In July, I was among 30 men and women from around the world – government ministers, bureaucrats, technologists and strategic thinkers – who gathered at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in Geneva to discuss how broadband can transform the world for the better. This “Broadband Commission” met under the chairmanship of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and the Mexican communications mogul Carlos Slim.
The ITU, a United Nations body, established the
commission in partnership with UNESCO, and the joint chairmanship was no
accident. The UN recognizes that if the information revolution is to advance
further, it will take a public-private effort. As ITU secretary general
Hamadoun Touré has put it: “In the 21st century, affordable, ubiquitous
broadband networks will be as critical to social and economic prosperity as
networks like transport, water and power.”
The Swiss writer and playwright Max Frisch once dismissed
technology as “the art of arranging the world so that we need not experience
it.” Today, however, technology is essential to effective participation in our
world. And, although mankind cannot live by technology alone, the information
revolution has liberated millions of people.
Information is liberating in the traditional political
sense of the term: the spread of information has had a direct impact on the
degree of accountability and transparency that governments must deliver if they
are to survive.
It is also liberating economically. Information
technologies are a cost-effective form of capital. Estonia and Costa Rica are
well-known examples of how information-access strategies can help accelerate
output growth and raise income levels.
Some of the least developed countries, such as Mali and
Bangladesh, have shown how determined leadership and innovative approaches can,
with international support, connect remote and rural areas to the internet and
mobile telephony, thereby helping to liberate subsistence farmers who were
previously tied to local knowledge and local markets. Likewise, mobile networks
are delivering health services to the most remote areas of India.
One successful UNESCO initiative is the creation of
multipurpose community telecenters throughout the developing world, providing
communication and information facilities – phone, fax, internet, computers,
audio-visual equipment – for a wide range of community uses. India’s Unique
Identification Number project, under the capable stewardship of
information-technology pioneer Nandan Nilekani, will enable access to
government, banking, and insurance services at the grass-roots level.
There is no doubt that the Internet can be a
democratizing tool. In some parts of the world – and certainly in most of the
West – it already is, since large amounts of information are now accessible to
almost anyone. But the stark reality of today’s world is that you can tell the
rich from the poor by their internet connections.
Indeed, economic development nowadays requires more than
thinking only of the poverty line; one must also think of the high-speed
digital line, the fiber-optic line – indeed, all the lines that exclude those
who are not plugged into the possibilities of our world.
But the digital divide is no immutable gap. On the
contrary, the technology gap between developed and developing countries,
measured by levels of penetration by personal computers and
information-technology and communications services, has narrowed markedly over
the course of the past decade, with rapid growth in mobile phone and Internet
use. The average level of internet and mobile-phone penetration in the rich
world in 1997 – 4.1 internet users and 10.7 mobile phones per 100 inhabitants –
was reached in developing countries only five years later.
By contrast, the average level of fixed-line
telecommunication penetration in developing countries is nearly 50 years behind
the levels of the West. Not surprisingly, it was in Africa – not Europe or
America – where the cell phone first overtook the housebound handset. More
Africans have become telecommunications users during the last four years than
during the entire 20th century.
The Indian story is even more remarkable. When I left
India in 1975 for graduate studies in the United States, the country had
roughly 600 million residents and just 2 million land-line telephones. Today,
India holds the world record for the number of cell phones sold in a month – 20
million – and for the most telephone connections made in a single month in any
country in the history of telecommunications.
The growth in mobile-telephone technology demonstrates
that the digital divide is shifting, and the focus of development efforts must
change with it. India, for example, has 525 million mobile phone users and
fewer than 150 million people with internet access, so using mobile-phone
technology as a tool of e-governance has become vital. This calls for creative
means of effecting information transfer and making and receiving official payments
Security is a key area of concern today in e-governance –
both physical security, in an age of terrorism, and cyber security. Using
technology to deliver security will become even more important in areas such as
information sharing, disaster management, and data-privacy standards.
Information and communications technology is a powerful tool to address
underdevelopment, isolation, poverty, and the lack of political accountability
and political freedom. But people need access first and foremost.
High-speed broadband internet access can improve
everything from transport management, environmental protection, and emergency
services to health care, distance education, and agricultural productivity.
Delivering these benefits to ever more people will require resources,
international cooperation, and political will.
**Shashi Tharoor is a former under secretary general of
the United Nations and former minister
of state for external affairs in the Indian government. An award-winning
novelist, he is currently a member of the Lok Sabha, India’s Parliament. THE
DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).