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UN Broadband Commission 2.0

Back in late 2009 I had the honour of explaining my views on how broadband can deliver social and economic benefits to countries and their people to Dr Hamadoun Touré the Secretary-General (SG) of the ITU, the UN body looking after global telecoms. He showed a particular interest in the initiative Australia had taken in developing the NBN.

This discussion with the SG led to the establishment in 2010 of the UN Broadband Commission, co-sponsored by UNESCO and the ITU. Dr Touré invited 50 Commissioners from around the world to participate in this initiative, half of them from private industry—CEOs from leading operators, OTTs and ICT vendors, etc, plus ministers of communications, regulators such as FCC, SGs from other UN bodies such as WTO, World Bank and others.

At the end of 2014 Dr Touré will step down as SG of the ITU. The 10th meeting of the Commission in New York in September therefore also signified the end of an era for the Commission and we had a strategic review of its future. Based on its successful activities—more than a dozen reports and an increase in National Broadband Plans from 65 to 142—as well as the work that still lies ahead of us, it was decided to launch the Broadband Commission 2.0 under the new SG of the ITU Houlin Zhao, once he is officially elected in November.

How to overcome government inertia?

Key issues that will need to be addressed in the next phase include that of national government inertia in regard to policy-making.

We have seen enormous private investment in the developing world over the last decade; there is also great enthusiasm from the people about ICT. However governments are lacking action in those markets not organised by the private market, such as healthcare, education, infrastructure and so on. The ICT industry is perhaps the largest economic and social incubator for innovations and inventions, but so far we have failed to invent new government policies.

While there is widespread acceptance of the need for broadband and its associated ICT developments, such as cloud computing, data centres, M2M, data analytics and so on, there is a significant lack of government policies aimed at utilising the social and economic benefits that can be derived from all this. The only government bodies who seem to be able to grapple with it are the national security agencies, who, especially in recent years, have dived into the ICT opportunities that have become available to them. The Commission would like to see a similar level of enthusiasm and commitment in the adoption of these new technologies by the ministers of healthcare, education, energy, environment, agriculture and so on.

Perhaps the single largest obstacle to digital development has been government finance departments. They are only interested in extracting the greatest possible amount of money from the telco industry through fees, licences and taxation—completely disregarding the national social and economic benefits that can be derived from it.

This needs to be changed, but for that to happen proper processes and systems need to be developed. So far this has been a key missing element in digital development. Perhaps certain institutions need to be developed, and this is something in which the Broadband Commission could play a facilitating role.

This will most likely constitute a large part of the work of the Commission in the future.

Sustainable Developments Goals

Closely linked to this task are issues related to the results of the Commission’s recent dealings with the UN member states, who are now, under the auspices of the UN, formulating the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which, as of 1 January 2016, will follow up on the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). One of the reasons the Commission was established was to help in achieving the MDGs by using ICT tools. The Commission understood that this was well appreciated by those involved, so they were disappointed to see a lack of inclusion of ICT tools in the new SDGs. There is a fear that the mistakes made in the past will simply be repeated in the future.

The SDGs are formulated through a process in which the member countries participate. Lobbying for inclusion, therefore, will have to be done through the countries’ representatives. These are often bureaucrats from the departments of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Aid, who have little or no understanding of what ICTs can do for social and economic developments.

So in both situations—unleashing the benefits of broadband and ICTs on a national level, and using ICT tools to better address the SDGs—the leadership of the national governments will be needed, and this has proved to be a real problem. Aside from their departments of communications there are few champions within governments.

Over the last decade we have seen the development of hundreds, if not thousands, of pilots and programs. We do not need any more of these. What we need now is to see the ones we have being incorporated into government policy and upscaled. And sector reform and sector transformation is needed for this—breaking down the silos of resistance and developing more holistic (trans-sector) government policies. There is also an increased pressure from the bottom up—those involved in the pilots and programs—for governments to start moving on the mainly positive outcomes of the projects.

Telcos vs OTTs

Another key issue for the Commission will be to create a better dialogue between the telecoms industry and the internet or OTT companies. At the moment they are at loggerheads. Key elements here are the need to change what have been telecoms regulations into what should be broader ICT government policies aimed at protecting the underlying principles that govern:

  • access to and on the open network;
  • interoperability; and
  • consumer protection.

The term ‘network compact’ was used to describe this new paradigm. The telecoms industry will need to move away from its regulatory micro-management. The old regulations are based on networks that embedded the services as well, while in the new situation the networks do not have embedded services. There is no longer a separate telecoms industry—it needs to be included in ICT. Current regulations and telco licences are still based on supporting the old model and this often results in situations where telcos are lobbying for a ‘fair regulatory advantage’. The World Bank has warned that this has become a real impediment to new investments in the sector, a topic it will address in its annual flagship report to be published in 2015—focussing on the internet as a tool for development. Issues such as net neutrality, open networks and structural changes need be governed by ICT policies, not by telco regulations.

So, some significant new initiatives will need to be taken in the Broadband Commission 2.0 developments.

By Paul Budde, Managing Director of Paul Budde Communication

Paul is also a contributor of the Paul Budde Communication blog located here.

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