How can we realistically connect the next billions of new Internet users by 2020?

By Yuliana Angelova
July 6, 2016

Bulgaria has a very positive example of connecting the unconnected, and the example is even more relevant within the context of the SDGs, and the experience of developing and underdeveloped countries.

Our first biggest expansion (we had later some more) of number of Internet users happened in 1996 – 1997, parallel to the biggest economic crisis the country has experienced in the last 25 years. The national currency rate to the USD changed from about 27:1 to about 3000:1, so more than 100 times, within only a few months.

The country survived the crises through severe fiscal policy, new laws, including introduction of a Currency board, but that’s not the relevant part for this article. What is relevant, is something else: the Bulgarian government decided in 1999 that it will allow Internet access to be provided without any restrictions whatsoever. There would be no licenses, not even registration for the Internet service providers (ISPs). This came after a public discussion and a case at the Bulgarian Supreme Administrative Court, but ultimately, it was an out of court agreement between the government and the Internet Society of Bulgaria (ISOC).

The results of the lack of regulation were stunning – within a few years, Bulgaria, a country with 7 million population, had about 2,000 ISPs. The prices of services went down to as low as Euro 10 / month, and the speed went up, jumping from the dial-up services directly to fiber-optic, so to speeds of up to 1000 Mbps (1 Gbps).

We understand from out continuous dialogue with other countries, that this way of opening the market may not be applicable everywhere, but certainly it sets a good example. A curious fact: one of the Bulgarian ISPs was later sold to the Hungarian division of Deutsche Telecom, and the co-founders moved to India, where they are building a new Indian ISP. Down the road, Bulgaria attracted other foreign investors in the ISP – among them other European telecoms, but also pure financial investors, and the market continues to grow today, even though slower.

We continued also with changes in the legislation, which introduced digital documents, digital signatures, and most recently – as of June 2016, the creation of a new governmental body – an agency to the Council of Ministers to deal with e-government and e-governance. We do that in coordination and cooperation with the broader Internet community, ISOC-Bulgaria, academic institutions, as well as other organizations and interested experts. All this helps immensly in adopting the best technologies, but also rely on the best people available.

In September 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was agreed at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit. This is a universal program for international cooperation to promote sustainable development for next 30 years. The Agenda is composed of 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 Targets, none of which is specifically about ICTs but several targets make references to ICTs and technology. Basically, the 2030 Agenda recognizes that the ICTs have great potential to accelerate human progress. Bulgaria is now in the process of defining its national priorities in that regard. One thing is worth to be mentioned here. A referendum on introducing electronic voting was held in Bulgaria on 25 October 2015. The referendum was successful and now there is an ongoing process on clarifying the details and putting a system in place so that people can vote electronically.

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