As Hamadoun Touré, secretary general of the ITU, drives
the UN organisation to a new role promoting universal broadband
across the world, he says the lessons of north Africa are that
leaders should encourage, not block, internet
Hamadoun Touré: once people have tasted communication
you can’t cut it off. If you cut it off
you’re gone — and that’s
happened in Egypt
Hamadoun Touré’s group of industry and
political leaders who are promoting universal broadband service
throughout the world has decided to continue its work until at
He believes the lessons of recent events in Tunisia and Egypt
show how important it is for people to get access to broadband.
It would be a mistake, he said to Global Telecoms Business, for
political leaders to cut their citizens off from the internet.
It’s only a year since Touré, the secretary
general of the International Telecommunication Union, assembled
his Broadband Commission of leading figures such as Carlos Slim
Helú of América Móvil and John Chambers of
Cisco, as well as political leaders such as president Paul
Kagame of Rwanda. Their aim is to urge industry and government
to invest in broadband access throughout the world.
"Close to 80 countries now have a national broadband plan,"
Touré told Global Telecoms Business in an exclusive
interview at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. "We hope that
many more will follow, with the help of the Broadband
But the work of the commission, pushing governments to develop
investment plans for universal broadband, needs to go on. "They
are continuing their work until 2015," says Touré of the
commission. "They have accepted there is a need to go on. The
objective is to put broadband high on the national agenda of
He emphasises that he’s not looking for aid or
charity: "We’re not asking for handouts." But he
expects industry to come forward with profit-making proposals
— just as the mobile telecoms industry has invested
heavily, and successfully, in developing infrastructure and
services in emerging markets.
"Making profit is not a crime," says Touré.
"We’re advising governments to have a shared
vision and to set up a level playing field in legal and
regulatory terms. They need to put together the necessary
framework for capacity building and education. The private
sector will come in — there is a winning formula."
The next stage of the work of the commission sees a number of
industry and political leaders chairing working groups to
produce detailed plans — groups that will report back
with strategies in a matter of months. Touré
enthusiastically points to the number of business leaders who
are giving their time to the commission — people such
as Mo Ibrahim, the founder of Celtel, Muhammad Yunus, who won
the Nobel peace prize for setting up Grameen Bank in
Bangladesh, as well as Chambers and Slim.
"You realize why these people have been successful in their
business," says Touré.
Hans Vestberg, the CEO of Ericsson, is chairing one of the
thematic groups that the commission has set up as the next
phase of its work — on climate change. Suvi
Lindén, the telecoms minister of Finland, is chairing
another, on electronic government. "Whoever proposes a
commission has to chair it," says Touré.
Another working group covers health, chaired by Jeffrey Sachs,
of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in the US, and
there are two on education and multilingual services in the
internet, both chaired by Irina Bokova, the director general of
Bokova and Touré are both vice chairs of the Broadband
Commission, while Kagame and Slim are the two co-chairs. Other
significant members of the commission include César
Alierta, the CEO of Telefónica; Julius Genachowski, the
chairman of the FCC, the US regulator; Sunil Bharti Mittal, the
chairman of Bharti Airtel; Denis O’Brien, chairman
of Digicel; Sun Yafang, the chair of Huawei; Ben Verwaayen, CEO
of Alcatel-Lucent; and Wang Jianzhou, executive chairman of
Each of the working groups — and there may be more
than six, hints Touré — will set its own
targets and working programmes. Is that a worry? No, he says.
"You see how professional they are. You can’t be
successful like Carlos Slim and John Chambers without targets.
That’s why the commission wants to continue. We
have no worries at all."
Indeed, he points out, if Slim, Chambers and the other members
had thought the commission a waste of time, the whole project
would have collapsed after the first meeting. Instead, they
have continued to support it and work for it.
So there is a huge level of support from business and from the
international establishment — but for real progress,
he accepts, you need heads of state. "But the ITU is very good
for that," he smiles.
The aim is to get all of those working groups to present
reports in October to the ITU’s conference in
Geneva, which takes place on October 24-27 2011 and which
— if Touré is successful — will
attract many of those necessary heads of state.
This conference itself is a recasting of the old mammoth
exhibitions and conferences which used to take place in Geneva
— for many years on a four-yearly interval, when they
attracted a six-figure number of participants, and more
recently every three years.
The 2011 conference in Geneva may be the last to take place in
the ITU’s home city. The ITU, a United Nations
agency, will be seeking bids for a permanent home for the event
in even numbered years, starting in 2012; in odd numbered years
the event will have a different home each time — an
effort to move the debate around the world.
Touré is setting the scene for the focus of the event to
be a sort of general assembly of the telecommunications and IT
industry in which political leaders and industry leaders set
and review a set of global goals towards the aim of universal
To emphasise this aim, each session in Geneva this October will
be chaired jointly by a leading industry figure and a leading
Names? Five heads of state are already booked to speak, says
Touré, but he won’t say who at this stage.
He is confident that "at least 40" political leaders will
attend and speak at the Geneva conference. Touré and
Kagame of Rwanda and sending out invitations jointly.
He believes the Broadband Commission has captured the political
imagination in 2011 and that the ITU Telecom conference will be
a broadband summit that will show widespread political and
A brief story — not from Touré but from other
sources — may help to illustrate the political support
that is building for universal broadband. At the
commission’s big meeting in New York last
September, when it finalised its first report to present to the
UN general assembly, ITU officials did their best to control
the agenda. But, say people who were there, former British
prime minister Gordon Brown turned up more or less expectedly
and, without having been on the agenda, made an impromptu and
impassioned speech to the commission.
