David Souter, Executive Director, Commonwealth Telecommunications
Almost a century ago, in 1902, a number of
what are now Commonwealth governments formed the Pacific Cable
Board to improve communications links between them. They could
never have anticipated the way in which information and communications
technologies have come to lead the world economy, but their farsighted
initiative set the scene for Commonwealth co-operation today in
this critical area for global economic and political development.
For years now, telecommunications and information
technology have been converging. The past twelve months have seen
even faster change in the new ICT (or Information and Communications
Technology) sector, in industrial and developing Commonwealth
countries alike - building on the changes of the last twelve months,
preparing the ground for the changes of the next. This article
summarises some key current issues, and looks at the Commonwealth
role towards them.
The last year has seen massive growth in
the economic impact of ICTs within industrial countries:
• telecommunications and IT businesses
have continued to merge and demerge, forge and break commercial
partnerships, in their competition for international business
• so-called 'dot.com' stocks - internet-based
businesses - have gained major influence in international stock
markets, fluctuating sharply around values that are historically
high in relation to their current profitability;
Massive investments have been made simply
in purchasing the right to implement new technology - with the
£22,000,000,000 being paid for five UK third generation
mobile licences the prime example;
• even newspaper and television advertising
are increasingly dominated by the ICT phenomenon, with every advertisement
now carrying a web address or 'URL'.
Developing countries have often been considered
marginal to these changes, but in practice they affect them deeply
- and the Commonwealth, as a network of industrial and developing
nations, is uniquely well-placed to facilitate the transfer of
experience, ideas and expertise between its members.
Three key themes can be seen in ICT development
during the last twelve months - all instructive in this context.
One is the phenomenal growth of mobile networks.
No longer a complementary service to fixed telephony, for many
customers in both industrial and developing countries mobile networks
now compete with or substitute for fixed lines. In a good number
of countries, both rich and poor, there are already more mobile
lines than fixed (though the latter still generate more revenue)
and most Commonwealth countries will reach this pattern within
the next few years, by the time that new, highly versatile, third
generation mobile systems come online. The advent of mobile competition
and the cutting edge advantages of wireless technology change
the equation for businesses investing in providing telecomms access
to communities throughout the developing world.
The second crucial development is e-business.
There is international confidence that trade and commerce, internal
and external, will migrate to electronic networks - starting with
business-to-business transactions but gradually encompassing consumer
markets. E-commerce is seen as the prime engine for economic growth
in the United States and, increasingly, in Europe. Its scope for
developing countries is widely debated: a necessary part of the
external economy as global firms increasingly trade electronically,
but also, potentially, a valuable tool for local businesses provided
that e-business services can be made accessible and affordable
to small entrepreneurs.
The third key theme is the convergence between
telecommunications and other industries dependent on 'bit' transmission
or digital technology. Technically, now, there is little difference
between telecommunications, broadcasting and computing. Regulatory
structures need to be changed to cater for these altered circumstances.
Commonwealth countries - Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa - have
been among the pioneers of converged or 'multimedia' regulation,
and see this as the best way forward to a new information age.
How are these changes affecting the developing
world - and relations within the Commonwealth, between industrial
and developing country members?
Many international observers are concerned
about the effect these transformation will have on international
relations and economic development. Will the development gap between
rich and poor countries increase if ICTs - and, more importantly,
services dependent on them - become predominant in international
trade? And within countries, will ICTs increase or decrease the
divide between those who have power, income, knowledge and those
who don't? Just how important are these high-tech innovations,
anyway, to countries where many people lack basic amenities (such
as power and clean water), let alone basic telephony?
The answer to these questions depends, to
a considerable degree, on what we do about them. ICTs are powerful
tools for doing business and for delivering services. They empower
those that have access to them and the ability to use them, whether
that is countries, businesses or individuals. As ICTs deploy throughout
the world, agencies have a tremendous opportunity to ensure inclusion
of the whole society in their embrace, and to make use of them
to deliver better access to basic services like health and education.
