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Is It Time for the G8 Manhattan Project?

by Larry Press

At the July 2000 G8 Summit in Okinawa, Japan, leaders of the world's largest economies focused on information and communication technology (ICT). They expressed concern the digital divide might exacerbate existing inequalities between nations, but also held out hope that ICT could play a significant role in development. The heads of state formed the Digital Opportunity Task Force (DOT Force) "to identify ways in which the digital revolution can benefit all the world's people, especially the poorest and most marginalized groups." The DOT Force comprised 43 teams from government, the private sector, nonprofit organizations, and international organizations. Several developing nations participated along with the G8.

The DOT Force met several times, inviting the public and representatives of many organizations to participate in its deliberations. Drafts of its report were posted on the Web and comments solicited. The final version-Digital Opportunities for All: Meeting the Challenge establishes four general goals:

  1. Fostering policy, regulatory, and network readiness (formulating national e-strategies, including e-government)
  2. Improving connectivity, increasing access, and lowering costs
  3. Building human capacity (health and education)
  4. Encouraging participation in global e-commerce and other e-networks

The meat of the report is a 49-point action plan in the following action areas:

  1. Help establish and support developing-country and emerging-economy national e-strategies
  2. Improve connectivity, increase access, and lower costs
  3. Enhance human capacity development, knowledge creation, and sharing
  4. Foster enterprise and entrepreneurship for sustainable economic development
  5. Establish and support universal participation in addressing new international policy and technical issues raised by the Internet and ICT
  6. Establish and support dedicated initiatives for the ICT inclusion of the least-developed countries
  7. Promote ICT for health care and in support against HIV/AIDS and other infectious and communicable diseases
  8. National and international effort to support local content and applications creation
  9. Prioritize ICT in G8 and other development assistance policies and programs and enhance coordination of multilateral initiatives

The Markle Foundation, United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and Accenture also began their Digital Opportunity Initiative at the G8 Summit. This effort resulted in a companion report-Creating a Development Dynamic (www.opt-init.org/DOI-Final_Report.pdf)-which was recently published. The report is also written for policy makers. It emphasizes that we should not feel compelled to choose between ICT and primary necessities of life like clean water and health care, because both are necessary to development. That contention is supported with examples of ICT success stories from many nations. ICT strategic focus is divided into two categories: ICT as a sector in its own right and ICT as an enabler of development (Table 1).

The report contends that a "development dynamic" can be created by a multifaceted strategy stressing the development of human capacity; open, transparent regulatory and economic policy; content and applications; enterprise; and infrastructure. It also calls for coordination of local, national, and global interventions.

I could quarrel with various points, but I generally agree with these reports and their conclusions. They are well worth reading if you're interested in ICT policy issues in developing nations, and it is good to see explicit consideration of ICT by the G8 leaders. Still, I found myself saying, yes, but . . . about earlier work, the relative lack of private-sector participation in the process, technology, and a developed-nation view of technology and applications.

I would have been more enthusiastic about these reports if they had come out 10 years ago. In reading them today, it's hard to find a point that hasn't been made earlier. Pioneer communication theorist Ithiel de Sola Pool pointed out that telecommunication infrastructure planning is implicit social planning, and Daniel Lerner gave us a memorable example of this in his study of the modernization of a Turkish village from 1950 to 1954.1 Lerner observed that the number of radios in the village grew from 1 to over 100, and many people moved from farming to cash-paying jobs. The people welcomed modernization, referring to a grocer who anticipated it in 1950 (and ironically had died by 1954) as a "prophet."

