Oped

Utopian visions

  • Broadband internet kept at its core should be seen for what it is: an important tool, not a miraculous solution for all the ills in society
- SHAILESH PANDEY, HARSHA MAN MAHARJAN & YOGESH RAJ

Aug 28, 2015-The draft National Information and Communication Technology (NICT) Policy 2015, floated for public discussion by Nepal Telecommunication Authority (NTA) on August 4, repeats the flawed visions about the miraculous power of ICTs. We call for the policy to be more evidence-based.

The NICT Policy aims to supersede the related IT Policy 2010, which envisages the Department of Information Technology (DoIT) under the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (MoSTE) as the lead agency. Accordingly, DoIT has floated a draft implementation plan ‘National IT Roadmap.’ The NCIT Policy, prepared by the Ministry of Information and Communications (MoIC), proposes to restructure both the ministries as well as the NTA. The contention over jurisdiction is expected to flare up in coming days, but we would like to draw attention to four more critical concerns in this piece.

Seduction of the internet

The proposed policy claims that ICT will reduce/remove inequality, poverty and enhance economic growth of a nation and quality of life of its citizens and presents ICT as a “tool available to reduce the development divide”. The relationship between internet connectivity and poverty is, however, poorly understood. The draft puts the delivery of the minimum speed at 512 kbps. Notwithstanding the fact that many governments and organisations consider this as a narrowband, the cost of a 512 kbps-leased line is around Rs 2,500/month, and a 2 mbps broadband will cost Rs 16,000. In the best case, a majority of Nepal’s poor will be stuck with the lower limit and sub-standard quality access.

Empirical studies related to the claim are sparse, but they indicate that investments in the internet lead to the growth of the super rich IT-using industries and firms and the knock on effect on country’s growth indicators is visible. The growth rarely trickles down to the poor, disadvantaged and less privileged. Employment records of Instagram, WhatsApp, Skype and Twitter show that these billion dollar internet businesses do not significantly change the job market. The policy has indeed got the direction of the causality wrong. While increased income of a population could have led to the diffusion of the mobile technology, the reverse has not been attested. The past claim that a large-scale diffusion of computers would increase the income has failed. Same was the case for the first generation internet.

The coded numbers argument

Some of the crucial numbers in the draft are global averages. Local evidences are lacking for setting them as a five-year target. Further, few numbers are not interpretable. The goal to establish ICT industry and services to account for at least 7.5 percent of the GDP by 2020 is a global industry average and not even the ICT average as per the publicly available World Bank data. So, why 7.5, and why not 15 or three, is a question to ponder.

The coded number comes from the expansion of the telecommunication sector in Nepal. The goal to achieve a 90 percent broadband internet penetration is optimism fuelled by the mobile phone subscription number. There are two major flaws here. First, this is a subscription percentage and not the percentage of the population having mobile phones. This number can go well beyond the 100 percent as more than 120 percent is a common sight and some countries have surpassed the 200 mark. So what explanation does a 90 percent offer is not clear although this number has been referred to as an impressive achievement to formulate goals 6.3 and 6.4 and the justification behind the promotion of mobile phones for e-services.

Always turned on

In the proposed draft, ICT has encompassed agriculture, industry, health, government and tourism. The policy plugs ICT technologies where it must be always  ‘on’. For a nation with chronic loadshedding, the notion is a hard sell. Critically, the policy has failed to consider the scale and pace of national energy infrastructure developments required to power the digital dream.

First, the saving of critical energy resources due to the adoption of ICT and its efficient use will be buried by the growth expected from it. The increase in the processing power and the exponential increase in the number of computers over the years have cancelled the gains over the years. The Nepali  ‘Green by IT/ICT’ and ‘Green in IT/ICT’ enthusiasts have failed to give due attention to this rebound effect. Second, the optimism of self-improvement faces numerous challenges. The halt in the innovating pace is far nearer than expected (as soon as 2036). Demand for a faster broadband internet and communications have pushed the optical fibre design to the fundamental limits. The semi-conductor industry is already voicing that the halt is near with the Intel CEO recently voiced a similar concern.

The open argument

Even in the developed countries, software prices have not reduced although the price of broadband access has come down. This is a huge bottleneck for a home user and even for small- and medium-sized institutions. There is thus a reason for a flourishing software piracy. Recently, it was reported that the municipality of Pesaro in Italy which had trained 500 of its employees to use Open Office switched back to Microsoft Office due to costs in deployment and IT support among others. Clearly, a piecemeal approach to limit the use of the free and open source software to government offices only is not a solution. Related is the issue with the vague term ‘open-standard’ in the draft. Some definitions focus either exclusively on standards and ignore the notion of open access while others rather refer to degrees of ‘openness’. The open-source community generally agree that most explanations of the term rarely allow free adoption, implementation and extension.

Our concern chiefly stems from the number of abandonment of the e-government programmes in developing countries. The key contributor to these failures is the gap between the design of the future in these programmes and their poor understanding of the present. From the start, the claim of affecting good governance by technologising the government is contrary to the evidence from developing countries. For instance, corruption has continued as favouritism and bribery despite their move to e-government.

The technology-enthusiasts, optimists and experts should be honest in their depiction of the digital society. The faith in the transformative potential of the ICTs is as dated as the early optimism shown towards old technologies such as road, radio and television. While the internet (wires) and the Web (the content and its presentation) are indeed significant human inventions, the ICT with the broadband Internet kept at its core should be seen for what it is: an important tool. It is not a miraculous solution for all the ills in society but yet another technology embedded in the geo-socio-political structures.

Pandey, Maharjan and Raj are researchers affiliated to Martin Chautari

Published: 28-08-2015 08:20

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