New era of challenges
AT first glance, Nelson Mandela looked an odd choice as keynote speaker for the opening ceremony of the Olympiad of industry events - Telecom 95.
Surely, one thought, some Nobel prize-winning boffin rarely seen outside the research laboratory would have been more suitable.
On closer inspection the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) made a smart choice in engaging South African President Mandela's services. As a symbol of an emerging Africa, he represents one of the telecommunications industry's primary challenges.
That challenge is how to harness the breakneck speed of development of the industry so that it does not fragment into two distinct groups of the information haves and have-nots.
This challenge has long been recognised in mature telecommunications markets, particularly the United States, where there have been dire warnings of the splintering of our emerging information economies.
But the US and the rest of the developed world tend to look at the issue as a domestic one. Mr Mandela brought into focus the much more real dilemma of the whole world dividing on north-south lines into information haves and have-nots.
The challenge for the global community is to see that developing and emerging countries are not left behind in the charge to develop massive multimedia services on some world-spanning fibre backbone.
As we move towards this global information society, those countries without the basics in telecommunications infrastructure are going to find it increasingly difficult to participate in the new economy.
In the developed world, where the the industry tends to go along the lines of privatisation of traditionally public telecommunications utilities, and competition between new emerging telecom interests, the ITU itself has been presented with an uncertain future considering it has traditionally been the world representative body for public telecom's monopolies.
But Mr Mandela offered a newly invigorated role for the ITU.
He suggested it become the international driving force behind the development of telecommunications services in the world's poorer nations, and the forum for international policy, technological development, co-operation and skills transfer. Africa is woefully under-provided for in terms of telecommunications infrastructure, and faces special problems in developing that infrastructure. It is heartening to note then that the ITU has chosen to stage a Telecom Exhibition and Forum in South Africa in 1998 to specifically address those issues.
Mr Mandela's assessment of current global telecommunications trends in his keynote address were right on target; that a veritable revolution is sweeping the globe, a revolution that no single country or political entity has any hope of rolling back. The revolution promises to open communications across all geographical, cultural and political divides.
'One gulf will not be easily bridged - that is the division between the information rich and the information poor,' Mr Mandela said.
'Justice and equity demand that we find ways of overcoming it. If more than half the world is denied access to the means of communication, the people of developing countries will not be fully part of the modern world. For in the 21st century, the capacity to communicate will almost certainly be a key human right,' Mr Mandela said.
Eliminating the difference between the information-rich countries and information-poor countries becomes critical to the eventual elimination of other economic inequalities between the north and south and so, Mr Mandela said, improving the quality of life for everyone.
'But the present reality is that the technology gap between the developed and developing nations is actually widening. Most of the world has no experience of what readily accessible communications can do for society and economy,' Mr Mandela said.
However, the world can no longer simply address telecommunications as a single commercial sector thrown open to the forces of the free market; it is too important to all sectors of the world's economies. For developing nations to have any chance of participating in the emerging information economies, global programmes must be put in place to allow for the necessary and massive technology transfer to poorer countries in an effort to build the necessary pool of skilled resources and programmes that will allow poorer nations access to the massive investments required to build national telecommunications grids.
The telecommunications industry is an immensely wealthy one. It is simply a matter of more equitably distributing the industry's funds. Long-term co-operation is required, and the leadership of an international body that can devise schemes - perhaps based on the old accounting rate mechanism - that will eventually see a flow of funds and resources towards the telecommunications sectors of the underdeveloped world.
As the global network expands, everyone benefits. By encouraging the poor nations to participate in the information economy - based on the superhighway concept - then the economic pie grows bigger for everyone.