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Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation
Statement by Dr. Ekwow Spio-Garbrah, Chief Executive Officer


Mr Chairman, Honourable Ministers, Secretary General ITU, Excellencies, Distinguished ladies and gentleman, all Protocols observed,

The CTO is honoured for this opportunity to make some brief remarks at this Forum , and we thank the Secretary General for this invitation. The CTO and the ITU have collaborated in many ways in the past, most recently at a joint Forum in Sri Lanka only two weeks ago on Standardisation for Next Generation Networks (NGNs). We are pleased therefore to support this ITU effort to improve the development of telecom policies. The Secretary General and his ITU colleagues must be commended for a report to this Forum that rightfully describes convergence, increasing ubiquity in mobile access, the growth of the Internet, and the development of NGNs as amongst the main driving forces spurring on revolutionary changes in the ICT world today.

While appreciating the S-G’s report and the contributions of many countries and experts to its production, we are yet reminded of some long standing challenges that still exist. One of these, which this Forum could debate more robustly, is the continuing problem of poor rural access to ICTs, especially in developing countries, and the special, creative policies required to improve such access. We are all aware that inadequate rural access will have a detrimental effect on the ability of many countries to achieve their Millennium Development Goals or those set out in the WSIS declarations. And some may argue that convergence and NGNs will automatically lead to improvements in rural access. But we cannot forget at an important global summit of this nature that despite the phenomenal and much publicised increase in mobile penetration in recent years, some 60% of people in many parts of our world still have no access to basic ICTs, and that the majority of these people live in rural areas. As policy makers and policy analysts, we cannot avoid the obvious reality at this Forum that the main remaining battlefield in the war against poverty-- in which ICTs are such an important and potent weapon-- is the rural space.

In a policy Forum like this, we must be willing to undertake a critical assessment of why previous efforts to achieve universal access have not succeeded and discuss what kinds of new policies, legislation, regulation and business models will encourage faster investment in ICT operations aimed at rural and marginalised communities. We must also recognise the special challenge of mobilising financial resources for rural connectivity, at a time of global resource constraints even in industrialised countries. There is no doubt that there still is a funding gap in addressing the needs of the truly impoverished and rural communities which the private sector alone cannot bridge.

Members and friends of the CTO, many of whom are attending this Forum, may be aware that over the last five years, the CTO has undertaken a wide range of initiatives, including research with rural communities and other stakeholders, capacity building and training, as well as the delivery of knowledge-sharing events dedicated to improving rural access. This work has enabled us to consult those at the frontline of these efforts and has therefore given the CTO what I believe is an unrivalled understanding of the challenges at hand.

We understand that the challenges include, but are not limited to: the incorrect advice given to many governments for years that they had no role in investing public funds to connect rural people; the relatively low institutional capacity of fledgling ICT ministries and regulators; the focus of some ICT operators on mostly urban markets; poor or non-existent electricity supply in many rural communities; the difficulty in creating sustainable and profitable business models for rural services; the topography of some communities that can make the roll out of conventional infrastructure unviable; and delays and uncertainty amongst Universal Service and Access agencies on the most appropriate ways to invest their accumulated resources.

Of course, these are just a few of the challenges. Nevertheless, we at the CTO are excited about the potential to connect rural communities and are eager to contribute to the development of policies in our member countries that will help seize the many opportunities. Let me highlight just four key challenges that the development of appropriate policy could turn into reality.

We need to develop policies that promote Public Private Partnership Peoples’ (PPPPs) models, with the emphasis on the last P—People. By ensuring through better policies that those at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP) play an active role in initiatives aimed at providing them with connectivity and services, we can ensure that services are demand driven and sustainable. Rural users and the civil society organisations, traditional authorities and community agencies that often represent them, can play instrumental roles in PPPP’s if and when the public and private sectors give them a meaningful opportunity to. A policy framework that actively encourages the development of 4Ps would be easy to implement and would create a wealth of benefits for all.

This forum must encourage the development of ICT policies that encourage what I call “collaborative competition” or ”competitive collaboration”. Operators, in particular, must learn to collaborate even as they compete, and to compete efficiently whilst they collaborate with others. And so must nation states and regulatory regimes. Our governments, regulatory agencies, Universal Service Funding agencies, operators and equipment manufacturers must all must avoid playing Zero Sum games and work more together in order to create a host of synergies. We have already seen examples of this with the growing number of mobile operators who have entered into co-location agreements that have reduced CAPEX in rural areas and extended roll-out. But this has come after many years of very expensive duplicated capital expenditure, for which consumers are still paying, and which has delayed rural penetration. While the depth of collaborative competition within the ICT sector will vary, the need for policies that reward ICT players who develop such relationships could be quickly devised and implemented.

Mr Chairman, the CTO’s research indicates that, contrary to some industry opinion, many rural users have the ability, and are willing to pay for services. Moreover, their desires and what they are willing to pay for goes well beyond basic connectivity and includes services that could have a positive impact on efforts towards achieving the MDGs. In addition to entertainment services such as music ringtones, many rural users will demand a range of financial services – not just money transfer – as well as services that provide health, education and job opportunities, all of which will positively impact on their livelihoods. This latent demand for services also indicates that with the right policies and initiatives it may, and indeed should, be possible to draw rural dwellers into the global ICT processing, supply and demand chains. What is needed are the right national policies and new business models and products from discerning operators and service providers.

Innovative lost cost, low power and reliable rural connectivity solutions are being developed and could be used to provide services in those rural locations where more conventional, more widely used technologies are just not appropriate. Operators can incorporate these technologies and solutions into their services offerings and reach untapped markets. Again, policies that mandate energy efficient offerings by operators could improve rural connectivity.

There is a huge amount of technical knowledge, innovation and drive within the private sector of many developing countries. Much of this could be used to develop services that rural users would demand, if the right policies would promote them. However, in many countries, the indigenous private sector is not motivated by creative policies to create the innovative local content services that rural users demand. Despite the WSIS declarations that emphasised the need to nurture local content producers, few governments have taken any active steps to do so. Devising policies that will help develop these local experts will not only help to create local content for which there is effective demand, but also will help fledgling content industries to mature. This is why in another forum the CTO has proposed the creation, for example, of an African ICT Content Development Fund. Other regions of the world, such as the Caribbean region, could benefit from creating similar regional funds and mechanisms.

The CTO looks forward to discussions in this Lisbon Forum on the subject of rural connectivity and the promotion of policies that can enhance this important objective. We hope that as four proposed working groups focus on the issues of convergence and Internet-related public policies, next-generation networks, emerging policy and regulatory issues and international telecom regulations, they will devote some time to the special needs of the rural poor and propose policies to address this large segment of the world’s underserved market.

We at the CTO will continue our efforts to undertake further research, consultancies, training and knowledge-sharing events on this subject, with a view to contributing our quota to this important ICT policy agendum. I am confident that together we can develop better policies to seize the many opportunities that will enable the remaining 2 billion-plus unconnected people in this world to become an integral part of the global information society.

Thank you.