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UN Broadband Commission reminds West about the rest PDF Print E-mail
Written by David Brunnen (reporting on Geneva)   
Saturday, 29 October 2011 08:39

Head of CommunicationsOne of the joys of the UN Broadband Commission's 4th meeting and the ITU's World Telecom 2011 event in Geneva this past week  was witnessing the clash of cultures and the frequent reminders of the diversities that are at the heart of sustainable connectivity.

These tensions – on standardization and regulation – provoked some of the greatest debates and highlighted the huge differences between rich and poor nations, Northern, Southern, Eastern and the West.

Two examples will suffice: the relative poverty (in materialistic terms) of the Pacific Islands of Vanuatu and the debates around Social Media.

In the latter, whilst we had frequent mentions of Arab Springs and the power of popular pressures, we had before us every shade of opinion ranging from governments long-used to governing a compliant society, through to those ‘daring’ to exploit Social Media to engage closer and more openly with its citizens.

Whilst those in the reluctant camp began to acknowledge that ‘the genie was out of the bottle’ and the impossibility of ‘turning back the clock’ there were still others who well understood the shock of realizing that the power of ‘presentation’ (aka spin) was no longer a political ‘right’.

So much of the focus regarding broadband infrastructure investment was based on the benefits of innovation and yet it was the impacts and implications of those innovations that clearly brought on the pains. At the heart of all this were simply questions of trust – trusting the newly connected peoples of the world to find just who in the Social Media they could and should trust. There was much discussion on the need for a ‘well’ educated bloggerati but there was a deep irony in a debate held without a twitter hashtag.

For most of the world, it seemed, the distinction between Access and Services (the connectivity and the content) is not yet clear – they have spent far too long living in a Telecoms world where the incumbents’ vertical integration for profit maximization has been as pernicious as the politicians lack of trust in their own peoples’ good sense. To regulate or relax?

As ever, the forces of enlightenment came from Scandinavia (particularly from Suvi Linden – a UN Broadband Commissioner from Finland) and the extremes of fiercely held viewpoints and cultural defensiveness were on display from the Far East and North America.

Caught in between, and in danger of being overlooked in the clashes between continents, were a host of mainly small states whose chances of getting even a minimal level of connectivity seems a mammoth task. No-one illustrated the challenges better than the telecoms regulator from Vanuatu with a group of 63 remote pacific islands with no submarine-cable connectivity and, therefore, hugely dependent on satellite communications.

The gulf between (a) the arrogance of those in the so-called ‘free world’ who resist all attempts at centralized standards-making and regulation and (b) the desperate need for impoverished societies for long-term stability for planning, for investment and affordability, had to be heard to be believed. Listening has never been so important.

For readers who may be interested in the plight of the developing world, or for those who just want to know what Alan Horne is now doing in the South Pacific, I’d recommend a careful reading of his paper to the ITU conference: Challenges Facing the South Pacific Islands in Ensuring Universal Access to Communications Services (available on request).

These debates and the UN Broadband Commission’s determination to establish measures for assessing world-wide progress in broadband provision have sparked yet further debate around Internet Governance and the demands for regulation.

Appealing for a little calm in these debates – driven mainly by the ‘free market’ perspective of the anti-regulators – we also heard wise words from Paul Budde, based in Australia. He writes, “We all know that there are difference in laws and culture that in one way or another are all coming together on the Internet and there is certainly a difference in opinion between countries in relation to what should be done or what should not be done. As soon as we enter political, cultural and religious territories it becomes a very tricky area. Whether we like this or not, or whether this is good or bad, this is the reality that we are in this together and ignoring this or opposing this is not helping anybody.  We are in this together and together we will need to find ways of moving forwards.”

Paul’s full text is available on request – and would be a good read even for those who have missed the debate so far.

Sadly I have to comment that UK representation at these debates seem almost non-existent and this non-engagement has become a recurring theme in Europe throughout the year.   The UK seems set on a path of determined ignorance of the way the rest of the world is embracing digital development – as if, in that respect, we were not part of the developing world.

Hopefully, as we move forward into 2012, there will be more signs of the UK waking up to the realities of a digitally enabled world with all the growth and prosperity that it could unleash.



This editorial concludes our coverage of the events in Geneva this week. Requests for the papers referenced should be sent to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

A short video is availble here.

Readers may wish to note that many of these themes will be continued at NextGen 11 (15/16 November, Bristol) where two of the UN Broadband Commissioners - Nellie kroes and Suvi Linden - will be making contributions.  The full agenda for NextGen 11 is now available via: 


Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 November 2011 15:11

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