|Africa and the Middle East 2006
|Universal broadband access – basic rights and aspirations
|Dr Hessa Al-Jaber
Dr Hessa Al-Jaber is the Secretary General of ictQATAR, the policymaking and regulatory body for information and communication technology in Qatar. She brings to her role a wealth of business and academic experience in ICT development. Prior to becoming Secretary General, Dr Al-Jaber was a member of the Strategic ICT Committee, responsible for shaping Qatar’s national ICT strategy. Dr Al-Jaber served previously as the IT adviser for Qtel, Qatar’s telecommunications provider, and was Chair of the Computer Science Department of Qatar University. She has also worked with other leading Qatar institutions including Hamad General Hospital. Dr. Al Jaber currently sits on the Board of Regents of Qatar University and the Board of Governors of the American School of Doha. She is also a board member of the newly established Qatar Financial Markets Authority. A co-author of several publications and academic papers, Dr Al-Jaber has presented her research at conferences and symposia in the Middle East, the United States and Korea. Most recently, Dr Hessa Al Jaber was the Chairperson of the World Telecommunication Development Conference 2006 held in Doha, Qatar. Dr Al-Jaber studied at Kuwait University before completing her Master’s Degree and Doctorate in Computer Science at George Washington University, Washington D.C.
Technology is forcing a re-evaluation of what a citizen’s basics rights within his society are. Technology is changing the accessibility – not only of the elite, but also of people from every level of society – to previously inaccessible services. World-level educational or health services, for example will become increasingly accessible via broadband enabled mobile phones. This forces governments not only to re-assess what basic civic rights should be, but also to take into account the heretofore submerged aspirations of the population.
In the not so distant future, everyone will need to, and will, access information from myriad sources at the click of a button. To do this, they will use diverse devices such a phone, computer, PDA, TV receiver, and even a universal smart card that will store all of a person’s information and serve as a credit card for use in multiple systems. In this future, everyone will have to contend with what some futurists have called ‘filocity’ – the ability to re-create oneself – to come up to speed and accommodate oneself to different forms of communications, new situations and unfamiliar cultures. Everyone will be doing most of their personal and professional activities in and through a digitized environment in their cars, homes, offices and schools, at airports, in airplanes, shopping malls and all the other familiar places they visit. In this future, people will rightly aspire to more; they will demand the means to better themselves and to break down their own knowledge barriers. Members of our society will enter a zone where they can aspire “to know, to go, to do, to be” (Taylor et al., 1997). The single most important enabler of this progressive society is the concept of communication in general, and ‘broadband for all’ in specific. Think of it as a 24×7, ubiquitous and unrestricted facilitator – an element that serves as a connecting thread as we go about living our lives. So asking, in 2006, whether universal broadband access is a basic right or not is, I submit, a rhetorical question. Nevertheless, policy makers must address it fully so that no ambiguities remain, and all those concerned can go about their business to make the ‘broadband for all’ vision happen. As proven over many decades of research, technology is central to our ability to innovate and advance, and it works in tandem with our social and economic evolution – said differently ‘to know, to go, to do, to be’. Technology, however, can only deliver sustainable empowerment and results if, and only if, it is adequately related to a broader set of objectives and strategies derived from a nation’s long-term vision and socio-economic development targets. So, technology in general, and ‘broadband for all’ in specific, is not a solution for government inertia. Technology must serve, it must relate, and the drive to use it must stem from a more profound desire at a national level to move forward. I would like to think that this drive, reflecting a universal aspiration, is more intense in the Arab world. Why universal broadband should be a basic right In this discussion, broadband must be viewed as a primary mode of communication as opposed to just another technology. When we refer to broadband, we should be mindful of the plethora of applications and services attached to it. Information, entertainment, education, exploration and research are only a short sample of the infinite possibilities broadband brings. All these possibilities, though, can be summed up into two basic elements: access and content. So the basic right must be manifested first by providing access, through any technological means possible and using any viable arrangement. The key success factors are sustainability and scalability. Put differently, the access provided today should be based on a solid technological, operational and economic foundation – as failure is not an option. The access solution should allow for rapid evolution as demand increases, requirements escalate, and new technologies for solutions rapidly enter the market. I do not wish to open a debate as to whether this universal access is to be provided by the public or private sector. My view is that each environment is different, and if we are to deliver rapid results then we must be willing to take some risks – and innovate. Content, fortunately, has more