Three key issues seems to be particularly
important for ensuring this happens in Commonwealth developing
The first is the policy and regulatory environment
needed to stimulate investment in telecommunications infrastructure
and encourage appropriate use of ICTs to secure development objectives
- improved health and education, small and medium scale entrepreneurship,
etc. Most of this investment will come from outside developing
countries, and the regulatory framework governing it will be crucial.
Complex political and economic equations will determine the viability
of different access strategies, balancing the commercial interests
of outside investors with the internal requirements of governments
The second is access promotion. Most citizens
in low-income countries cannot afford a telephone, let alone a
computer, in their homes; but that does not diminish the potential
value of these facilities to them. Innovative approaches to community
access are being developed in a number of Commonwealth countries
- sometimes built around the franchising of telecoms access through
small-scale local traders; sometimes around the establishment
of community (tele)centres offering a variety of traditional and
new services to their communities. Here, too, there is much Commonwealth
experience to share.
The third involves building the capacity
to use new services effectively, for it is the ability to use
ICTs - not just their availability - that empowers. The most successful
telecentres have built their services around community participation
in design and management, seeking to involve users directly in
determining the development of their new asset. Involving users
requires substantial initial input - in developing basic IT and
language skills, in overcoming fear of technology (particularly
among older people), in addressing gender and other social inequalities.
Nevertheless, facilities that successfully address these issues
should develop a stronger consumer base and find it easier to
attain commercial viability.
In all three contexts here, the Commonwealth
can play an important part. Its common legacy - of language, legal
systems and principles of governance - gives it unique characteristics
amongst international institutions in supporting the policy-making
and regulatory environment, facilitating the exchange of expertise
in access promotion and capacity-building in the use of new technology.
One of the Commonwealth's key strengths has
always been its ability to provide a framework for networking
- for the sharing of experience and the dissemination of ideas
that may have value in other members of the Commonwealth partnership.
Increasingly, this opportunity is being taken up.
The Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation
(CTO), for example, ran a dozen conferences, workshops and seminars
during 1999/2000, aimed at sharing experience between Commonwealth
countries in areas like e-commerce, Internet development, universal
access and the use of new technology to stimulate development.
Other Commonwealth agencies have focused on themes such as investment
in information technology, and on the use of new technology for
education. The value of these face-to-face encounters can be greatly
increased by the establishment of electronic networks offering
better access, Commonwealth-wide, to shared experience and providing
a cheap and easy forum for individual and collective exchanges
Commonwealth institutions are also changing
to meet the broader challenges posed by convergence and the new
role that ICTs are playing.
The CTO has a particular historic strength
in networking between telecommunications operating companies.
It currently manages some 200 technical co-operation projects
each year in this area, enabling expertise from one Commonwealth
country to be made available in others. But traditional ways of
doing things are no longer enough in this rapidly changing world.
Over the next four years, the CTO is supplementing this work with
three new key strands of activity:
• a portfolio of business & development
partnerships that enable private sector ICT companies to contribute
to development in ways that match their commercial and other objectives;
• a programme of work to support policy
making and regulation in Telecommunications;
• a programme of work to promote the
effective use of Telecommunications in Social and Economic Development
- both universal access and the development of applications to
meet the requirements that communities identify.
The CTO convened a first meeting of all Commonwealth
specialist agencies concerned with ICTs in May 2000. The range
of current activities involving ICTs is impressive. 'Joined-up
thinking' is, obviously, central to success in this converged
environment, and the potential for co-operation - between Commonwealth
agencies, with individual governments, with NGOs and international
agencies - is even more so.
When a few Commonwealth governments decided,
a hundred years ago, to take the first tentative steps towards
Commonwealth co-operation in telecommunications, they would certainly
not have anticipated today's dynamic international world of ICT.
But they were farsighted in understanding that co-operation between
international partners - and particularly within the Commonwealth
- would enhance their communications networks and so improve the
quality of their economic performance. Future co-operation in
this leading area of economic and social development should prove
a crucial part of Commonwealth 'added value' for the years to