food, water, shelter, and broadband internet?

May 19, 2011

Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at an international development think tank, has a column arguing that we’re not necessarily improving the developing world when we rush to give broadband to the poor and that there’s plenty of other things to fix before billions are raised to lay fiber and open internet cafes. If you either have very good memories or just use the search function around here, you may remember that I had similar thoughts on this very subject when talking about a plan to give developing nations satellite-based internet access and my stance on the issue hasn’t changed. Obviously, information exchange is good and it helps everybody who can efficiently exchange data to do so. However, when talking about IT in the developing world, what we need to be concerned about most isn’t broadband but energy and infrastructure because without those two, having broadband is pretty much meaningless. This is an issue of capacity vs. throughput and any international aid groups thinking that extra capacity will boost an economy are forgetting that they need to ensure that there is a real economy to boost in the first place. And throughput is what helps to establish and foster that economy.

Here’s the deal. Your standard, broadband optimized web page is about a megabyte in size and loads rather slowly on dial up and 3G wireless modems. But that web page is also littered with big graphics, ads, and all sorts of background scripts that make it look pretty and let the links change color when you hover over them. I would venture to guess that a Third World farmer looking to see for how much he can sell his wares over at a local market doesn’t need to log on to a major website to do it and a stripped-down mobile version or a black and white SMS will do the trick. A text message can be less than a kilobyte in size and travel across even the slowest network with no problem. As long as you have a signal, you’re good to go. The only problem is if you’ll be able to get a strong signal and ensure that the texts can keep flowing. Using a broadband connection will not give the farmer in question any real boost in performance. In fact, he’ll probably never notice the difference because the text will arrive in mere seconds. However, his country now has an excess capacity that might be going to waste and concentrated in urban areas where it will be likely used for entertainment. Broadband is a premium, leisure product that lets you play games and watch videos, not a basic necessity.

What is a basic necessity however, is to make sure that access to crucial data is reliable and that whatever a tower or a network of wires needs to keep transmitting data packets is being generated. That means a better energy grid and the infrastructure to support it, and crews who’ll do the regular maintenance and updates. If a foreign investor sees that data services are reliable and robust enough to conduct day to day business in any city of a developing nation, it will have a much stronger business case for making an investment there than in nations where some cities have world-class broadband services and others have a patchy, outdated network of poor cell phone and data coverage. Of course that said, data along doesn’t drive an economy. There should be roads, sanitation, good housing, security, and an educated workforce. Developing nations won’t benefit by being given whatever is the latest craze in the development community as a magic bullet because a nation is ultimately its economy and institutions working together. When you can increase school attendance and then use the gains in pupils to improve the population’s basic education levels, you’re doing more for the economy than laying down miles and miles of fiber ever would. And believe it or not, it seems that the former costs less than the latter and is logistically easier to implement. Maybe we should focus on that first.

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  • Brett

    However, his country now has an excess capacity that might be going to waste and concentrated in urban areas where it will be likely used for entertainment.

    I wouldn’t entirely rule it out, then, since most of the Third World has increasing urbanization. You could make that broadband profitable by providing it through countless internet cafes, which is what South Korea and a bunch of other countries (including Tehran in Iran) do.