of digitalisation has not been fully addressed legislatively and indeed this challenge appears to have been compounded by (in fact, run over by) the emergence and dominance of IP networks in the last decade. This has meant content has become increasingly non-linear, interlinked and ‘uncontained’ while people increasingly expect to connect and communicate seamlessly – anywhere, anyhow, anytime (I guess, when you think about it, the 21st century equivalent of Charles Todd’s intent).We need to acknowledge the inevitable movement towards an even more complex communications world, where network elements can and will be emulated in software (think ‘virtualisation’), leading in turn to an ever more intricate and subtle interconnection between networks, devices, services and content.

Reform of the current arrangements can perhaps aim to bring the current system ‘up-to-date’ with digital, and maybe grapple with the early impacts of the Web.  However, as I have noted, things have changed quite radically over the last six or so years.  And I suggest we (all) must plan for further radical change over an indicative life span of any proposed regulatory reform process.

Sitting where I sit and having daily intimate knowledge of the various influences and dynamics and their interplay with current Acts and regulatory constructs,  that process needs to make use of broader concepts of convergence than those we have only just got used to, concepts that take into account the fact that we are dealing with deeply complex, indeed ambiguous, changes in communications and media today – for example, is network functionality hardware or software – and with respect to that, I noted only yesterday for instance  comments from an Ericsson, NEC and Cisco co-chaired Internet Research Taskforce committee about technology developments to promote information-centric networking, being the transition from a ‘box-oriented’ to a ‘content-oriented’ Internet architecture. And that ambiguity at a more everyday level: is a voice-call a service or now just an app (and I will return to that query). 

It seems unlikely to me that we will settle into a new agreed order or commercial equilibrium in media and communications any time soon, any more than we will be able to maintain the status quo of ‘industrial’ communications and media…….. even if we wanted to.   We (and I mean here regulators and policy makers) have almost come to terms with the concept of ‘online’ media as opposed to the ‘offline’ traditional media.  This is essentially the impact of digitalisation and the first wave of IP networking, aka the World Wide Web.  But that is more than a decade and a half old! The split is no longer binary – ‘online’ has already moved on through a number of iterations. 

The internet is now starting to deliver on its fuller media distribution potential with the advent of always-on broadband, which is capable of delivering broadcast television (and better) quality video.  The internet has also created global reach for such audio-visual material.  I said a minute ago that we have almost come to terms with ‘online’ because developments in social networking are changing the game away from the ‘online’ website world as much as from the ‘offline’ world, as commercial content is increasingly embedded within the extensive context of social network messages and user-generated content.  Commentators recently referred to the London Olympics as the first social media games … with athletes interpolating their athletic endeavors with social media PBs.  This audience doesn’t but the wiser audience forgets that it’s a generational thing.

As access to the internet becomes ubiquitous, and the internet migrates to other platforms (such as television sets), the content regulation situation has become increasingly anomalous. Indeed broadcasting and newspaper operators are increasingly offering internet-based services to complement their other offerings. Many individuals in networks now access and link to the more persistent elements of content published to ‘audiences’, freely sharing their experience with others and spreading the influence not only of the original material but also adding the strength of a recommendation (positive or negative).   Traditional media are now immersed in and mining the world of social media for updates and breaking news.  

Crucially, from the traditional perspective of a public interest regulator, this network of citizens, freely expressing their views, does not have a single control point such as a transmitter (or the equivalent of Todd’s telegraph Morse code equipment) … should intervention be required. Networked media do not exert their ‘influence’ in a singular or directional way.  Networks present a much greater regulatory challenge than linear situations such as broadcasting or simple phone calls, since the latter offer relatively easy ‘points of control’. The communications and media space is continuing to evolve, and our regulatory response is simply going to need to evolve with it, including an ongoing re-assessment of the pros and cons, the social good, of when intervention is required and how it is effected.

So I think this evolution drives a need to empower the regulator to be flexible and rapidly adaptive to changing industry circumstances (which may involve more rapid ‘fit for purpose’ intervention and may equally, if not more so, involve regulatory discretion and the exercise  forbearance,  which empowerment will be a crucial part of the way forward. The ACMA is not however just sitting and waiting for this to be done for us, or to us.  Recognizing and acting on these necessities in today’s world, we are, as I’ve assured you, engaged, energetic and very much alive to the need to continuously re-invent ourselves.  

