Feature Story

At the Crossroads: Broadband in Developing Countries

by Laurence Cruz

With many cities in developing regions at a "flipping point," broadband can make the difference between progress and chaos.

Of all the world's developing countries, Afghanistan may be the poster child for an economy struggling to emerge from the abyss of chaos. Centuries of foreign occupation have left a legacy that includes rampant poverty, obliterated infrastructure and perhaps the greatest concentration of land mines on earth.

So when it comes to rebuilding countries like Afghanistan, one could be forgiven for questioning whether broadband should be a priority. Absent such basic infrastructures as water, sanitation and roads, should luxuries like broadband wait? If not, what role should broadband play? Can it somehow jump-start economies that have stalled or, like Afghanistan's, hit rock bottom?

A wide range of experts insist broadband has a key role to play in economies of all stripes. The Broadband Commission for Digital Development recently stated that expanding access to broadband infrastructure and services must be "a top policy priority for countries around the globe, developed and developing alike as well as least developed countries." In a similar vein, the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF), a New York-based think tank, identifies broadband connectivity as one of several "critical success factors" in the creation of any smart community, along with things like a knowledge workforce and digital inclusion.

Disqus: Can broadband help rebuild emerging economies?

Developing countries that ignore information and communication technology (ICT) by zeroing in only on perceived short-term needs are like towns in the Old West that ignored the advance of the railroad, says Louis Zacharilla, co-founder of the ICF, which studies the economic and social development of 21st century communities.

"You have to look at the future because you're going to be in it very soon—like next week," Zacharilla says, adding that lower-cost technologies like satellite and wireless mean that countries don't have to choose between addressing long-term and short-term needs. "The good news is you can do both in that it does not take a great deal of investment today."

Underscoring the point, the ICF in 2007 gave its Visionary of the Year award to Afghanistan's Communications Minister, Amirzai Sangin, for his agency's swift rolling out of broadband infrastructure that was used to support national elections. Over a period of 36 months and with the help of international companies including Cisco and Globecomm Systems, the agency deployed digital phone service to 11 provinces and connectivity to 34 provincial capitals via satellite and microwave networks, in addition to connecting 40 ministries and government offices via fiber optics and microwave. 

ICF Chairman John G. Jung called the endeavor "true nation building using broadband as one of its technical keystones."

Cities at the "Flipping Point"

The link between broadband and economic growth and job creation is well documented. But broadband is also key to solving a slew of other challenges facing developing regions, says Prof. Mel Horwitch, dean of the Central European University Business School in Budapest, Hungary.

"Emerging economies can deal with the issues of megacities, pollution, health, traffic, access to government, crime and terrorism by becoming smart—using broadband and ICT and having an engaged citizenry," says Horwitch, an expert on entrepreneurship and innovation management.

Furthermore, Horwitch says cities that have yet to adopt broadband and other smart technologies are at an all-important tipping point—a "flipping point," as he calls it.

"Cities will flip positively or they will not," he says. "I believe this is an important issue for the emerging world generally. If these regions don't come together and understand they need to change and get smart, they're going to fall further behind and maybe there's a point of no return."

The Eastern European region is a case in point, Horwitch says. It has produced just one contender in the annual crop of 21 nominees for the ICF's "Intelligent Community of the Year" award. That's something Horwitch and colleagues at CEU Business School aim to change. With the help of a $7.5 million gift from billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros, the business school is creating an institute for entrepreneurship and innovation, part of which will be devoted to the fostering of intelligent communities in the region and beyond, Horwitch says.

Cities Leading the Way

In developing and developed countries alike, it's typically individual cities or communities that set the standard for use of broadband and ICT, with regional and national governments later catching their vision, Zacharilla says. Examples include the cities of Eindhoven in Holland, Taipei in Taiwan, Sunderland in the UK and Waterloo, Canada.

"These intelligent communities inspire regional and national governments to look at them and say, ‘Hey, that's a great lab we've got over there. It's getting international recognition—let's take a closer look,'" Zacharilla says. "It becomes viral and spreads throughout the region or country."

It can also "leap" to places in other countries due to a network effect among cities engaged in the intelligent community movement, Horwitch says, adding that cities should strive to be part of this community of communities. "It should be a part of the strategy of any community not to be left out," he says.

Experts say common characteristics among successful smart communities include strong participation and commitment by government, academia and the private sector, as well as a means for citizens to participate in the community's destiny—for example, via an e-government platform. "It's not simply technology—leadership and buy-in are essential," Horwitch says.

Broadband Targets

The Broadband Commission recently challenged governments to achieve several ambitious broadband targets by 2015. It called on countries to make their broadband policy universal and affordable; for 40 percent of households in developing countries to have Internet access; and for Internet penetration to reach 50 percent in developing countries and 15 percent in least developed countries. (Internet penetration in the developing world currently stands at 21 percent, according to the International Telecommunications Union—a specialized agency of the United Nations for ICT.)

"It is vital that no one be excluded from the new global knowledge societies we are building," the commission states. "We believe that communication is not just a human need—it is a right."

Horwitch echoes the need for developing countries to be proactive in determining their destiny. "Communities need to go beyond simply reacting; they need to have sense of strategy and mission," he says. "They need to make a decision that they're going to become smart."

Zacharilla agrees. "If Afghanistan can do it, certainly some of the other countries that are wrestling with this issue can think about it as well," he says.

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