Investment 58—Poverty 14: The UN’s Broadband Commission for Digital Development vs. the MDGs

Posted on September 27, 2010


Broadband is clearly (if somewhat belatedly) now on the global “development” agenda.  The notion is that the Developing world has fallen behind the Developed world in obtaining access to Broadband and it is now necessary to find ways of catching up. In pursuit of this “Global leaders in government, business, civil society and international organizations (were) invited to serve on the Broadband Commission for Digital Development as Commissioners by Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), with the strong support of the United Nations Secretary-General”.

Functions of the Broadband Commission (are) to provide broad policy guidance for the development of a strategic framework for action in order to:

1. Accelerate the deployment of universal access to broadband networks for the scaling-up and fast-track achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and other priority development programmes;

2. Advise and assist on advocacy and outreach strategies in support of innovation, investment and user needs, ways to strengthen and expand partnerships, and innovative financing mechanisms;

3. Help identify effective, innovative, sustainable and timely projects and activities which are suitable to be supported by the Broadband Commission.

Why the ITU and UNESCO came to see a need for this Commission isn’t clear. Given the pace of development of undersea cables, lowering of the cost of satellite access, and a very wide range of national and regional broadband infrastructure development initiatives, there is currently a very significant build out in broadband infrastructure going on in many parts of the world. Some research to identify what the infrastructure gaps might actually be would have been useful. Even more useful might have been some sort of assessment of the success or not of post-implementation utilization of existing infrastructures in support of the various areas of particular interest in the context of the MDG’s. (The resulting set of findings would have been quite mixed to say the least.)

However, rather than produce a report which might have in fact furthered the development of universal access as was their mandate, the assembled worthies, politicians, billionaires and heads of UN agencies produced a report which most notably calls for deregulation, an end to telecommunications taxation and little else beyond pie in the sky recitations of the wonderful world that is possible with Broadband. No where do they give any attention or specifics as to how such a world might actually be brought into realization once the hardware is in place (and most notably once the hidden subsidies that would come from deregulation and an end to taxation have come to be of little interest or value to the corporate sector).

Put plainly, we believe the models of the mobile and Internet revolutions can transform global development and have fundamentally thrived because they are bottom-up, market-led models.

This is most peculiar. Certainly “the models of mobile and Internet revolutions can transform global development” and they have certainly thrived as bottom up processes.  One could even argue that mobile communications is a good model of a market-led process however there is little evidence of market led processes being similarly successful in bringing the Internet to marginalized populations.  And it is an enormous stretch from this to suggest that these have thrived because they are “market led”, or that this has any particular relevance to global development.  Certainly whatever develops with respect to BB based development will need to be bottom up but unfortunately this requirement once mentioned in this “declaration” is not referred to or elaborated upon anywhere else in the document.

We therefore make a clarion call for ‘Broadband Inclusion for All’: for global leadership from the top and a groundswell of support in shaping the broadband future through the deployment of National Broadband Plans, and for full-scale recognition in policy-making of technology, innovation and private sector investment as the critical enablers of the international development agenda and development in the 21st Century.

What is clearly absent from any of these “clarion calls” are any of the alternative approaches to the provision of Broadband including publicly owned or mandated BB as in Australia, state funded BB as would be possible in many countries through their Universal Service Funds as for example in India,  co-operatively owned BB, community owned and managed facilities and so on.  Why precisely the only option explored is the private sector one is unclear particularly where there is a strong argument to be made that BB infrastructure should function as a public utility/common carrier with competition being left appropriately to the level of content/services?

Equally it is nowhere made clear as to why the particular ownership structure of the BB implementation would have any immediate or longer term impact on “the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals” which is the stated objective of the Commission.  Certainly, funding for BB deployment is an issue but nowhere does the report make the argument that any of the possible ownership/investment structures for the deployment will of necessity be better than any other and why these shouldn’t as currently, be determined case by case as fits local circumstances, requirements and resources.

Why the report chooses to focus exclusively on a private sector option which in the past has proven inadequate at serving underserved areas and marginalized populations (as for example for simple telephone services) in the absence of active governmental regulatory intervention is nowhere discussed. Similarly the case is nowhere made that existing tax structures are inhibiting either the deployment of BB networks or the utilization of these networks in applications supportive of the MDGs.

Tellingly, the document references “investment” 8 times, (de) “regulation” some 28 times and (ending) “taxation” some 18 times while by comparison mentioning the MDG goals of (ending) poverty 14 times, and (il)literacy 8 times and (improving) nutrition 4 times.

Of most significance however is that the report more or less completely avoids any detail on how Broadband infrastructure will be made usable and useful in the range of application areas that they are presuming it will benefit.