Convergence in its broadest sense sits behind all the challenges and initiatives we undertake within our exceptionally broad remit, encompassed by our patchwork legislative mandate.  And just to assist your powers of recall, highlights of our recent work encompass:

  • the detailed preparatory work on the 700 MHz and 2.5 GHz radio spectrum to deliver the Digital Dividend, and our pursuit of providing substantially more broadband spectrum through a relentless program of ‘re-farming’;
  • the fresh, ‘first principles’ block configuration approach we have taken to the Digital Dividend broadcast spectrum re–stack process;
  • our recognition of the compelling necessity for Australian citizens and consumers to be much better educated about both the opportunities of the digital economy and the threats in the on – line and social media worlds;
  • exploration of the unchartered waters for the ACMA (and perhaps indeed for all industry participants) in ‘Phase 2’ of the NBN;
  • energising the long overdue necessity for the telco industry’s customer service and complaints – handling performance to be reset (which I will return to below); and
  • our pre – emptive initiative for fresh approaches to our telecommunications numbering arrangements as the inevitability of unified communications marches on.

It is to the latter aspects of telecommunications that I will now turn, since in my view, thinking about the future of voice services is a useful lens for looking at these deep running ‘convergence’ changes, and one that is relevant in the context of the telecommunications legacy of Charles Todd.  

Exactly a year ago, the ACMA released Broken Concepts: The Australian communications legislative landscape,  which highlighted the ever-increasing strain on old legislative and regulatory concepts struggling with new technology, and this, along with a companion piece titled Enduring Concepts: Communications and media in Australia neatly framed the Convergence Review’s challenges.  That Review alluded to (although did not ultimately conclude with) an approach which focused on a “converged structure” based on four layers; Infrastructure, Networks, Content and applications, and Devices.

I think using a layers analysis of convergence is useful for the immediate future and, as an example, it helps makes sense of the way in which voice telephony is increasingly being transformed into ‘just’ another user app on a smart device or within a social media context, alongside a myriad of other more or less useful apps.  The vendor of the voice app can easily be substituted with another, or with another channel of communication altogether.  

Such simple telephony apps could be seen as important but low value applications running on top of existing data infrastructures, rather than as a dedicated, premium value end-to-end service.  Indeed, Ovum has recently estimated that ‘over-the-top’ voice and messaging applications cost traditional telecommunications operators worldwide 13.9 billion dollars (or 9% of their revenue last year[1]).

The nature of voice application is also growing beyond simple “calls” and now voice communication often sits in the context of other media and ways of messaging:  for example, chat between players of an online game.  ‘Telephone numbers’, as such, are slowly losing their special place and are becoming part of the web of addressing that binds the various network layers together as that precursor of unified communications.

As companies in this space scramble (or soon will be forced to scramble) for new enduring business models, Australia once again is being inexorably enmeshed in the global. 

National sovereignty is under challenge, as the location of the server is currently as relevant as a person’s actual physical location.  The data captured outside of government becomes perhaps more potent than government, the traditional repository of information about a country’s citizens.  Your search engine knows a lot more about you than your local registry of births deaths and marriages, or the Passport Office.  Maybe not more than the Tax Office – not yet anyway! 

The heady brew of new business models, new platforms, and new forms of user interaction will continue to ferment and, as it does, will raise regulatory question marks and potentially massive challenges for government regulators intersecting with this space. 

Notably most communications services are no longer handled by one integrated entity. It is a more complex environment – a network in the new sense – and when things go wrong, it can be more difficult to identify who was responsible, what has gone wrong and in which locale the perpetrator is actually situated. 

Participants in recently published ACMA research, Digital Australians, very interestingly, very encouragingly, confirm an awareness of the different roles that the individual, the private sector and government play to ensure that their online experience is positive. The research indicates that Australians accept their responsibility in the online environment, but they are also looking to industry and government to help them in managing that complex environment…

It is also my view that our close attention will be needed. The digital economy marketplace is being turbo-charged (as I’ve repeatedly highlighted today); and as I’ve also highlighted, it is increasingly fast and transaction dense, operating in terms of value networks rather than value chains, with embedded international links and nodes. 

And again, my overriding proposition: what is, and will be needed, is regulation that is ‘fit for purpose’, intervention that is enough to do the job in a specific circumstance, and no more. This means regulation that is evidence-informed and that engages all stakeholders; industry, consumers, citizens, legislators, and ourselves as regulators.

The current, let alone emerging, communications and media environment does not allow a simple singular answer to how we should be regulating communications and media today –let alone in the hyper-connected, networked society world of tomorrow – the environment is too multi-dimensional, too heavily textured for that. 

[1] The Economist 11 Aug 2012 P.57