The next meeting of the commission (get it in your diary, Mr
Brown) is in Paris in early June, when the members —
including Ericsson’s Vestberg — will give
the first results of their working groups.
But do all political leaders want universal broadband
— and do they even understand it? How many heads of
state are fully engaged with the need for the internet?
We have seen, in the early weeks of 2011, events in Tunisia,
Egypt and elsewhere where thousands of young, vocal opponents
of ageing, established leaders have shown the power of the
mobile internet — and the leaders have been left
staggering and fleeing from power.
So is there a risk that some political leaders will not want
broadband services to be universal — even if they
There is no alternative, suggests the secretary general. "Once
people have tasted the goodies of education and communication
you can’t cut it off. If you cut it off
you’re gone, and that’s what happened
in Egypt," says Touré. "This is a very good reason for
us to encourage the rolling out of broadband infrastructure so
people can have better access everywhere in the world. The
citizen will be able to take care of their own destiny
— if they are given this powerful weapon, a telephone,
It requires some heads of state, though, to be more adult: some
still surely want to clamp down on communications?
"Yes, we have not to underestimate people. They are mature
enough to take care of their own destiny. That’s
what we saw in Tunisia and Egypt. I hope that anyone who is
ready to cut off citizens from ICT will think twice from now
So how will the Broadband Commission work from now on? By
sharing experiences, he says. "The ITU is ready to help. We are
getting countries to share experiences. We are in the
information society. We are in the knowledge society. No one
should reinvent the wheel."
He believes that countries should look as "simple solutions and
simple applications" that will help speed up the development of
broadband services across the world "and reach out to as many
people as possible".
With meetings in Paris in June and Geneva in October, what
happens with the commission after that? In many ways,
Touré expects a process of more or less constant
confrontation as he and his fellow commissions review and
challenge progress in each country.
"From October we’re going to have to measure
progress," says Touré. "In October we’re
going to have the opportunity to challenge many heads of state
to get things done and give us support."
The targets will be backed by the United Nations’
own Millennium Development Goals, which include eight
anti-poverty goals for the world by 2015, and Touré sees
the commission as very much part of the effort towards
achieving these targets.
Heads of state will have given "a clear vision" for universal
broadband "which we will then implement", says Touré.
And Touré sees it as his continuing role to challenge
any states that fail to achieve targets. "We will report back
It’s doable, he believes, pointing to the five
billion mobile phone users among the world’s 6.8
billion people, and the two billion smartphone users expected
by the end of 2012. "But we haven’t seen anything
yet in terms of services and applications."
What’s the biggest challenge to achieving the
goals that Touré’s commission is setting
for the world? Not finance, not technology, not enthusiasm, but
regulation. "The biggest challenge is putting the regulatory
environment in place," he says — firmly putting the
task in the laps of political leaders.
Indeed, at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February
regulation was held up by many as the biggest challenge for all
who are working on the development of broadband, in rich
countries and emerging countries alike.
Good regulation — essentially, encouraging competitive
markets — has been good for the development of mobile
over the past decade. "More competition has produced more
innovative ideas and local solutions to local problems." Take
mobile banking for example — a service which has been
developed essentially within emerging markets to satisfy a
Decade of broadband
"The challenge is to replicate that success for broadband," he
says. If the first 10 years of the millennium were the decade
of mobile, "the second decade of the millennium will be the
decade of broadband, and especially mobile broadband".
"Many heads of state have big dreams for their countries," says
Touré. "They know the power of ICT and will do anything
to make it happen."
He gives a nice example of the sort of thing that can happen
— unfortunately, without the juicy details that would
make it a perfect story. A couple of years ago, says
Touré, it came to his attention that in two countries in
Africa the government was taxing SIM cards so heavily that they
were restricting the uptake of mobile. The tax, he says, was
equivalent to three times average revenue per user.
"I flew down to those countries and spoke to the government
leaders," says Touré. He urged them, successfully, to
cut the taxes to one third of previous levels.
The result was not — as the governments had feared
— a fall in tax revenue. Mobile penetration soared.
"Subscriptions have tripled," says Touré, so the
governments are earning the same revenue in tax as before.
"We’re here to fix problems. Too much tax kills
tax. Those are the lessons we learn and we pass to countries."
But it’s not just a matter of getting the
regulations and the economic climate right: the next target,
says Touré, will be creating content online and getting
people used to using broadband for government services, for
example, as well as e-health and e-education.
He believes he has the right people around him, in the
Broadband Commission, to help with these ambitious aims.
"We’re talking about industry leaders who are big
visionaries, who see far and will be able to advise us. They
will continue to drive innovation, and innovation will drive
investment. The roles of government and the private sector are
complementary — they are not enemies."
This philosophy will be tested later this year at the ITU
Telecom show in Geneva. It will be, says Touré, a world
ICT forum — and the conference will have more emphasis
than the exhibition.
Which cities will win the responsibility to host the forum
after 2011? He doesn’t know yet: there will be
transparent tenders, says Touré. A tender will begin
shortly for the task of hosting the forum in every even
numbered year, and Touré hopes to announce the winner at
this year’s event. At the end of 2011 another
tender will start for the first of the cities to host the
conference in odd numbered years, starting in October 2013.
"I want to announce the winning city at ITU Telecom World in
2012, so we can pass on the torch to the new hosts."
It will always be October, by the way: the ITU has to meet
after each UN general assembly, which takes place in September
"If you are inviting heads of state, I have found that heads of
state don’t travel for two weeks at a time. If
they can stay away for two weeks they can stay away forever."
And that’s even without universal broadband
internet connections in the hands of the people.