Photo: Nigerian pavilion with the Bangladesh one in the background. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-INPS - Photo: 2016

ICTs Between Money-Spinners and SDG Champions

By Kalinga Seneviratne

BANGKOK (IDN) – At the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) annual flagship event ITU Telecom World 2016 from November 14 to 17, there was much discussion about the profit-making motives of technology providers and the need to integrate social goals to help achieve the UN’s new catchcry Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In opening remarks to the event, ITU’s Secretary General Houlin Zhao from China reminded over 8,000 industry leaders and policy makers from across the globe that “the digital divide is very much still with us”, a division that includes geography, gender, education and resources. “It is imperative that we continue to work to close that digital divide,” he declared.

In the exhibition section at the Bangkok Impact Convention Centre, cutting age Information Communication Technology (ICT) mainly from Asian global ICT powerhouses Korea, China and Japan was on display. But, with SDGs hanging over their heads many industry players were called upon to give ideas on how their profit motives could be balanced by social imperatives.

Many of the technology providers would prefer to talk about the marvels of broadband services and how their equipment would be able to offer faster, more efficient and bulk accessible data storage in the “cloud”, but, they were often asked to address issues of affordability and relevance.

As  R. S. Sharma, Chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India pointed out, “45% of the unconnected are in India”, and supplying basic power is often the first priority, rather than top broadband speeds.

Another issue that was often raised in forum discussions was the inability of regulators to keep pace with technological innovations in the ICT field.

Dr Mukhisa Kituyi, Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) noted that finding “a confluence of interests, a dialogue” between regulators and international ICT organizations is critical, as often “the regulator is so far behind, but the state doesn’t know that it doesn’t know”.

He argued that the digital economy is moving countries away from the flawed top-down architecture of development paradigm, with the economic powerhouse of the digital economy being young people and small businesses, “the sector with the biggest growth and the biggest effect on society”.

Addressing a press conference on the opening day of the event, Thares Punsri, Chairman of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission (NBTC) of Thailand said while communication is a pillar of the development of a country, “we need to do research in new technology and choose what is important for our society and stability of the country”.

Thailand has jumped 18 places in ITU’s technology application index in 2015, which Zhao described as “very remarkable”, and the kingdom plans to connect 40,000 villages to the broadband in the coming year.

“Good governance, transparency of information and usefulness of information are the basis of the digital economy” argues Suphachai Chearavanont, President of The Telecommunications Association of Thailand. But he warned that expansion of ICT services brings to surface the issue of cyber security.

Tackling cyber security starts with education, argues Chearavanont. “It is time for us to work ahead of time on the younger generation, teaching them to use the tools of connectivity effectively and ethically,” he stressed. “In the old days, the centre of knowledge used to be the teacher; now it is the Internet.”

In a forum discussing the affordability of ICTs to facilitate SDGs, Secretary General of Commonwealth Telecommunication Association argued that policy makers need to have reliable data to plan the service layout. “You need to know what level of costs people can afford the services,” he said.

Sonia Jorge, Executive Director, Alliance for Affordable Internet agreed that there are “huge populations” that don’t have the income to take up broadband services. “Unfortunately income inequality around the world is not closing (and) most people are out of range of affordability.”

She argued that policymakers and industry need to change the framework of how they look at affordability and she pointed out Nigeria as a “fantastic example” of how they tackle this problem.

Nigeria has identified gaps in ICT infrastructure and offered protocol licenses cheaply and subsidies to investors to provide services to these areas. A senior official on the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) told IDN-INPS “the government has made it possible for rural populations to get access to ICTs without paying through their nose”.

He explained that the NCC provided subsidies to companies to take Internet services to rural areas that are underserved or not served at all. “We realized that rural areas are not economically viable for companies to take their services, so, we helped them to take the services and generate economic activities in villages without paying from their own coffers,” he added, also pointing out that 5 licenses are on offer to take services to those rural areas.

The Nigerian official said that rolling out ICTs and connecting government services to the system helps to stamp out corruption and promote good governance, an important aspect of the SDGs. “Everything is done transparently and ICTs are going to drive that,” he noted. “People do not have to go to offices they will deal with government online from home.”

This was also an issue raised by an official from Bangladesh, another success story in ICT deployment for sustainable development. “We are digitizing the process of communicating with government that involves over 5,000 Digital Centres in rural areas,” explained Md Emdad ul Bari, Director General of Systems and Services Division of the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) in an interview with IDN-INPS. “Transparency is there in the digital process and time taken to do business with government is shortened and that is how we tackle corruption,” he added.

Since starting the Digital Bangladesh project in 2009 to provide digital services to its 160 million population, the South Asian country has set up over 5250 Digital Centres (DC) in rural areas.

The government has also given subsidies to service providers to reduce cost of data and set up some 25,000 government portals to provide information for the population. Banglalink, a project that has established around 7,000 ICT centres that provides free access to Government sites, has embarked upon redefining telecom services from luxury to a necessity according to BTRC.

During a forum discussion titled ‘Making money from meeting SDGs’ when IDN-INPS asked whether this is a contradiction, Dr Astrid Tuminez, of Microsoft Southeast Asia argued that SDGs are “aspirational goals” and Microsoft would like to think that they are empowering people to reach those aspirations. She pointed out how China lifted 400 million people out of poverty where ICTs played a role.

“ICTs will be fundamental to SDGs,” argued Luis Neves, chairman, Global e-Sustainability Initiative from Belgium. “Whatever happens we will make money in our business (but) we need to mobilise civil society and governments to make ICTs transformational . . . making money is not for ICT industry alone but the whole society.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 17 November 2016]

Photo: Nigerian pavilion with the Bangladesh one in the background. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-INPS

IDN is flagship of the International Press Syndicate.

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