The Africa Syndrome

I'm sure a lot you are wondering: whatever happened to WSIS‾ You know, the world summit on the Information Society, known to insiders as 'wizis'. These days it might be better known as 'whatsiz‾'

For those who have forgotten, WSIS was intended to do for the info and comms industries what Rio and Kyoto did for the environment.  It was going to bridge the digital divide, connect every village, make the internet safe, overturn American hegemony, and all the rest. It didn't help that during the final summit in Tunis local police violently suppressed a demonstration.

The official 'follow-up' took the form of yet another conference. According to the ITU, the result of this grand meeting of minds was that the UN Economic and Social Council 'has indicated it will oversee the system-wide follow-up of the summit outcomes, as requested in the Tunis outputs. This is in the context of the annual consideration by [the council] of the integrated and coordinated implementation and follow-up of major United Nations conferences. To this end"&brkbar;'

Enough‾ So far the ITU's grand effort in connecting up the world has managed merely to connect up a series of meetings.

I mention all this because in the wake of its WSIS triumph, the ITU has a new platform for generating verbiage: Africa. You might think the citizens of Africa have suffered enough.
 
But no, last month ITU plenipotentiaries descended on Kigali, Rwanda, for the latest exercise in ICT development bonding. In the organization's own deathless prose, 'Connect Africa is a global multi-stakeholder partnership to mobilize the human, financial and technical resources required to bridge major gaps in information and communication technology.'

They refer to what everyone else calls 'the mobile phone'.  While overwrought ITU functionaries have been conferring about the digital divide, the mobile phone has embarked on the job.

Scale

Some 2.8 billion people have a mobile, equivalent to 42% of the world's population, to be precise. Well, you know the rest.  It will primarily be cellular that will bridge Africa's information divide, just as it has brought connectivity to hundreds of millions in Asia and Latin America. 

The ITU's defenders might point out that it is only thanks to the ITU that  mobile services have access to spectrum.  Correct. The industry needs a global standards body. It just doesn't need a self-proclaimed development body channeling Monty Python.

If there's anything that has put the cellphone into the hands of the great unconnected, it has been the massive economies of scale achieved by handset vendors which have brought prices down to as little as $20.

The GSM Association can claim some of the credit for this through its low-cost terminal tenders, although those have been in the mere tens of millions, some way shy of the hundreds of millions shipped by Nokia, Motorola and Samsung every year.

Quoting data from research firm Frontier Economics, the GSMA says mobile operators will invest more than $50 billion in sub-Saharan Africa over the next five years to provide more than 90% of the population with mobile coverage.

 

Investment on that scale speaks for itself. The arrival of connectivity into a previously-unwired community acts as an economic growth multiplier.

The GSMA has been an active critic of taxes on mobile communications in Africa, where it points out that cuts in duties would actually stimulate the growth in public receipts. It also has pointed out that, even today, USO programs are almost exclusively focused on directing investment into fixed-line infrastructure.

The ITU has little to say publicly on these policy issues, mainly because the officials who levy these taxes and subsidize fixed-line networks are its members. 

And perhaps it doesn't matter. The ITU may go on its way in providing activity for otherwise under-employed bureaucrats and in running over-priced trade shows. Connectivity is coming to every corner of the world, regardless of what governments do.

Robert Clark is a technology journalist

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