ICT liberalisation lies at the heart of development

ICT Development and Initiative Dossier from June 2002, states that "since the beginning of the 1980s almost all national telecom and information technology markets worldwide have been transformed by technological innovation, product diversification (especially the introduction of mobile/cellular telephony and internet) and market restructuring (particularly privatisation, liberalisation and the introduction of independent regulators)."  This holds true in some countries, more than others, and in some instances, the levels of liberalisation and regulation in the ICT sector, seem to directly correlate with the health of the country's democracy.

Civil and economic benefits of liberalising ICT's

Market liberalisation and the adjustment of regulation levels for ICT industries, results in a growing shift from state owned monopolies, to a more open market which allows for competition from various dynamic and privately driven entities.  Some governments and national operators are threatened by the prospect of increased competition and decreased state control, but for civil society and the economy as a whole, there's an array of benefits.

Economic analyst, Vlade Milicevic argues that through adjusting the legislative and regulatory mobile telephony frameworks, increased competition leads to improved customer choice, enhanced quality, more efficient services, reduced prices, faster product innovation and growing economic development for both the market and the relevant country.  These positive impacts are notable in various case studies on Central Eastern European countries, where the sector has recently been liberalised.

Similar cost benefit patterns have occurred in various ICT sectors.  Between 1998 and 2002; retail prices of fixed telecommunications industry in the EU, decreased by 8,2% due to liberalising the regulatory framework (Grzybowski, 2008).  Likewise since internet telephony liberalisation, such as VoIP based services being legalised in various countries, call prices have dramatically decreased.  For instance, in the US a few years ago, calls to India were 50 cents per minute and now they are less than 5 cents per minute from fixed lines.

Other than decreasing costs, ICT liberalisation has other benefits.  For instance, VoIP has enabled the possibility of using outsourced call centres, by offering US callers a local number, routed over the internet to a call centre based offshore.  In the US, due to VoIP, 80% of companies have call centres located off shore.  This cuts costs for the US companies and generates employment and income for the offshore country.  These employment and revenue benefits are notable in countries such as in India, Malaysia, Singapore, Kenya and South Africa.

Other examples of the benefits of ICT liberalisation include community initiatives like Village Telco "an easy-to-use, scalable, standards-based, wireless, local, do-it-yourself, telephone company toolkit" which uses open sourced software, VoIP and wireless technologies, to extend the benefits of free local calls, cheap long distance calls, internet access and other information services to previously disadvantaged communities in South Africa and other developing countries.

Lack of liberalisation - loss of state income and content control

However in some countries such as Zimbabwe, VoIP remains in a legal grey zone.  According to a report commissioned by the CTO: Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation, "African regulators have been reluctant to legalise VoIP, based on a largely misguided attempt to protect the revenue base of the incumbent fixed-line, and in some cases, mobile telcos".  Un-progressive ICT legislation such as this, can retard growth in the sector, stunt the country's revenue, create lost opportunities, minimise volumes in new technologies, and leave communities isolated in information vacuums.

The World Bank recently stated that there is positive and direct correlation between growth in gross domestic product and ICT development.  Despite this, two factors seem to be hampering some governments from liberalising ICT markets; the threat of a decrease in revenues for state controlled monopolies and the decrease in control of the content that is available to the public.  ICT's, particularly the use of the internet and mobile phones, are making it difficult for undemocratic governments to control information; and in a communication age, information is power.

According to the UN Freedom of Information Conference 1948 , "Freedom of information is... the touchstone of all the freedoms".  Similarly, the declared principles from the WSIS: World Summit on Information Society of 2003 stated, "We reaffirm, as an essential foundation of the Information Society, and as outlined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; that this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.  Communication is a fundamental social process, a basic human need and the foundation of all social organisation.  It is central to the Information Society.  Everyone, everywhere should have the opportunity to participate and no one should be excluded from the benefits the Information Society offers."

This sentiment was again reiterated in a recent poll by the BBC, which established that 80% of 27,000 thousand people surveyed around the world, believe that access to the internet is a fundamental human right.  However, only about 25% of the world's population have access to the internet and various countries moderately to severely censor the information available.  For instance, China has vigorous internet censorship, including over sixty internet regulators, 30,000 estimated internet police and according to Amnesty International, the highest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world.  Despite Google in China's attempts to stand up to government censorship regulations, content intervention by the Chinese Government seems to be shifting further, into the mobile arena.  China Mobile, the main mobile network provider, recently started to scour text messages for 'illegal' content and has banned senders from using their service, if their personal messages do not comply with the government's content regulations.

Mobile phones as an information source and development tool

Information lies at the heart of development, and countries, particularly developing ones, should leverage the opportunities that ICT's can provide.  Given the low investment required by individuals to connect to information sources through mobile phones, and the widespread uptake and use of mobile phones; tools that target phone users are particularly important as communication platforms.  Mobile technologies like SMS, IVR: Interactive Voice Recognition and GPRS/3G/4G have great potential to extend information at low cost to a variety of audiences.

One example of an innovative platform using mobile telephony and IVR is Freedom Fone.  It is designed for NGO's, service organisations and information activists, who want to reach out with audio information in the form of voice menus to mobile phone users.  Freedom Fone is particularly useful for communicating focused and time sensitive information that may not be easily accessible for certain communities in developing regions.  By connecting to GSM networks via low cost USB devices, Freedom Fone removes all reliance on internet connectivity, for all users of the platform.  It is a cost saving way of making information accessible to communities located in both rural and urban areas.  For instance, in Zimbabwe, internet access is expensive and largely limited to computer users in urban centres; in comparison with GSM coverage which is steadily increasing across the country.  The user interface is very simple to use and callers can use any kind of telephone, mobile or landline, to call-in and listen to information associated with the selected audio menu options.  Audio files can be produced in any language, making it useful in countries where there are many languages, dialects or where low literacy prevails.

Sectors that benefit include health, education, agro-extension, democracy, employment and social support.  Examples of call-in information services can include seasonal agricultural information for farmers, emergency health information during an epidemic/disease outbreak, first aid advice for pre and post-natal mothers, community notices and health advice for stigmatised minorities.  The leave-a-message functionality opens the door to two-way communication with callers via voice messages.  Through this avenue, audio reports from eye witnesses can be gathered, opening up the potential of using the platform for citizen journalism.  An example of this kind of usage would be election monitoring and reporting.  The practical use, cost and scalability of tools like Freedom Fone, depend on and benefit from ICT liberalisation.

In conclusion

Increased liberalisation of the ICT sector would increase competition, create greater customer choice and improve the quality and efficiency of the products and services offered.  It would reduce the price of communication technologies, making it more affordable and more widely accessible for all.  It would further market growth, enhance ICT infrastructure and speed up the rate of innovation.  The increased use of ICT's would improve technical capability, skill and productivity within the consumer, government, business and development sectors.  It would offer increased investment and employment opportunities, heighten countries' revenue/GDP and overall improve economic development.  Decreased content regulation and a shift away from censorship, would help to improve the flow of vital information and to transform traditional economies into stronger, more knowledge based economies.  Overall, a shift to a more liberalised ICT market, would honour fundamental human rights, such as the freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of information, which are all part of the foundations of a healthy democracy.