'Universal access a great thing'

Professor Tim Unwin was appointed Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) in September 2011.

Shamim Ahmedand Ashik Hossainbdnews24.com
Published : 10 Sept 2014, 05:57 AM
Updated : 11 Sept 2014, 09:01 AM

He has also been Chair of the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission since 2009. He continues to hold academic positions -- UNESCO Chair in ICT4D and Emeritus Professor of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, as well as Honorary Professor at Lanzhou University in China. He serves on the International Advisory Board of the International Multilateral Partnership Against Cyber Threats, (IMPACT) on the ITU’s m-Powering Development Advisory Board (where he chairs the m-Learning Working Group) and on DFID’s Digital Advisory Panel.In 2004 he launched the ICT4D Collective. He has written and edited 15 books and more than 200 academic papers and chapters, many of which focus on the use of technology in development practices. His latest edited book Information and Communication Technology for Development was published in 2009.

Late on Tuesday, he spoke to bdnews24.com on the sidelines of the CTO Forum 2014 at Dhaka's Radisson Hotel.

bdnews24.com: 40 of the 160 million people in Bangladesh are connected to the internet, how do you see this?

Unwin: There are always positives and negatives. I come from UK  where 17 percent households still don’t have internet access. So progress towards achieving universal access is a great thing and with the numbers you already have, progress is evident, but there's obviously a very very long way to go as well.

I believe passionately in universal access and we have to find ways of delivering that. Or else, these technologies can lead to greater inequalities between those who have it and those who don't.  I think ICT, in particular the access to internet, can give you access to information on health,  education, rural development and much else. If you get  access, you will benefit. So my theory is that over the last decade we have actually seen much greater inequality happening and all governments across the world, even my own, need to make sure that people can have equitable access. It’s not just having access; it’s using that access for larger good. 

I mean, in the UK we're moving towards a digital-by-default agenda, and one way of looking at it is that you're marginalising almost one-fifth of the population. Good progress also means you have a lot more to do as yet.

bdnews24.com: How can ICT help reduce poverty in Bangladesh?

Unwin: I think there's evidence of great strides been made. Your country does have some distinct advantages, which are often perceived as disadvantages. Much of the country except the east is relatively flat and you have high density of people. That is a complete different scenario compared to some parts of Africa or other parts of the world, which can be hilly and have very dispersed population. So the positive side is that it's an attractive market, because of the density of population and it's relatively easy to provide connectivity. So I think using those advantages it’s possible to get extraordinary results.       

Photo: asaduzzaman pramanik/ bdnews24.com

Bangladesh is widely known for the work you've done by Grameenphone, with women in rural areas and using that to generate income. But there's been quite some criticism of that model in academic literature as well. I think part of what we heard in the discussions today is that it isn't just about putting the infrastructure in. That's a challenge in its own right, it's difficult to do but it must be done. It is also necessary to put in  content and work out modalities,  to enable the poor and the marginalised to benefit from it.

Most countries in the world have that challenge.

My own personal interest is in how people with disabilities can use ICT effectively and productively in the economy. Very often people with disabilities are believed to be incapable of contributing to the economy. But if they can use the right technology, they can often become very productive contributors. There has been some really innovative work in that space.

In many countries, one of the challenges is the unemployed youth who are not qualified. The challenge is to make them productive so that they don't slip into crime and violence. A workshop was recently done in Trinidad and Tobago. We worked with young people to see how ICT can develop their skills and help them become entrepreneurs.

The first step is to get infrastructure, the ability to get connected. In the Eastern part of your country where the environment is not flat as it is in the delta here, that is the challenge. For the poorest, I think, even spending anything could be a challenge. I don't know the figures here but there are estimates in parts of Africa of poor people now spending a third of their disposable income on mobile telephony.

That's a phenomenal amount. It raise the question what were they spending this money on in the past, and should they be spending that much and are they getting the benefits?

Only if you have the right answers to those questions can there be escape from poverty for most.

Education is also very important to ensure that. In Bangladesh there has been some work like the BBC Janala, though I think that has stopped due to lack of funding. There's always that challenge. You can design good programmes but they need external funding because poor people don't have enough resources to use.

I maybe a bit old-fashioned and very Marxist but to me the role of the state is to deliver services to the poor and the most marginalised. That's why you have taxes so that everybody can benefit. It's essential for the government to intervene, which is always difficult because governments have limited resources.

But the connectivity and the power of these modern digital devices is such that we can use them effectually to support poor people and enable poor people to take control of their lives.

bdnews24.com: What initiative could be taken to ensure Cyber safety and to reduce Cyber crime in Bangladesh?

Unwin: Cyber security is a huge issue. There's critical information protection right down to protecting children at home. First thing is that there needs to be an overall framework, a holistic view. The government and BTRC are already doing it to protect national infrastructure. But then, let's take child online protection. That needs a huge buy-in from the local communities.

Every country has the challenges of space, in Europe child pornography is a massive issue and all too often it gets put under the carpet. Across the world pornography is the biggest use of internet. So we have to be open about it and talk about publicly.

There has to be a holistic framework in place. All stakeholders have to buy in to these.

I have a personal particular issue in the privacy agenda and big data. I will include that within the security and how do you protect the citizens against the power of the state and global corporations.

