Web for All Now. Broadband for All in Future.

On Monday 20 September in New York City, Web Foundation representatives (including former UK Prime Minister and Web Foundation Director Gordon Brown and Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee), met with members of the Broadband Commission (including Rwanda’s President Kagame and ITU’s Secretary General Touré) and other knowledgeable people (see participants list below) to exchange principles and plans on how to accelerate the benefits of the Internet and Web for those who need it most.

The occasion was prompted by the presentation  of the Broadband Commission’s report “The Future Built on Broadband” to the United Nations Secretary General.  The report asserts the contribution that universal access to rapid Internet communications could make to addressing the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and other social and economic imperatives, and outlines actions needed to achieve universal broadband access.  Among other things, the Web Foundation sought to connect with the Commission, and explore what could be done in the near term to leverage existing infrastructure for public good, while building for a broadband future.

There seemed to be general agreement in the room on a number of key points:

  • Information and communications technologies offer the potential to provide the capabilities to create content (services, information, opinions, etc.), to access content, and to collaborate  widely across the globe.
  • These capabilities offer the potential to empower people to make social and economic progress on personal, local, regional and global scales.
  • Realizing the vision of an all-inclusive information society requires investment in infrastructure, content development and policy, by people at the governmental, commercial and grassroots levels.
  • Broadband Internet and Web for all people is an important goal, and this goal will take time to reach.

It was important for those of us from the Web Foundation to meet face-to-face with the Broadband Commission and to hear first hand their vision for broadband for all.  We also advocated the opportunities available through Web access on top of existing infrastructure — now

  • With on 25% of people using the Web now, and 70 or 80% of people using mobile phones, there is a huge opportunity to bring billions of additional people into the information society, and in the very near term.
  • Content is a very important driver.   History shows that Web content — initially over existing, lowband telephone infrastructure to homes, and with time growing in volume — is what has driven the growth of broadband infrastructure.
  • We need to invest much more in stimulating valuable content, often locally-generated,  that is accessible in all languages and to people with low reading skills and disabilities.
  • With lowband access to the Web, creative people will find creative ways to provide products and services that are valued and that could help to improves lives and communities immediately.

These are all motivations for some of the Web Foundations first projects, including Mobile-Empowered Entrepreneurs in Africa and Web Alliance for Regreening in Africa.

My opinion: Perhaps with the exception of situations involving immediate personal danger, most of the serious challenges facing people — hunger, disease, poverty, joblessness, illiteracy, oppression, etc. — could benefit significantly from Web access over connections that are lowband and affordable (and cost is critical). If a farmer is trying to find the best seeds to plant or where to find the best price for her crops, would she not be willing to wait seconds or minutes for an answer?  What is the difference between getting a list of job openings in fractions of a second versus seconds?  If it takes 2  minutes to download a primary math lesson rather than 20 seconds, will it matter?  Faster may be better, but the ability to communicate any any speed is better than none at all.

Participants shared stories of amazing work being done today over lowband mobile and fixed infrastructure.  Paul English, Kayak.com founder, is experimenting with efficient use of low-cost, lowband connectivity over long-range WiFi networks in Africa.  Judith Rodin relayed how Rockefeller Foundation is funding  entrepreneurs, agriculture projects and healthcare advances leveraging  mobile infrastructure now.  Nii Quaynor, one of the fathers of the Internet in Africa, urged that we engage people by investing in domestic e-commerce using today’s growing Internet and Web capacity, as a step toward a broadband future.  I feel that many of the Broadband Commissioners understood this perspective.

All in all, a very interesting discussion that I hope will continue with the Broadband Commission as well as its individual members.

(See also report from allAfrica.com)


Participants in the Web Foundation/Broadband Commission Information Exchange:  Paul Kagame (Pres. Rwanda), Gordon Brown (former UK Prime Minister,Web Foundation Director ), Hamadoun Touré (Secretary General, ITU), Tim Berners-Lee (Web inventor, Web Foundation Director), Paul English (found or Kayak.com and JoinAfrica.org), Mo Ibrahim (Mo Imbrahim Found), Ngozi Okonjjo-Iweala (Managing Director, World Bank), Nii Quaynor (Head of IT Commission, Ghana), Judith Rodin (President, Rockefeller Found.), Cheick Sidi Diarra (Under Sec Gen UN Special Advisor on Africa), David Kanamugire (Permanent Secretary, Rwanda Ministry of ICT), Rosemary Leith (Web Foundation Director), Steve Bratt (Web Foundation, CEO), Brendan Cox (Advisor to Gordon Brown), Sami Al-Basheer, Patricia Benoit-Guyot (ITU), Vera Songwe (World Bank), Nathalie Delpalme (Mo Ibrahim Foundation)

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