Commonwealth Ministers Reference Book

Communication: the key
Dr David Souter, Executive Director, Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation

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 customers;

• so-called '' 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 countries.

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 and citizens.

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 of ideas.

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 come.

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