Nº 5 2013 > Strategic Dialogue
Building our broadband future
A High-Level Strategic Dialogue on “Building our Broadband Future” took place on 13 May 2013, just a day ahead of the opening of the Fifth World Telecommunication and ICT Policy Forum (WTPF‑13). The dialogue among top industry CEOs and policy pioneers was moderated by Raffaele Barberio, Director of Key4biz, and focused on the status, progress and challenges of rolling out broadband. In the first session, on “Building out Broadband”, speakers debated whether access to broadband is a human need or a right. The second session, on “Broadband Driving Development”, covered the vital applications of broadband for improving people’s lives and achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.
Opening the Strategic Dialogue, ITU Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun I. Touré said: “We all know that in the 21st century, broadband will affect everything we do. Broadband will affect all social and economic sectors, everywhere on the planet. Broadband will change the world — and I am confident that it will change the world for the better.” This article features some highlights from both sessions.
Building out broadband
Is broadband Internet access a basic need, a public utility, a fundamental right or a privilege? What are the best means for stimulating the build-out of broadband and Internet services? These questions were discussed by panellists Moez Chakchouk, CEO of the Tunisian Internet Agency, Matthias Kurth, Executive Chairman and Member of the Executive Committee of Cable Europe, Lynn St Amour, President and CEO of the Internet Society, Diego Molano Vega, Colombia’s Minister of Information and Communication Technologies, Magdalena Gaj, President of Poland’s Electronic Communications Office, and Ulf Pehrsson, Vice-President for Government and Industry Relations at Ericsson.
Lars Magnus Ericsson, a 20th century entrepreneur and founder of Ericsson, qualified communications as a basic human need. Listening to participants in the session, there seemed to be a more or less common view that access to the Internet and broadband is indeed a basic human need or, as some would put it, a fundamental right. The Internet Society’s second annual Global Internet User Survey, for example, revealed that 80 per cent of the respondents agreed with the statement that “access to the Internet should be considered a basic human right”. In this survey, conducted in 2012, more than 10 000 people in 20 countries were asked about their attitudes towards the Internet.
Will including a right for broadband in a constitution help? Maybe, but it is not the only essential thing, according to Mr Kurth. “We have rights for labour in some constitutions, for instance. That does not mean that everybody, even in Europe, has a job. We now have high unemployment in the south of Europe. So sometimes you have a right in a constitution, but who is responsible for fulfilling it? The right itself does not change anything,” Mr Kurth explained, adding that in terms of broadband, “We need encouragement. We need investment. And we need the private sector to do that.”
What ambitions or targets should be set for broadband? If we say that access to broadband Internet should be on a par with the right of access to water or electricity, this target may seem low, because a quick look at the numbers shows that only around 80 per cent of the world’s population have access to electricity and — depending upon the definition — just 40 to 80 per cent of the world’s people actually have access to safe water.
The rapid expansion of broadband infrastructure over the past two years gives room for realistic optimism. We should set our ambitions high because it is realistic to expect that all people on this planet can get broadband Internet access in the near future. According to Ericsson’s Traffic Mobility Report, “Global mobile broadband subscriptions reached around 1.7 billion in the first quarter of 2013, and are predicted to reach 7 billion in 2018.” So third-and fourth-generation (3G/4G) mobile technologies look set to connect the majority of the world’s citizens to broadband — with a rapid uptake of increasingly smarter smartphones playing an important role. But what are the best tools and policies to reach this objective?
Looking at the supply side, Ms Gaj underlined that regulation should be balanced, predictable and not too strict. She also said it is important to stimulate cooperation. In Poland, for example, the regulator is working with local governments and local entrepreneurs to create competition to spur investment. Minister Molano and others emphasized the need to promote private investment, and not necessarily work through universal service obligations. Investment happens when there are returns. Mr Kurth highlighted the need to foster a competitive environment and also talked of better regulation. “Better regulation is targeted regulation which initiates investment and infrastructure roll-out,” he explained. He also emphasized the importance of sharing best practices, saying that some countries are very successful, and there is a lot to be learned from them. In Europe for example, the front runners are the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Bulgaria. Many participants stressed that more spectrum should be allocated and that the principle of technology neutrality should be encouraged at all times in support of access.
