Tuesday, August 29, 2006

UN report calls for developing nation backbones

(disclaimer -- I am the author of this report).

UNCTAD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, has published a report documenting the deepening digital divide between developed and developing nations. Conventional policies focused on privatization, competition and independent regulation are not closing this gap, so the report calls for publicly funded, neutral-access backbone networks with points of presence in every rural village -- a similar strategy to that used by the US National Science Foundation in connecting universities in the late 1980s.

Summary:

1. A decade of pilot studies and projects has shown that Internet applications can improve the quality of life in rural villages which, as a side effect, would slow the growth of urban slums. There are many success stories in commerce, medicine, education, news and entertainment, etc.

2. During the last two decades, we have encouraged a policy of telecommunication privatization, competition, and independent regulation (PCR), but the digital divide persists. PCR policy has been beneficial, but has run its course, and will not raise the capital to bring the Internet to rural areas of developing nations.

3. Therefore, we should build and operate neutral-access backbone networks (not access networks) providing high-speed Internet connection points in every village at public expense. The Internet is a general purpose communication technology that encourages substantial private investment, innovation, content creation and the sharing of knowledge by users and service providers.

4. Building these backbone networks would be a daunting challenge involving research and development as well as procurement, but we have faced such grand challenges before in other fields. We can follow the policies that guided construction of the US National Science Foundation backbone in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Links: Report highlights, and Full report.