From its inception, the Internet Society has recognized the strategic role of networks in the development in our conferences,2 and we convened our first Developing Nations Workshop in 1993.3 The UNDP has long facilitated networks in development through its Sustainable Networking Development Program (www.sdnp.undp.org) and has published a report similar to those focused on Latin America. Bridges.org recently surveyed the work of eight methodologies for assessing the state of the Internet and its enabling institutions in a nation (www.bridges.org/ereadiness), and the World Bank is working on a common framework for such surveys (www.infodev.org/ereadiness/methodology.htm). These assessment frameworks cover much the same ground as the G8, and Bridges reports that 84 nations have been surveyed at least once.4 ISOC has conducted two surveys of developing nations by using a framework my colleagues and I developed, and the International Telecommunications Union has done a series of case studies dealing with the issues raised by the G8 and recommending the same sorts of policies (www.itu.int/ti/casestudies). The World Bank has also documented excellent return on ICT investment.5

The DOT Force can afford to do on its own some of what it recommends, but many of its action steps can be taken only by the private sector, which has access to capital markets. The DOT Force includes executives from Telesystem, Thomson Multimedia, Hewlett-Packard, Accenture, Siemens, Toshiba, an Italian entrepreneur, and a Russian Microsoft manager. The list is impressive, but it is not the all-star ICT team. Only 17 of 112 DOT Force members or alternatives are from the private sector; the rest represent governments, nongovernmental organizations, and multilateral organizations.

While the digital divide cannot be closed without private enterprise, the G8 governments could take some of their recommended action steps alone. For example, DOT Force recommends that governments undertake studies to formulate e-strategies. My colleagues and I have conducted similar case studies of several nations. The cost of these studies varies greatly depending on the size and complexity of the nation, but if they average, say, four person-months for planning, in-country interviews, writing, review and revision, then the cost might range from $50,000 to $100,000 per nation. The DOT Force cannot afford to bring telephone service or Internet connectivity to the rural villages of India, but it could afford to commission a hundred e-strategy studies and to revise and audit them annually.6

The G8 is concerned with policy matters, and these reports are high-level overviews, but in reading them, I had the feeling that there may be a lack of technical understanding below the surface. It is one thing to say we need to improve "access and infrastructure," but have they drilled down to understand the complexity of the problem? Access and infrastructure are a multifaceted collection of layers and circumstances, including international bandwidth, connectivity to capital cities, national and regional backbones, metropolitan area networks, exchange points and data centers, local access using various technologies, coverage of rural areas, and so on.7 Access and infrastructure involve a host of problems and technologies with variations in each nation.

The DOT Force includes representatives of eight developing nations as well as the G8, but I found myself wondering whether a developed-nation viewpoint predominated. These, and virtually all similar reports, strongly favor privatization, deregulation, protection of intellectual property, and the like. I am not arguing against these in general, but unfettered, free-market deregulation may not be optimal in all cases. The DOT Force could sponsor objective studies of the impacts of the privatization and deregulation that have taken place in telecommunications during the past 15 years or so.9 We could look for success stories in which constraints were imposed to achieve wider social goals.10 A domestic software industry and electronic commerce depend on protection of intellectual property; however, in poorer nations, illegally copied software is often necessary for the establishment of the Internet. Corporate pricing policies that recognize the variety of economic conditions among nations may be a reasonable compromise in this area.11 Are there lessons in the intellectual property policies and laws shaping the debate over AIDS medication? We might even borrow some ideas from nations outside the G8 process-like China and Cuba.

The G8 technology vision may also be somewhat that of a developed nation. Instead of thinking of ICT as consisting of personal computers with Internet access, might other technology be more appropriate for a developing nation? For example, what would be the impact of universal store-and-forward services like voice mail, e-mail, and streaming audio and video? These may be feasible even in nations that are too poor to reach rural areas with telephony, and there are many potential applications in the areas of health care, education, news, entertainment, commerce, and connection with the outside world via store-and-forward technology while we are waiting for universal interactive connectivity.

