osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

Trying out an argument for why to push for universal broadband access

Let me float an economic development argument here.

I'm at the amazingly hyper cool international summit on community wireless. I occassionally refer to this as "Geekhalla" because it so reminds me of Valhalla. Here geeks gather to boast of their mighty deeds, display their prowess as tech or policy hackers, then spend the night drinking and partying.

One major aspect is on the right of interconnection as a human right under U.N. Article XIX. Larry Page of Google fame has been recently pushing this meme as well -- arguing that we need global free DSl-level broadband. (Page things this would be difficult to refuse. I pointed out to him that Burma is refusing free food. I don't think China or Iran will have trouble refusing free broadband.)

But I want to try to develop an economic argument, because like all big ideas this is getting crapped on as "why should we bring wifi to the world when people are starving?" Although to me this is the classic give fish/teach fish paradigm, it needs to be spelled out a bit. Happily, we have an obvious analog (if you will): cell phones.

In the 1990s, deployment of wireless technologies got exported out of the U.S. This was primarily about exporting the "Washington solution" of privatization of public assets, and many countries auctioned off exclusive licenses for PCS specrtum.

What was unanticipated was the extent that this created a huge economic stimulus in rural areas in Africa, Asia, and South America. This was not from the sale of cell phones or cell hone services, although that it how it started. Microlenders frequently loaned money for a local person to invest in a cell phone to create what amounted to a wireless payphone where no telephone service previously existed. What was unanticipated was the secondary economic consequences of making information available. Until the introduction of cell phones, a class of middlemen/gatekeepers would come in, buy crops or other local products at a price set by the buyer, and then the buyer would resell them in the cities at a huge mark up. Introducing cell phones allowed the vilagers to find out the price of their goods from willing buyers and find buyers willing to offer more money and compete with the traditional middlemen. Increased communication allowed greater sophistication of trade, the establishment of local commodity exchanges, and other engines of economic development. It wasn't a silver bullet against poverty, but it made a meaningful difference in people's lives.

But in the 1990s, the idea of cell phones for Africa as a tool against poverty was scorned by traditional aid organizations. After all, cell phones were still luxury items even in the developed world in the 1990s.

High speed internet access is a quantum leap above cell phones in terms of the level of information and its usefulness as a tool. To go back to our African village, you would not only have access to local price information, but global price information. You could find out information about agriculture reform, more profitable crops, and more efficient ways to sell them. It creates opportunities for cultural preservation and local content. It introduces new skills and new potential for industry or other economic development. There is no reason why Ghana or Angola or Venezuala can't be the new S. Korea or India -- if we can stop thinking of universal access as a luxury for visiting weserners and wealthy elites and start looking at it like electrification or cell phones.

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