IEEE Internet Inclusion Advancing Solutions was held on April 24-25th in Washington DC.
The IEEE organized a powerful and impactful event that takes the first step to systematically developing standards and coordination processes for Internet Inclusion. Working groups convened on topics like Community Networks, Public Access, Evidence-based Research, Digital Literacy, Innovative Business Models and the Digital Gender Divide and discussed cross-linkages of their work to the work of other groups. Atul Mehta is Global Head of Telecom Media Technology, Venture Capital and Funds at the International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank Group. In this role, Atul is responsible for a team that manages US$5 billion of investments and undertakes new investments of about US$1 billion annually in these sectors. He spoke on how partnerships are critical for progress:
“It is obvious that the Internet should be up there with power, roads, transport as a priority for development. While the mobile voice revolution was enabled by the market, we see an increasing digital divide among countries and within countries.
“Digital financial services like mPesa in Kenya and Bangladesh’s bKash – bring millions into formal financial services; Digital services like these can accelerate the growth of economic opportunity, and reach many more of those who have up to now, been left behind.
“These are merely the tip of the iceberg – we have not seen yet, the potential impact in health, education, skills building, and entrepreneurship. The old paradigm where the first rung is manufacturing, is becoming obsolete. Yet this alternative development paradigm is acknowledged but not acted upon.
“The IFC and the World Bank are working to change this: We are undertaking rapid country diagnostics about what are the challenges of digital connectivity, advising governments and policy makers on regulatory reforms to get investments going. The IFC will help to structure the deals which involve combining public and private assets, financing and partnerships. For example, the World Bank lent $200M to Mexico to get Internet access at lower prices to the unconnected. Power and connectivity in Africa is where IFC is working on a private initiative.
“We would love to join with partners here at IIAS and make a dent in the 4 billion unconnected.”
Vint Cerf moderated the panel and made closing remarks as follows:
“Certain conditions must be met to achieve Internet inclusion – literacy in general.
“We suffer from deficit in literacy – we must work so that women and others achieve literacy so they can be prepared to make use of the information the Internet can supply.
“If libraries have access – then the library will be part of the Internet in 21st century. The spirit of the library system could animate access to the internet. Who is going to pay for cost of that access? We must find ways to increase incomes for everyone. Putting them to work in gainful activity – whether employment or enterprise.
“Conditions vary all over the world – and the solutions are not going to be the same. The US, one of the world’s richest countries has places with no or poor access. Why is that?”
D.M. of the Public Access Working Group responded: “Rural dilemma – classic infrastructure economics – rural people are far apart, have less money. Yet the spectrum in the TV band is abundant in rural areas – should take advantage of this, as the US has finalized rules.”
C.Y. of the Evidence-based Research Working Group said: “Reasons for limited provision of Internet access are a combination of lack of capital formation, lack of technical expertise. We need hybrid solutions and pathways for communities to find creative ways to right size and customize solutions to meet their own unique needs.”
J.G. of the Innovative Business Model Working Group noted: “Mapping what is going on and is really hard – to reflect and respond to variations in population density – without mapping, we don’t clearly see where problems are so we can address them, collaboration needed from the public and private sector.”
G.F. of the Digital Gender Gap Working Group spoke as an economist: “We need innovative licensing, regulatory reform. In the developing world, operators provide connectivity to schools, to community anchor points.”
Vint spoke about how 60 years ago with the Interstate Highway Act, a defense bill to make missiles transportable, the US Federal Government invested to build those highways. “A boom in automobiles and housing was a side effect! Does government have an obligation to create infrastructure on top of which private capacity can be built?
“Does government have a role to create infrastructure to deal with the basic problem of outreach to rural communities – in the US and in other countries? Digital India pursued by Prime Minister Modi proposes to connect 250,000 villages with a fiber network. Is that a policy for rural America that we should promote to members of the US Congress?
“Is there something like our current gas tax to support road maintenance, that we can put in place to assure access for all? Is this a role for the Universal Service Fund? Or can we bootstrap it looking at models from the earlier phase of the Internet?
“The US National Science Foundations’ investment in NSFnet started in 1985 – and this was shut down in 1995 because commercial service was available. How did this happen? In 1988 there was no allowed commercial traffic on government backbones. In 1988, permission was given to connect MCI mail to the NSFnet backbone – and all other email providers like Compuserve, Telemail, OnTyme and others insisted they should be able to do the same. In 1989 three commercial Internet providers started up – having seen from the email example that there was a market for Internet service.”
J.C. of the Internet Society raised a modest proposal for IIAS to take to the FCC to accept community networks as an acceptable response. When we know communities of under 3000 are not economically viable as a standard practice, we should turn to licensing and Universal Service Funds and make community networks an acceptable form of access.
J.G. offers that we are surfacing these solutions so we can offer viable options for small communities – and offering value added services like video, financial payments, advertising supported ISP models. Range of different business models can be tapped to do it profitably and in a scalable fashion.
Vint responded that in designing Internet architecture, “Bob Kahn and I insisted that Internet was insensitive to business models. And to underlying technology. This flexibility is very important to solving these problems.”
N.H. said “We must include what can be done to empower Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) and government provision of services – telecenters and libraries. This is not just about literacy of individuals but of SME’s and government officials.”
In closing Vint said, “Let me give you a crisp sense for trying to solve Inclusion problem:
- We must have a way to pay for cost – sustainability is not just finance – scale and expertise is needed. For example, the Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC) creates centers with the ability to operate the network, training local people. It is not possible to parachute in, build a system, and leave; we know a system without local expertise cannot survive.
- We must measure utility. Investments to create access to the internet may not do good unless users get good out of it. How can we measure Internet utility to local people?
- We must address the Why. Consider what motivation exists for local people to use the content available from the Internet. What local content and local information in local languages area there about products and services for local people? What government services are available?
• Policy readiness“What infrastructure is in place that we can build on? Let’s map them: A fiber network we can extend, a cell system we can enhance. Stable electrical power is required. Better battery capability. If there are going to be major infrastructure projects like road, rail, power – we can ‘pull through fiber for Internet’ or set up conditions to prepare for future Internet implementation”All of the above are important to create conditions for a sustainable Internet but it’s not enough: We need local operational staff connected to global networks of expertise.
“Let’s work out: Who has incentive to make the investment, to build and operate the system?
“Yet, it is not a purely financial incentive. Socially aware businesses have a role to play: We can derive satisfaction not just from profit but from achieving desired societal consequences – social contributions as important to businesses as purely financial profits. Social standing and reputation can create loyal users who appreciate and recognize those companies who are doing more than making money, who are contributing to the common good.
“If you see things you don’t like – look at what incentives are driving them – then ask how to change the incentives to produce different behavior.
“Meetings like this are quite important – people here care – the real problem is – can you make a difference and how? If you can go out and improve inclusiveness for the Internet you will have done something very important.