Inside the Information Society: It was twenty years ago today

Twenty years ago, in 1998, the UK Department for International Development asked me to help it ‘determine the value of involvement in information and communication technology in support of its objective of eliminating poverty in poorer countries.’

I’ve just re-read the paper and the presentation that I gave in response to that invitation. They’re a telling reminder of what’s changed and what has not.

The context

In 1998, few development agencies paid much attention to ICTs. One or two, including the World Bank, had begun to see potential value in them, but we didn’t talk back then of ‘ICT4D’. There’d been some international conferences. A few small agencies (including that which I then ran) were developing projects and perspectives. 1998 was the year that ITU passed a resolution that led, five years later, to the World Summit on the Information Society. But DFID, like most agencies, had little or no experience of new technologies.

What were communications like back then, grandad?

We forget how much has changed. This was only twenty years ago - but that’s before we had mass market mobile, before we had mass market Internet.

What mattered then were landlines, and there weren’t that many of them. Teledensity – the number of phones per hundred people – was below 1% in 42 countries in 1996. Worldwide, it was estimated that 50% of people had never used a phone. ITU estimated that just 25% of unconnected households could afford one, even if their national phone monopolies had the networks to provide them. And it was state monopolies, not private phone companies, that dominated most national markets for telecoms.

So what were universal service targets like back then? It was payphones that were thought to be important. Lesotho’s universal service policy wanted there to be a telephone within ten kilometres of every citizen. Ghana’s sought to ensure that there’d be one in every community with more than 500 inhabitants. Ghana Telecom was ‘required to install 125,000 new lines in five years, which would triple teledensity from 0.5% to 1.5%

And what about new services?

New technologies were already there that could improve things over time – mobile cellular, of course, and Wireless Local Loop. Grameen Phone’s Village Pay Phone project had begun providing basic phone access using GSM phones rented by its microcredit clients in rural Bangladesh. There were high hopes too for GMPCS, which almost no-one now remembers – low-orbit satellite systems that it was hoped would provide universal coverage of the world’s surface, though not cheaply. (A lot of people lost a lot of money backing GMPCS.)

Payphones, then, were seen as a solution and so were telecentres, public facilities (a bit like libraries or post offices) that would offer citizens access to all the information services that ICTs could offer. ‘The essence of the Multipurpose Community Telecentre,’ said ITU, promoting its high-end version, ‘is to stimulate community participation. The idea is not to simply install a telephone or a computer in a locality but to encourage an active user group of health workers, teachers, farmers and so on.’

It was a different world then, grandad, wasn’t it?

Indeed it was. Twenty years ago, most people never used a phone. Today, the majority of people own one. Back then, mobiles were rare; now they’re ubiquitous. The Internet was little known; now half the population uses it, at least from time to time. (‘The most dynamic new service at present is Internet,’ I wrote in 1998, noting that it was ‘available in all but four African capitals, albeit often slow and unreliable as yet.’)

GSM was critical to this transition. It was GSM, which offered cheap wireless communications with roaming, that destroyed the business model for GMPCS. It’s the evolution of GSM, with higher bandwidth, that’s made mass market Internet feasible throughout the world.

My point here, looking back at how things were, is that we should remember just how far we’ve come in twenty years – from the aspiration of a phone ‘within walking distance’ (another African country’s universal service goal back then) to the reality of high-speed broadband networks, social media and cloud computing. If only other public services – clean water, for example, or sustainable electric power – had advanced so much in two decades as has access to ICTs.

So what of policy prescriptions?

What’s changed less, I think, are the questions over communications policy and development applications. I’m interested by how much I said back then to DFID would still apply today.

I focused in my DFID paper on two relationships: that between telecoms and the wider world of information technology; and that between ICTs and development.

Telecoms and ICTs

There’ve been huge changes in the structure of the communications industry since 1998. The most powerful companies in the world today – Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Alibaba – were much less important or did not exist back then.

Indeed, telecommunications in most countries were still wholly or largely in the public sector. We think today that competitive commercial markets are the norm in telecoms and throughout the world of ICTs. But that wasn’t true back then. Liberalisation and privatisation of telecoms markets were promoted by the ITU, World Bank and many development agencies, not least in order to secure private sector investment. But even Europe hadn’t start to liberalise and privatise until the 1980s. Today, of course, it’s private rather than public monopolies that cause public policy concern.

DFID, I suggested back in 1998, should focus on four things where the relationship of telecoms with ICTs was concerned. I said it should support:

  • structural reform and regulation to facilitate better services to users;

  • the development of national telecoms and IT strategies;

  • access programmes in marginal areas, and steps to ensure that ICT development (especially in LDCs) did not exacerbate regional or gender inequalities;

  • and access to the Internet.

The underlying parameters of access may have changed, as may the technologies and services involved and the structure of the industry, but those four policy prescriptions seem just as relevant today as they were then.

ICTs and development

What of the other relationship I mentioned, between ICTs and development? I think much of the understanding that I shared with other ICT4D pioneers back then still holds as well. Where did I think that ICTs would make a difference?

‘Access to information empowers individuals and communities to determine their own development objectives and influence more effectively decisions that affect their lives,’ I wrote. That still seems central to most thinking about ICT4D.

‘Telecommunications and information technology offer new delivery mechanisms for social and economic programmes, but just as importantly they offer new ways for the intended beneficiaries of those programmes to participate in their design, and to select the services they want and need.’ Likewise.

I said that ICTs would become pervasive, cross-cutting resources throughout government and business, and therefore development, and that I thought their impact would lie in three areas:

  • enhancing the effectiveness of the provision of services, and/or enabling them to be distributed more widely/equitably;

  • creating new opportunities for individuals and communities;

  • and disseminating knowledge and expertise.

From a development policy perspective, again, I think that still holds true. Three things have changed, perhaps.

  • ICTs have become much more pervasive than we then anticipated, and as a result they’ve focused on individuals as much as on communities.

  • We’ve gained much more experience of ICT4D in practice, in terms both of deliberate interventions (policies and programmes) and the ways that people appropriate them for their ends.

  • And we’re more conscious now of risks alongside benefits (not least cybersecurity).

But much of what we talk about today in ICT4D – and the sectors that we talk about it for – are as they were. Does that make sense, or should we have moved on?

My conclusion?

What’s my conclusion from revisiting my thoughts of twenty years ago? It’s twofold.

I’m reminded sharply, first, of how very different the world of communications is from what it was back then. The pace of change in access, in technology, in services, and in the pervasiveness of ICTs, is astonishing, and could not have been predicted then. We sometimes forget how far we’ve come.

But I’m struck, too, by how similar the goals of ICT4D remain in spite of this. If it’s to be effective, thinking about ICT4D should remember that development, unlike technology, changes slowly over time. There are no silver bullets, nor easy pathways to prosperity. Technology can help, but we should not forget how far we have to go.

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.
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