ETel Keynotes: An Interview with Norman Lewis
Pages: 1, 2
Stewart: Tell us a little bit about the work you've been doing with the UN and the ITU to shrink the digital divide. Are there reasons for optimism? What do you think will make the most difference in improving the status quo?
Lewis: I would make no claim to having helped shrink the Digital Divide, apart from having critically engaged in the debate that has helped to shape policy and thinking in this sphere through my participation in the ITU World and Regional TELECOM Forums.
I have always been highly skeptical of this debate. On the one hand, the debate has been shaped by a staggering technological determinism. On the other, it has been dominated by a Western pessimism that has sought to lower the expectations of poor and developing countries to accept "appropriate technology" for their future, like a $100 laptop. The loudest voices in this debate have come from countries where technological development has always followed a predictable adoption curve--where the rich and well-educated adopt technologies first, to be followed by the rest when these technologies became mass-market propositions. I find it remarkable that the loudest voices in the debate have come from Western commentators who have fundamentally lost faith in the market system they uphold being able to deliver the goods. Yet, the pessimists have been proven wrong. The Digital Divide has lessened and in some instances, it has been reversed: just look at developments in India, China, and South Korea, to name a few. And in the area of broadband for example, it can be argued that today the U.S. and Europe lags behind South Korea--what about that Digital Divide?
The really positive side to recent developments is that the internet, and particularly IP, has changed the game with respect to development. Disruptive technologies, particularly wireless technologies, have ensured that developing countries can take advantage of the lowered economic thresholds for infrastructure deployment, for example. Advanced and next-generation networks are being deployed effectively and have allowed many of these countries to leapfrog yesterday's development paradigms. The innovation, drive, and creativity we are witnessing are staggering.
This provides grounds for much optimism. A new generation of entrepreneurs and innovators is beginning to emerge in these countries; ambitious individuals who are in a better position to understand and solve the problems their societies face with regard to the digital future. This has already transformed yesterday's debate about the Digital Divide into tomorrow's Digital Opportunity, which will certainly not include a $100 laptop!
My real concern, however, is that the developing world will be influenced by the lowered expectations and doom-laden agendas of so many Western protagonists of this debate.
Stewart: How can VoIP and related technologies help the marginalized people of the world?
Lewis: When these networks are established, VoIP, because of its economic implementations, will be a huge driver in the developing world. I would expect many new initiatives around VoIP to emerge in these markets, particularly because service deployment will not be threatened by legacy systems and yesterday's business models.
There's also interesting work going on in organizations like the Fonly Institute. In seeking to establish some principles for "Fair Trade Technologies," the institute has sought to provide rural communities with the means to access information, and hence participate in global market economics. For example, if a farmer can access market information, he is better equipped to resist prevailing prices by contributing local knowledge to the marketplace and yielding fairer prices. This requires a communications infrastructure, and not only enhances rural incomes, but can reduce cultural isolation in rural communities and provide new opportunities for the young--whom often migrate from such communities out of necessity rather than opportunity.
Telecommunications isn't a silver bullet for the marginalized, but in particular contexts it can help to alleviate and reverse structural problems in disadvantaged communities.
Stewart: Who thinks they own this space: the Telcos, the ISPs, or the Google/Yahoo/EBay trinity?
Lewis: Actually no one but the customer "owns this space." If there's anything we should learn from history its that user behavior and social forces will determine the shape of this space in the future. Just remember the first predictions on telephony itself!
But there is a sea change taking place. Telcos have begun to understand that voice is simply another data service over wireless or wired networks and that this migration of voice into the application layer opens voice to competition from other application-level players, such as portals. Though it appears GTalk, Y! Messenger, AIM, MSN Messenger and eBay's Skype could commoditize Telcos as simple pipe-providers, it should be remembered that Telco expertise in identity and authentication, quality of service, convergence, billing, and customer care places them in a strong and potentially dominant position. This space will become hotly contested: Telcos believe they can maintain their positions, while ISPs, MNOs, portals and others believe they too can occupy this space and thus overturn old hegemonies.
"Telcos" in the traditional sense of the term will not occupy this space. VoIP is destroying existing business models and they will be disintermediated. But in the words of Lawrence of Arabia, "nothing is written"--yesterday's Telcos can transform themselves if they recognize this threat and become twenty-first century converged communication platforms.
Stewart: Developers have been key to the growth and dissemination of recent technology, yet for 150 years phone companies kept the barbarians at the gate. Now that said barbarians have leapfrogged the Telcos and their gatekeeper status, what happens to the Telcos? Is it all doom and gloom?
Lewis: It's certainly doom and gloom if you are trying to hold onto traditional Telco practices of the past. Revenues are under threat while business models are being destroyed. Most Telcos can see the writing on the wall and are beginning to act. With respect to your "barbarians" (a term I would not use to describe developers, although some I know certainly warrant that identity), a major cultural shift is needed to open Telcos to the new innovation modalities. Unfortunately, entrenched views about traditional business models go hand in hand with a Not-Invented-Here mentality. While we certainly have world-class expertise, this remains inadequate in the face of the rapidly changing innovation and implementation processes that we can no longer control. As with the development of the internet itself, dogma will have to give way to pragmatism. And that means lots of new opportunities for both parties.
But to reiterate the point above, while we're seeing interesting innovation at the application layer for voice, there are technological and business competencies that Telcos do execute well--customer care, billing, identity, scale, QoS--that are essential to platform businesses. Perhaps, those Telcos that can re-imagine themselves as platform providers, rather than service providers, stand the best chance. Telcos may not be driving innovation in telephony, but we can certainly play a role in enabling and empowering others to do so. Democratizing and diffusing the innovation process beyond the borders of our businesses will benefit everyone. This could be the start of a beautiful relationship!.
Stewart: If you had to pick one thing for people to come away from the Emerging Telephony conference knowing, what would it be?
Lewis: Some Telcos get it! We are not all evil. We may be perceived as the problem, but in reality, we will be part of the solution. We wish to sincerely engage with the developer community and provide the environment, tools, and platforms they seek. We have key assets in our networks, expertise, call centers, etc., and we can provide a stable environment for innovators to operate in. We understand that the monopoly we had in the past gives us no claim or right to dictate the future. But nor does it confer rights on anyone else. Open collaboration will unlock a truly innovative future in an area of communications that is long overdue for a shake-up.
Bruce Stewart is a freelance technology writer and editor.
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