development traction in any society – it is embedded in our communication DNA. Some have argued that content in the Arab world has lagged behind, and this has hindered the connectivity of our societies. I say maybe, maybe not. What I do know is that content is now growing exponentially and we are now more challenged by the need to filter and focus in an abundant environment than to search and find amidst severe scarcity. Arab governments are also becoming increasingly aware of the advantages of providing e-services and information by using new electronic technologies. These technologies economically and efficiently provide widespread and speedy distribution of information and can, as well, provide citizens with interactive services. When governments consider they have the duty to provide content and services to citizens then it can safely be assumed that access to such content is a right. I am an optimist, and believe that we already have a lot of content to start with. What we observe is that content is coming from all sources, private and public. We have finally re-accepted the adage that the more we share the better we become, we think of this as the start of a knowledge renaissance in the Arab world. On balance, we have passed the point of just considering a citizen’s rights; now we entertain concerns about the citizen’s many aspirations. Can universal broadband access be a basic right? As we move from aspirations, we need to evolve to perceptions and realities, and we come to realize that although we, collectively, still have a long way to go to realistically achieve universal broadband access, we are on the right path. The good news is that the model for progressing on this vector has been tested successfully time and again, and it is within our reach. It boils down, in fact, to three basic factors: environment, readiness and usage. This is where policy makers can make an impact and pave the runway for their societies to embark on a progressive journey. On this runway, the concern with the environment is a question of developing the market conditions, the infrastructure and the supporting legal and regulatory frameworks needed for broadband development. The dimension of readiness is a matter of building awareness and reducing the barriers to broadband usage by citizens, businesses and government agencies. On this continuum, usage seeks to increase broadband take-up among citizens, businesses and government agencies through targeted policies, and ideas that can encourage and support the sustainable development of compelling content. Talking about a runway naturally implies that all these factors must be addressed in parallel, and any emphasis on one factor at the expense of another could be detrimental. In particular, these factors should mitigate the sometime entrenched barriers to broadband development commonly encountered. In the Arab world, the supply related barriers cover infrastructure, regulation, applications, tariffs, security issues and general technophobia. Demand related constraints included lack of education, inadequate knowledge and computer literacy, to name just a few To overcome these constraints, Arab government and policy makers need to develop a series of critical enablers, or initiatives, to help ensure that the rapid adoption and high impact of broadband in the Arab region takes place as hoped. The region’s governments should, through good regulation, encourage wider coverage, encourage affordable broadband through competition and increase the availability of e-services and of Arabic language content and applications. In the meanwhile, the policy makers in the Arab region should carefully guide the progress of liberalisation and competition in order not to disturb the efforts to extend the broadband networks to the rural areas. Arab countries should not, perhaps cannot, duplicate the regulatory frameworks of developed countries; government involvement and incentives for commercial operators will be essential in order to deploy networks where reasonable commercial potential and sound business models do not exist. We are mindful of the challenges that the State of Qatar faces. We have, accordingly, put a work plan in place that aims to address the expected problems early on. Our plan was developed, objectively, to achieve the following: • At the environment level, we are developing regulations to encourage a 50 per cent penetration of broadband services by 2008. The framework covers, among other things, the elements of competition, quality of service, price regulations, and even financial incentives; • At the readiness level, we are working with world-class institutions to scale-up the computer literacy of our society across all layers and classes. The e-education program, to illustrate, seeks to instil a working familiarity with technology at an early age by making appropriate ICT content, the means of delivery and communications an integral element of the educational process. E-learning programs are also in preparation to reach the adult population. Overall, we are ever-mindful of the danger of digital divide and are doing our utmost to eliminate it; • At the usage level, we are working with a number of private and public institutions to digitize their services and create new opportunities for their customers to interface with them; cases in point are the e-health and e-procurement programs underway. The work of ictQATAR, so far, is only a small step in a long and always surprising march towards progress, constantly punctuated by surprising new cyber-technology and discoveries. Technologies such as broadband have created positive discontinuities and it is our duty to harness them. We are excited by the journey, motivated by the destination, and confident of the result.