Mobile network operators consider sharing call data but face questions about logistics, privacy, sustainability, and profits
This is the second in a series on data-sharing between public and private sectors focusing on emerging approaches and uncovering key lessons for regions and stakeholders around the world. See the first post on the European Commission's Data Act here.
Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are experiencing an identity crisis. As the digital transformation accelerates and private companies amass increasing amounts of data sought by the public sector, MNOs are asking where they fit into this rapidly-changing data economy.
It’s widely recognized that the public sector has lost the historical data supremacy it once held. Today, private sector companies hold more and better population data than governments. As a result, there’s increasing interest from the public sector to tap into privately-held data resources. MNOs hold extensive data on their customers’ movements, personal information, and activities. Developing new data sharing services and products constitutes a means to diversify their business models and adapt to changing customer needs and expectations despite the difficulty of reconciling stakeholders’ positions on ethical data sharing.
This summer, the Global Partnership organized discussions in the context of the Data Values Project with officials from a diverse group of MNOs from around the world. Through these conversations, our team sought to understand how MNOs envision sharing data with the public sector in the context of broader digital transformations. We learned that MNOs, despite their many commonalities, are embarking on very different journeys to data sharing.
Why everyone wants a piece of the MNO data pie
The common starting point for all MNOs is the type of data companies hold. All the MNOs we interviewed reported considering means to safely and efficiently share call detail records, or CDRs, which are created through calls and other telecommunication activities. CDRs include event-driven data (information on calls, messages, online traffic by a mobile phone user) and network-driven data (generated at a desired frequency by the network, i.e. by cell towers).
This data is increasingly in demand from governments as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, and potential uses of this data continue to increase. From a public sector perspective, for instance, such data can guide policy related to public health and energy and in humanitarian and disaster response efforts. New potential applications of CDR data appear every day. Within the private sector, companies in finance, tourism, and retail are already eager consumers of CDR data. New customers (for example, from the energy sector) are also starting to seek data-sharing partnerships with MNOs.
But models for MNOs to share CDR data with public and private users vary considerably. MNOs that are farther along in their digital transformations have created platforms to consistently supply this data long-term regardless of the reason for sharing or the client seeking to access CDR. Others have responded on a case-by-case basis, negotiating access and creating data sharing pipelines based on individual requests and clients.
Mediating risk in sharing mobile network data
Regardless of an MNO’s approach to sharing data or the specific challenges of regional markets, all MNOs confront similar concerns related to data protection and privacy. These remain the biggest obstacles to data sharing—especially with the public sector.
Data protection regulations and telecommunication rules are often specific to countries or regions. The specific fear among MNOs that data sharing will result in breaking these laws or incurring liability toward regulators and clients is geographically agnostic.
All MNOs are grappling with questions concerning their business models and revenue approaches to data sharing. Despite the plethora of technical options for data pipelines and infrastructure, MNOs at this stage still struggle to develop profitable and sustainable models for sharing data. There’s a general consensus that demand for CDRs will continue to increase, but questions remain regarding users’ willingness to pay for this data in the long-run.
MNO leaders today are asking very similar questions about future possibilities to share data as assets or services. Responses among companies vary considerably, leading to a range of potential future outcomes.
Keep an eye out for Part III in this series on public-private data sharing, which looks into a “crystal ball” of possible future trajectories for MNOs’ data sharing to help public sector organizations understand what to expect and how to gain sustainable and safe access to CDR data. Reach out to the Data Values Project via email at DataValues@Data4SDGs.org.
- Martina Barbero is Policy Manager at the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data.