In June 2011 the United Nations released a report that counts Internet access as a basic human right. While I might not put Internet access in the same category as water, I would agree with UN Secretary General, Frank La Rue, about the importance of the internet as "an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress." The report goes on to stress the importance of anonymity and the need for universal access and policies that won’t limit access for political reasons. The report recognizes that not all nations have the ability to deploy the infrastructure necessary to support broadband universal access, but that should be the goal.
Without network access, there is no internet. Voice and messaging communications are effective realtime methods but the ability to access the reach and breadth of the Internet is a much more profound capability. The question is how do we deliver that access? Switzerland, Finland, Taiwan, and Spain have made broadband access part of their universal service regulations by extending existing mandates for voice access and other countries are considering it. Other efforts are not mandated but governmentfunded, like those in the US, Japan, the UK, and elsewhere. The US is helping Kenya with their universal service framework and although there are lots of recommendations and pressure, broadband access has not truly been mandated in too many places yet. The reasons are primarily political and those discussions will continue but there is a real cost in not deploying broadband to everyone.
The more interesting development is that, even without a mandate, nationalized broadband networks are becoming a reality in a number of countries either through direct government investment or government-endorsed common carrier arrangements. The purpose is two-fold. One is nation-building. Consider this – Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand are rolling out national broadband networks and broadband penetration rates exceed or will exceed 75%. Wireless penetration in those countries exceeds 100% and ARPU is rising. Figures are similar for Hong Kong, China and Taiwan where network infrastructure is operated by common carriers. By comparison, Canada ranks 10th and the US 15th (65%) in broadband penetration (per 100 inhabitants), behind a number of European and Asian countries and regularly rank lower in affordability.
The second is cost. Yes, cost. The cost of not building a global network that is open and accessible will be reflected in education, health care, transportation, and most other industries as costs rise and the unconnected fall behind. The cost of a single, national network should be less than the duplicate networks that exist today. Many operators are recognizing that combining access networks conserves bandwidth and capacity, while reducing costs. Large operators are consolidating assets to create a single network that supports multiple operating companies and alliances are being formed to ensure global connectivity.
If broadband access is a basic human right, then the infrastructure to deliver it is critical and, make no mistake, communications infrastructure will be more – not less – regulated in the future. De-regulation of telecom created more competitors, but a scarcity of capacity and the cost to operate and maintain access networks, will ultimately result in less competition at the network level even as competition for services heats up. Regulated utilities are good at fairly managing and delivering scarce resources. That’s where communications infrastructure is headed and we need to accept it.
We also need to learn from our previous experience with monopoly providers that one size does not fit all and deployment of a ubiquitous public network can and will take many forms. Rather than forcing one architecture and plan everywhere, regulators are better served to let market demand and technology innovation dictate the solution. In every corner of the world demand exists for Internet access to information and services. The technology is there too and we’re finding that there’s more than one way to build one network.
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