Questions…on Bringing the Internet to the Entire World for Larry
Professor of Information Systems Larry Press has worked with organizations like the United Nations and done studies on the diffusion of the Internet in countries around the world including Russia, Chile, Bangladesh, and several others. The focus of his research: bringing the Internet to the developing world. Here, he explains how the Internet can play a major role in developing nations, why the predominant free-market model hasn’t worked in getting the world connected, and how we here in the U.S. are falling behind in the continued push for new Internet innovations.
How long ago did you start working on projects focused on bringing the Internet to the developing world?
I first used a precursor to the Internet in the mid-’70s. In terms of bringing connectivity to developing nations, I think my first paper on the subject was published in 1993, and my colleagues and I developed a widely used framework for Internet diffusion studies two or three years later.
Can the Internet really play that big a role in a developing country?
Well, the Internet plays the same role no matter where it is used. The difference in developing nations is that there are very poor alternative means of communication. If we didn’t have the Internet here in the U.S., we could still rely on television, roads, telephones, and so on. But in developing nations and particularly rural areas, the Internet can have a greater marginal impact because there are often no realistic alternatives.
What’s an example of something you’ve seen the Internet used for that really makes a difference in some of these parts of the world?
Telemedicine is one. You have a sick person in a village, but the village has no doctor; using the Internet, a doctor in a big city can do remote tests, examinations, and diagnoses. The list goes on and on – remote veterinarian medicine, agricultural advice and market prices, distance education, news, access to government applications, and so on.
Is there a way to quantify how much of a difference the Internet has made in some of these areas?
Of course many factors go into determining quality of life in a nation or region, so you can’t exactly quantify the impact of the Internet, but there have been pilot studies that have shown a positive impact like the role the Internet has played in Chilean education, where virtually all schools are now on the Internet. The United Nations compiles a Human Development Index, which is a function of income, education and health in a nation. There is a strong relationship between that index and Internet penetration, but that does not prove causality nor what portion of the success is due to the Internet.
What are the biggest obstacles to connecting the entire world?
The interests of entrenched telecommunication providers are an obstacle everywhere. The U. S. is no exception. We typically have one, maybe two options when it comes to our phone and Internet service providers. The telecom companies are large oligopolies with lots of sway in Washington. That, in part, explains why we pay higher rates for slower Internet connections than other places like Japan, Korea, or France.
But the biggest obstacle in developing nations is poverty. There’s just not enough money, particularly in rural areas, to induce private companies to come in and provide Internet service. The hope of policy makers at organizations like the International Telecommunication Union, World Bank, or World Trade Organization has been that privatizing the industry, encouraging competition, and creating independent regulators would do the trick. But after 20 years, it has not worked – developing nations are falling further behind.
Why don’t you think that free market model for bringing Internet to areas has worked?
I think every developing nation gets it now – how much of a role the Internet could play for them and their people. But, since the market is an oligopoly and developing nations are poor, private investment is insufficient. A provider says something like, “We can invest in a link from St. Louis to Chicago, or we can invest in one from Lagos to some poor rural village.” It’s easy to see why they choose to run the first one – and that’s no fault of the provider since they’re out to make money. Public planning, investment, and subsidy are needed.
What’s your solution?
I think we should build a backbone network -- like our interstate highway system – at public expense. The backbone would provide a high-speed Internet connection point in every town or village. Then, let entrepreneurs build the local networks and offer services using private capital and local people.
That same strategy was used to create the Internet. In 1988, the U.S. National Science Foundation deployed the first Internet backbone and installed Internet connection points on every university campus in the U.S. Substitute “village” for “campus” and you see what I advocate for developing nations. The NSF program cost U.S. taxpayers $88 million. However, it spurred investment and innovation on the campuses (including ours) worth so much more. They hired the people and bought the equipment to build local, campus networks, which they then connected to the Internet, and we all know of the innovation that followed.
Is it realistic to argue for countries to scrap their free market Internet models and start over with this central backbone idea?
The policy of privatization, competition and independent regulation is a good one. They should not roll that back, but public involvement is also necessary if they are to achieve ubiquitous Internet connectivity. A degree of government involvement is needed in every nation, but it is critical in the poorest nations.
Earlier, you mentioned that we pay more for Internet connectivity that is also slower than in countries like Japan and Korea. Is that a big deal when we now have pretty fast Internet connections anyway?
I think so. Innovation on the Internet is not done by the network operators -– Comcast or Verizon didn’t come up with things like Skype or Youtube. Investment and innovation come from people at the edges – the network users. Innovation often comes in the form of applications that take advantage of improving technology like faster connections. If the U. S. continues falling behind other developed nations, we’re going to be tomorrow where they are today. Tomorrow’s applications and technology will be invented in Korea, just as yesterday’s cutting edge applications were often invented in the U.S.
What’s an example of an application or something being done in these countries with higher and less costly connections today?
Consider mobile applications. High speed mobile connectivity is more widely available and cheaper in, say, Korea than here. In the U. S., if you are in a city, and can afford the data plan, you might have a smart phone for Internet access and Web surfing. A Korean would be more likely to use mobile Internet applications because the cost and availability of high speed wireless has led to wider adoption than here. That will enable location-aware applications, high quality video, rich business applications, and so forth. They require a fast network to be practical and work well, and many users to be profitable.
It’s not like we won’t eventually use these technologies and applications. For example, people in Korea use email even though it was invented in the U. S. But, we will be paying royalties and using the applications and services they invent, not the other way around.
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