Rather we have such statements as:

To look at the long-term broadband picture, we must engage our imaginations to envision broadband connectivity and content as the full ripening of the digital revolution, the fruits of which in many cases have yet to be invented or imagined, but which will transform our lives, livelihoods and lifestyles permanently and profoundly. By pulling the levers of policy and investment together, we believe that in 2010, we can take the first steps towards this exhilarating future.

Yes, okay, but who exactly is going to implement this glorious future on the ground.

Where are the specifics, the calls for training programs for grassroots implementers, the programs for designing the multitude of educational initiatives that will be necessary in the 100’s of languages for the online education programs, where is the training for the local health workers to support the e-health programs, or the funds to ensure that the information concerning pre-natal care and nutrition made available via BB are in fact, implemented on the ground and in the villages. Where are the new strategies for ensuring sustainability of programs at the grassroots in places and for peoples without the means to support programs once the initial flush of flash picture driven “openings” are completed and the private sector subsidy engorged corporations move on to the next tax free publicly supported “investment” fest.

The report talks somewhat dreamily about technology centres teaching women how to use computers but where are the funds, training, hardware and software, support and overall resources for these centres going to come from or even where is the policy impetus and or commitments to high level leadership necessary for these to be widely developed and implemented. Realizing the benefits of all this in the context of the MDGs or for the poor and marginalized is evidently not made the mandate of the “leadership” from the top which is called for repeatedly in the document.

Also, clearly absent are any of the voices, concerns, issues that those who are neither elite decision makers nor professional service providers might present in the context of BB deployment.  As both research and practice has repeatedly demonstrated only through an active participation and commitment from the grassroots is development likely to be successful and sustainable over the longer term.  What that means in the context of BB deployment is that without significant attention being paid and resources made available at the front end to enable and mobilize grassroots participation and most importantly grassroots involvement in the design and deployment of services and even infrastructure the end result will be another in a continuing stream of costly failures.

Not surprisingly, neither the process of the development of the report nor the agenda articulated in the report provide opportunities for comment or input either from those with real experience with implementing Broadband or ICT for Development on the ground or for any of those who might be expected to make use and derive benefit from the implementation.  A report of this kind which makes no use of any of the communication and participation/consultation opportunities of which they are so glowingly speaking is by its very nature an object of some suspicion.

There is nothing inherently wrong with deregulation and lower taxes. However, in the absence of compelling argument, documented evidence, or even clear logic, the connection between these and the benefits of Broadband and then the use of BB for various kinds of MDG related programs in not clear.  It is thus hard to see these arguments and this report as anything other than a blatant attempt to hijack the very potent symbolism and practice of the MDG’s for various personal and corporate agendas.

Doing development is hard work. It requires patience and tenacity, intelligence and sensitivity and mostly it requires the capacity to listen and respond to what the folks who will ultimately be the agent of and beneficiary from development have to say about what works and what doesn’t, what is useful and what isn’t, what they are prepared to become committed to and what they feel will be a waste of their time and very limited resources.  Regrettably, even tragically, this report completely misses the point of development and interestingly also the point about the Internet revolution of which they speak so highly—that is that those who are to take advantage of the “tidal wave of digital opportunity” must themselves be part of the process of initiating and realizing those opportunities.  In the absence of this neither development nor broadband will be successful in achieving the ends anticipated for it either narrowly with the MDG’s or more broadly with achieving “Broadband inclusion for all”.

For a rather more inclusive, sensible and ultimately useful approach to Broadband implementation one need go no further than the recent Broadband for Nigeria (BB4NG) consultation and formulations. It is unfortunate that the Broadband Commission couldn’t have adopted the much more nuanced and sensible approach outlined in the Background document to the Nigerian BB4NG forum:

Expanding access and coverage beyond what is commercially feasible requires more direct intervention by governments, their related public agencies and civil society organisations.  These might be in the form of one-time subsidies or ongoing financial support.  The examples use so far have related to network infrastructure but the same principles apply to other types of “infrastructure” connected with broadband deployment – such as end-user devices.  For example, in areas that are covered by broadband networks but where individual access is unobtainable due to high cost of access, one time subsidies can be made available in the form of equipping institutions that facilitate access to ICTs by the public (e.g. libraries, schools, community centres etc.) with devices and one-time connectivity fees.  Such institutions may then continue to support themselves sustainably by charging for their services.

Whatever the circumstances and where ever the gaps may be seen to occur, policy and decision makers need to evaluate the costs and benefits of any public investment and/or intervention in broadband infrastructure, and support initiatives/projects which can deliver services without deterring the private sector from investing (OECD 2009).  Furthermore, a holistic perspective should be the goal – one that considers the implications of interventions, incentives, and/or investments across all levels/layers from suppliers to users, and infrastructure to content. (A. Jagun & O Somolu, Broadband For Nigeria [Bb4ng]: Background Document, 18 May, 2010).