I know the government in Bangladesh is very interested in that. Question is at what level the government should intervene in terms of the propagation of particular messages. Some countries in the world are afraid of the use of social media by protesters, by small but vocal minorities; what some people in the world might call terrorists.

My advice to governments is that the cat is out of the bag, you can't put it back in. They should work with the social media corporations, with communities. The best way to overcome seditious or malicious social media is actually with people who are willing to outnumber that with words.

It's a different forum for democratic processes to operate. It has its good and bad sides, but the internet has enabled minorities to become vociferous and much more accepted now. Of course, minorities need to have voices.

But when voices that do not represent the view of the masses become particularly influential, that raises interesting questions.

bdnews24.com: Bangladesh has just introduced 3G, now we are preparing to go next generation network or LTE or 4G. Do you think it is the right time to introduce 4G in Bangladesh?

Unwin: That’s really a tough question. The simple answer is that technology is always evolving so you can never lock on to a particular technology. There is never a right time.

Moving to LTE or 4G is a huge shift to video data rather than just traditional telephony. That is clearly important to users of that.

Photo: asaduzzaman pramanik/ bdnews24.com

That may raise a question as large numbers in Bangladesh do not have any access at all. Those who will benefit from 4G are going to be the elite. So there is an argument, and I am not saying that it should not be applied in Bangladesh but there should be more effort to get basic 3G connectivity for as many people as possible before you go to 4G.

That happens to be one of the interesting things about 5G. I know the people who are working on the standards in the WRRF are really interested in how it can benefit everybody. And it just maybe that, when we move to this kind of ubiquitous 5G, that we'll have the means for a very different set of rules.

We don't know yet. My gut feeling is that those who want to make a lot of money out of it will still find ways of doing do (laughs) so it might not be as revolutionary as one might want. But 5G's still a very different concept.

I'm not here to advise the government. That has to be a collective decision, with all the stakeholders. But one has to look at the downsides. One has to realise that 4G will not be used in the short term by everybody, but if you have 3G for everyone that does represent a change.

The counter to that is, roll out 4G everywhere. But then when 5G comes you have a whole new set of expenses. My fear is that in the private sector, the technology isn't sustainable. How often do you buy a mobile, how often do you move from 2G to 3G to 4G? I would like to see a world where technologies aren't made redundant by new innovations.

So, as I said a very tough question. I don't envy regulators and governments who have to make that decision. I think usually the decision is made in terms of revenue expectations of the governments in the auctions, so they're very keen to go along with the private sector. You're judged, what percentage of 4G connectivity do you have?

If the revenue streams are there to make it viable, makes sense, do it. But my plea would be, again, to make sure everyone will benefit.

Because the better the technology, the greater the divide it will create between those who have it and those who don't.

bdnews24.com: Telecom operators often say that they are unable to run their businesses because of the Bangladeshi telecom regulatory framework and taxation policies. To expand ICT in the country what is your opinion, how should the framework be?

Unwin: In every country the operators always argue they can deliver solutions more cheaply more effectively without essentially being taxed by the regulator.

I think I am right in saying that the regulator here generates a significant part of the GDP.

It is abundantly clear across the world and throughout history that the private sector will not provide for the poorest and the most marginalised.

Therefore the role of the government is to secure something for everybody, at least as much as possible. So as long as the regulator is using the revenue to ensure that everyone has (ICT) access that seems to be a very sensible thing to do.

Operators always say they are not making enough, but they manage to have smart offices and smart cars, and I can’t believe the operators aren't making a little bit of money.

I think it is a question of compromise. I think it works best where there's a good dialogue between the operators and regulator.

There's nothing wrong with the private sector making profits and that's what it does well. But my experience is that they aren't going to work in the most difficult, the most marginalised areas.

bdnews24.com: How can CTO help Bangladesh expand ICT and telecommunication sector? 

Unwin: In Bangladesh there is a particular need for capacity development in the mid managerial level. There are some good techie people down below and good people at the top.

Secondly in our six priority areas where we have expertise, shared knowledge actually we are drawing down on that in terms of development policies. Holding training and workshops building capacity, communicating events I think could help. Cyber security, disabilities...

A third area is that the CTO, I think, is building a nice level of trust, both with the government and the private sector. So if there are restrictions and blocks in what's happening, we can perhaps facilitate. Something that we have began to do in other parts of the world is bringing together confidential meetings among stakeholders. We can build confidence and share good practices.      

We'd like to see ourselves as a critical friend. Not too critical, but we'd like to challenge our members on some things. We're a resource that can be drawn on.

bdnews24.com: Do you have any suggestions for Bangladesh, on how we can expand our ICT and telecommunications sector?

Unwin: As outsiders it's not our role to come in and tell people what to do, that's a complete anathema to how I want the CTO to work. What we want to happen is that we want people to come to us and say we have this particular issue and what sort of solutions can you bring?

I have seen some amazing and interesting things when I was here last year in Jessore and looking at how the government is really committed to using ICT, public officials having their diaries publicly available on the web so that people know when they can visit them, the whole digitisation of the land registry...a lot of exciting things happening. The digitalisation of some of the government services will ensure transparency and good governance.

The government is certainly committed to get access to everyone but there is a long way to go.

One thing I believe is that in Bangladesh there is immense human capacity. Bangladesh, compared to some other countries, has always supported women, women have been successful in the industry and the government.

There are good engineers, good software developers.

I think every country in the world wants to be a regional hub.