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Interview: Hamadoun Touré of the ITU

17 February 2011

Egypt and Tunisia show need for broadband for all, says ITU head

Read more: ITU International Telecommunication Union Broadband Commission wireless broadband

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 access 
                                                   
                                                  
                          

                          
Hamadoun Touré: once people have tasted communication
you can't cut it off. If you cut it off you're gone - and that's what
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 least 2015.
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 Commission."
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 every country."
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. 
                              
                          
Ericsson support 
                          
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 Unesco.
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 China Mobile.
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 broadband.
To emphasise this aim, each session in Geneva this October will be chaired jointly by a leading industry figure and a leading political figure. 
                          
                          
Political leaders 
                          
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 business support.
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 understood them?
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, a smartphone."
It requires some heads of state, though, to be more adult: some still surely want to clamp down on communications? 
                          
                          
Think twice 
                          
"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 on."
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 to them."
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 local need. 
                          
                          
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 each year.
"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.  GTB




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