The Need for a New Broadband Deal

Marcus Weldon, October 06, 2015

When I say ‘high profile’, I think this is well illustrated by example: the Commission is chaired by Carlos Slim Sr, and the President of Rwanda; its members include Professor Jeffrey Sachs (Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General, and world-renowned expert on poverty), Sunil Bharti Mittal (founder and CEO of Bharti Enterprises),  Prof Nicolas Negroponte (founder of MIT media lab), the former FCC Chairman, Kevin Martin (now VP of Public Affairs at Facebook), many Ministers of Telecom from around the world, Günther Oettinger (European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society) and CEOs of operators and a couple of vendors, including Alcatel-Lucent.  The Broadband Commission has been in existence since 2010, but has just been re-chartered to focus on helping achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN, which are the extension of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that have been in effect between 2000 and 2015.  The reason for this new focus is due to the massive role that ICT plays in each of these 17 goals – in fact it is so prevalent and important that the decision was taken not to create an 18th SDG focused in ICT, because that might reduce the focus of the ICT industry on the other 17 SDGs. 

Here are the essential numbers: 43% of the world’s population is now online with some form of regular access to the Internet.  But this leaves 57% or some 4.2 billion of the world’s people without regular access to the Internet, 90% who live in the developing world.  And in the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), fewer than one in ten people are online. Conversely, internet penetration is approaching saturation in the developed world, with 82 % of the population online.  So it is clear that rather than digital inclusion, there is still manifest digital exclusion, with ironically enough, ‘digital deserts’ existing alongside the physical deserts that have challenged many of these nations throughout modern history. 

And if we think this is an issue today, the impact of this divide will only be exacerbated as we enter a new digital era in which everything will be connected to allow automation of systems, processes and ultimately citizen’s lives.  Without addressing this inequity in broadband connectivity now, we will create a world comprised of the ‘digerati’ conducting commerce, and living lives that are continuously optimized for communication, collaboration, content, and control of anything, anywhere, and an analog underclass who are constrained to exist and operate primarily in the physical space, defined by their citizenship, and in relative isolation as digital ‘nomads’ wandering from connected oasis to connected oasis.

If we want to avoid this dystopia, we all need to do more to help the Commission and its incredibly laudable goals. And this must start at home – in the organizations for which we work and in which we are involved.   At Bell Labs, I am fond of saying that we focus on solving big ‘human need’ problems, but really we tend to mean the biggest ‘developed world human need problems’, as those typically represent the most sophisticated technological challenges.  But these are not necessarily the most difficult problems; sometimes the hardest problems are those that are most constrained in terms of (low) cost, or in terms of (low) energy or (low) bandwidth utilization or availability.  And then when you add the undeniably greater need, we are not meeting this stated goal.  So I have offered Bell Labs resources to the Broadband Commission to help create and innovate on projects that can digitize the under-developed and under-connected world.  The point was made during the Commission session in New York that the greatest successes were when people like Bill Gates committed $2B of his personal funds to drive an initiative to eradicate malaria.  But imagine what could be achieved if 1000 Bell Labs members committed time to working on such projects?  And what about the hundreds of thousands of similarly talented digital innovators around the globe?  If everyone committed even a few days to such projects, something remarkable would be accomplished that is for sure.  And I am absolutely convinced that if we were to do this, the insights gleaned would inform our research and innovation in new ways allowing us to better invent the future in our ‘home’ spaces and markets.  In fact, if the new digital era indeed virtualizes physical existence as predicted, enabling instantaneous and seamless global existence, it is actually economically irresponsible not to be able to address and connect this expanded market space.  In essence, what is moral obligation today will become an economic necessity tomorrow. 

So, I say: Innovators of the world unite!  As President Roosevelt constructed a ‘New Deal’ for the United States to catalyze the emergence from the Great Depression, let’s together create a ‘Global New Deal’ and selfishly and selflessly invent and implement a digital future that will allow the emergence from a world with a Great Digital Divide.