On the demand side, and with regard to the Internet and content, Ms St Amour distinguished between Internet and broadband, seeing broadband as the pipe and Internet being the content flowing through that pipe. So, broadband is necessary, but not sufficient, she said explaining that “We need activities in competition policy and regulatory policy, and broad stakeholder engagement to give us the environment that will actually bring the remaining two-thirds of the world population online.”
According to Ms St Amour, an inclusive, transparent, multistakeholder model allows everyone to have a voice, and participatory processes drive the Internet’s technical and administrative functions. An example from Kenya shows that these are not just theoretical concepts. Ushahidi (the name means “testimony” in Swahili) is a website launched in 2008 by a team of innovators to map reports of violence after the election there. The team established a collaborative platform that enables users to share and map information. Ushahidi became a central tool for communities in Haiti and Japan to distribute critical information following the earthquakes that hit those countries in 2010 and 2012, respectively. Building on their initial success, Ushahidi founders joined with entrepreneurs to open a community space to support local, young policy innovators in Kenya. Telling this story, Ms St Amour highlighted the importance of safeguarding the multistakeholder model and keeping the Internet open.
On that subject, Mr Chakchouk told a fascinating story about the challenges of transitioning from an agency that he described as a censorship machine to one that is promoting an open Internet. The Tunisian Internet Agency, which was established in 1996 as an Internet exchange point, had been very close to the regime before the Arab spring in 2011. Following this revolution, many people wanted to see the Agency abolished. Mr Chakchouk said it has been a real challenge to explain to people that the Agency has to remain as an Internet exchange point, and that it can be neutral and transparent.
Tunisia is well-ranked in terms of ICT infrastructure development. But the story is quite different when it comes to content and applications, according to Mr Chakchouk. “When we look at the ICT development index, we notice that the problem of Tunisia is content.” The good news is that “Today, Tunisian young Internet users, who have suffered for a long time because of censorship and constraints regarding development of content now feel free to develop applications and are willing to innovate,” he said, stressing that the new era of broadband cannot be built effectively without opening the doors to dialogue with all multistakeholders, including civil society.
Tunisia has come a long way since the Arab spring. He referred to the high profile of the Tunisian government in international forums in stressing the importance of human rights on the Internet — including at the World Conference on International Telecommunications in December 2012 (WCIT‑12) in Dubai.
Minister Molano observed that citizens are asking for local content, and that it is important to develop local ecosystems to provide that. Of course, governments themselves will also play an important role when it comes to delivering content, not least through e‑government services.
Picking up on the example of the pipe and the water, Minister Molano said that thanks to policy discussions held by ITU, the world is solving the pipe problem. “But do you know what? We are not solving the water problem. The pipes are empty. There is no water for those people in the base of the pyramid. In other words, there are no applications and no content for those people.” The example of the mom and pop shop — the most common type of small company in Latin America — illustrates this clearly. These little family-run shops are situated in poor neighbourhoods, and less than 7 per cent of them are connected to the Internet. When you try to sell the Internet to them, they ask “Why? What is the value of the Internet for me?”
Is there any infrastructure problem for them? No. They all have Internet coverage in their areas. Can they afford it? Yes. But there are no applications that help them make more money on a daily basis, so the Internet has no value for them. The same thing applies to a farmer in a rural area of Colombia. The farm is covered with Internet access. Is it cheap? Perhaps paying USD 10 to 20 a month for broadband is not cheap. But if it saved the farmer a two-day trip to the capital, then it would be good value. But where are the applications that would help the farmer avoid a trip to the capital? Those applications do not exist.
“What should we do in terms of policy to encourage the creation of those ecosystems that develop applications for the base of a pyramid? Google is not going to do that, or Facebook, or the main new players. We have to develop those applications by ourselves. So we have to think about how to create local ecosystems that are going to drive the creation of applications that solve our own problems”, said Mr Molano.
Presenting the outcomes of the session on “Building out Broadband” to the World Telecommunication and ICT Policy Forum, Ulf Pehrsson highlighted the general agreement that access to Internet and broadband is indeed a basic human need, seen by some as a fundamental right.
Broadband driving development
The conversation about broadband and development has moved on from an early sense of wonder about this new technology, to a more sober systems approach. Questions are now being raised about the infrastructure needed to support the worldwide deployment and adoption of the Internet. Who will build it? How will we pay for it? And how can it work to solve some of our most basic societal needs?