Applications are not the same in developed and developing nations, and ICT policy must be consistent with broader social goals. For example, health, education, and urban-rural parity are important in Cuba, and their network investments reflect those values as well as market forces.12 Relative to similarly impoverished nations, Cuban ICT is geographically dispersed, and Youth Computer Clubs and medical facilities were connected to the Cuban Internet at its inception. Cuba also uses the Net in support of tourism and biotechnology to generate hard currency. Similarly, Nepal is interested in an e-commerce policy that provides rural employment as well as hard-currency profit.13

There is little market incentive to do research and development on applications and technology that are to serve only rural villages and poor people in cities, but the G8 governments could afford a "Manhattan Project" to develop in developing nations certain disruptive technology such as solar energy sources; satellite and terrestrial wireless; and the adoption of mass-market technology like personal digital assistants, video games, and wireless Ethernet. How much did Sony spend to develop the Playstation? What is Microsoft investing in its forthcoming game machine? What could the G8 nations achieve if they spent the same on networking in developing nations? Japan has pledged $15 billion toward that effort in spite of a stagnant economy. What might the other G8 nations commit? Maybe it's time to stop reporting on the situation and get on with the Manhattan Project.


1 Daniel Lerner. The Passing of Traditional Society. New York: The Free Press, 1958.
2 See, for example, George Sadowsky, "The Importance to Governments of Access to Distributed Knowledge." Proceedings of INET '92. Reston, Virginia: The Internet Society, pws.prserv.net/sadowsky/papers/inet92.pdf and L Press, "Relcom, An Appropriate Technology Network," Proceedings of INET '92, Kobe, Japan, June 1992. Reston, Virginia: The Internet Society, som.csudh.edu/fac/lpress/articles/relcom.htm.
3 George Sadowsky. "Paving the Way for Internet-Rich Environments in Developing Nations," OnTheInternet, Fall/Winter 2000, www.isoc.org/oti/articles/0401/sadowsky.html.
4 Sixteen nations have been surveyed at least five times, and India is the leader, with eight reports, www.bridges.org/ereadiness/where.html.
5 See, for example, Robert J Saunders, Jeremy J. Warford., and Bjorn Wellenius. Telecommunications and Economic Development. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
6 For a proposal along these lines, see Larry Press, The State of the Internet, Proceedings of INET 2000, International Networking Conference, Yokohama, Japan, July 2000. Reston, Virginia: Internet Society, www.isoc.org/inet2000/cdproceedings/8e/8e_4.htm.
7 Larry Press. Measuring Connectivity Infrastructure, Information Impacts, March 2001, www.cisp.org/imp/march_2001/press/03_01press_column.htm.
8 Note that all the news is not bad. For example, backbone connectivity is a difficult problem for rural villages, but access networks are not.
9 For example, while far from conclusive, a recent study of Franco-phone nations shows the formation of regulatory agencies and privatization are correlated with increased basic-service price. Jocelyn Nadeau, AndrŽ LeClerc and Mario Fortin. Impact of Privatization and Deregulation on the Use of Telephone Services in French-Speaking Countries (1988-1998). Proceedings of INET 2000, Inter-national Networking Conference, Yokohama, Japan, July 2000. Reston, Virginia: Internet Society, www.isoc.org/inet2000/cdproceedings/8c/8c_1.htm.
10 Note that market mechanisms can be used in social goals. One example is Chile's use of bid-based subsidy to achieve rural service. See Bjšrn Wellenius, Closing the Rural Communication Access Gap: Chile 1995-2002, World Bank, www.infodev.org/library/chile_rural/index.html.
11 This alternative is discussed in Suzanne P. Weisband and Seymour E. Goodman, "International Soft-ware Piracy," IEEE Computer, November 1992, pp. 87-90.
12 Larry Press. Cuban Computer Networks and Their Determinants, DRR-1814-OSD (49 pages). Santa Monica, California: Rand Corpora-tion, February, 1998.
13 Larry Press, Seymour Goodman, Tim Kelly, and Michael Minges. A Case Study of Electronic Commerce in Nepal, pp. 1926-29. Proceedings of the 2000 Americas Conference on Information Systems, Long Beach, CA, August 10-13, 2000, som.csudh.edu/cis/lpress/articles/nepalcase.htm.

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