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Competing visions and absent voices at WCIT12 in Dubai

The Gulf News, a leading publication in Dubai, interviewed both Hamadoun Toure, the Secretary General of the ITU and me on December 4th, on the second day of the WCIT conference. One of the resulting articles very clearly sets out the causes of divergence between the Geneva-based UN specialized agency and the Colombo-based regional think tank that I head.

First, let us look at the ITU’s position. The objective is that of getting broadband to the next billions. No disagreement on our part. The divergence is on the means.

“My job is to set the infrastructure right when the traffic comes,” says the Secretary General. What has to be set right? What is the infrastructure that is not right? There are a couple of answers. One is that the infrastructure simply is not there. Myanmar is an example. It has no access networks capable of carrying data at desirable levels of quality of service. It also has shortfalls in domestic and international backhaul. The second is that the infrastructure is there, but it is inadequate. The traffic crawls. Here, the problem could be because (a) the access networks are not properly dimensioned; (b) because the domestic backhaul capacity is inadequate; (c) because the international backhaul is inadequately mobilized; or (d) any of the combinations of (a), (b) or (c).

Clearly, we agree that something has to be done about both the above conditions. How? Again, two ways, at least. One is to have governments, or incumbent network operators, build the access, using the funds that the ITU hopes will be generated by taxing the OTT players.

The other is to create the conditions for investment and innovation by multiple operators under competitive conditions. The former is premised on the centrality of supply. The latter on demand. Demand makes possible the business models that will attract investment. The reason we object to the access charge proposals from the Arab and African states that are now before the WCIT is because they will dampen demand, especially among the billions who are on the cusp of joining the Internet.

But the supply-side vision of the Secretary General does not see that as a concern:

Toure made it clear that the Dubai conference would be very much about broadband, how to get it to the billions who don’t get it now and how to handle increasing bandwidth demands. It is mainly about connection to connectivity through telecommunications.
“We have some stake in the infrastructure side and not in the content and governance of the internet. Despite negative criticism, the conference is off to a good start,” he said.

“We are a UN agency and whenever some people cannot solve their problems they come to ITU and express them and we pass on the message. We are the messenger. Being a messenger, we need not necessarily resolve the problems. We bring it to the attention of those who are supposed to solve it,” he said.

It’s not simply a difference between our vision and his. He is listening to “some people.” The European incumbent operators. The state-owned operators in Francophone Africa. We are basing our position on research among the poor in Asia and Africa that shows that content drives demand; demand drives investment. It is also anchored on historical analysis that shows that settlement revenues did not build networks; competition did: as explained in a piece published in Sri Lanka’s Financial Times.

It’s a pity the voices of those who are joining or about to join the Internet are not heard in the rarefied halls of the ITU Building in Geneva; only those of the suits who run the companies. It’s a pity that lobbying counts for more than research.

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