These were the topics tackled in the “Broadband Driving Development” session by a panel comprising Omobola Johnson, Nigeria’s Minister of Communications and Technology, Amr Badawi, then President of Egypt’s National Telecom Regulatory Authority, Yung Kim, President and Group Chief Strategic Officer of the Republic of Korea’s KT Corporation, Franco Bernabè, CEO of Telecom Italia, Robert Pepper, Vice-President for Global Policy at Cisco, Kathryn Brown, Senior Vice-President for Corporate Citizenship and International Relations at Verizon, and Dr Hamadoun I. Touré, ITU Secretary-General.
Ms Johnson talked about relevance, evolution of infrastructure and solutions, and risk. These topics emerge from a mature assessment of where we are today in the worldwide deployment of the Internet.
Communication technologies are already integrated in most sectors of the economy and they are highly relevant to growth, to productivity, and to our individual and collective aspirations.
All participants agreed that if access to the Internet is not available, growth is stymied; people, communities and countries are left behind. But they also agreed that one size does not fit all. Indeed, the nature of the open Internet platform and connected technologies is that they provide opportunity for individualized innovation, for the development of solutions that fit regional needs. For example, in Nigeria, simple technologies such as wireless SMS are used to monitor the health of pregnant women, resulting in a reduction in the death rate of expectant mothers, whereas more advanced Internet applications are used to provide health education to healthcare workers in rural areas of the country.
Mr Pepper reviewed how the deployment of broadband is crucial to meeting the Millennium Development Goals for the alleviation of poverty, improving education, achieving gender equality, and improving health care around the globe.
Mr Badawi spoke movingly about how the youth of Egypt were empowered by mobile technology during the revolution, and how Egypt is transforming the way it educates its children using cloud solutions. The conclusion is that relevance is personal, communal and regional.
With respect to evolution, we have moved from fixed wireline technologies to mobile broadband technologies in what feels like the blink of an eye. We are living in a mobile world, connected to each other and to the world through the Internet.
Mr Kim described how long-term evolution (LTE) technologies change everything again. LTE uses Internet Protocol (IP) technology, heralding another phase of innovation. LTE technology allows mobile speeds not experienced before, reduces latency and for the first time allows for real-time video streaming. It can transform health care delivery, for example, by allowing not only remote monitoring but actual virtual treatment. And the prices of handheld devices fall each year. Mr Kim reported that the first smartphone costing as little as USD 55 is now on the market in the Republic of Korea.
Broadband has helped competitiveness in the Republic of Korea throughout the industrial sector. It has enabled e‑government, e‑health and e‑education, and played a critical role in overcoming the economic crisis. The evolution of broadband networks creates opportunities for new applications everywhere.
But where there are opportunities, there are risks. Mr Bernabè reviewed the systemic changes resulting from widespread integration of the Internet in our society. Beyond the risks to security and privacy, there are risks that people will use the technology to hurt each other instead of help each other.
Participants discussed the challenge of finding successful business models to achieve sustainable growth, and the right business model to deploy advanced technologies universally. For example, is it a consortium, competitive infrastructure, or resale arrangements? Mr Kim proposed a consortium model using public-private partnerships and resale arrangements. Mr Badawi expressed interest in spectrum sharing.
Mr Pepper urged caution in advocating any single carrier model. “The risk is that we slow investment by locking in on a single way to go forward”, he said. Capital will flow where there is a demand, and it is likely that different models will compete and consumers will decide what works best for their needs.
Ms Johnson talked about the positive role of broadband in Nigeria, where it is linked to achieving gender equality through empowering women, in particular by allowing them to work at home. Broadband also offers ways of providing primary education, reducing child mortality and improving women’s health care.
Broadband connectivity is being used to address AIDS, malaria and other diseases. One of the projects coming out of the Broadband Commission for Digital Development is to link healthcare workers across Africa via smartphones. This will save thousands of lives a year just from the early detection of malaria. And then of course there is ensuring environmental sustainability through using broadband to reduce transport needs and to increase the smart generation of electricity.
Reporting on the session on “Broadband Driving Development” to the World Telecommunication and ICT Policy Forum, Kathryn Brown noted a maturing of the conversation towards the practicalities of using broadband for development. “We stand at a tipping point”, she said, “And now is the time for action to realize the significant benefits of broadband”.