BEIJING – It’s after midnight and I’m waiting to board my flight from Beijing to Brussels. Despite the hour, the airport is a hive of activity. All around me are people with smart phones arranging their lives – at home, at work and on the move – with the press of a button.
I’ve worked as an electrical engineer for longer than I care to reveal and have witnessed first-hand the ICT (r)evolution, but even I can’t help but marvel at how far we have come from the first portable computers or mobile phones, or even since the world wide web emerged.
In recent years, the world has seen a rapid convergence of media, models and behaviour governing the ICT sector, and the internet in particular. Indeed, 2012 is shaping up to be a big year for broadband. Super-fast and ‘always on’, broadband rollout has rightly been targeted by governments around the world as a way of boosting employment and economic growth.
Broadband is an unparalleled equaliser of people, empowering everyone from village shop-keepers in Botswana to mega-factories in Belgium. In a spirit of public-private partnership, ICT companies have invested time and effort into helping states realise their national broadband plans.
The European Union recognised the importance of broadband a long time ago. It is a pillar of the EU’s Digital Agenda which has set targets to be attained by 2020, such as broadband of at least 30Mbps for everyone. The developing world is also aware of the power of broadband and in many ways benefits from not having to deal with the diverse legacy systems in place throughout the industrialised world.
My company, Huawei, is a technology company so our broadband initiatives make good business sense, but we also see it as an important tool for bridging the digital divide between the ‘haves’ in much of the developed world and the ‘have nots’ everywhere else. As a Chinese multinational company, it means more to us than simply exercising corporate social responsibility. China’s rapid emergence as a global market player is living proof of the power of technology to create new opportunities.
Just looking at our own portfolio, I see two products with the potential to be game-changers for the developing world in 2012: our ‘Single RAN’ (radio access network) and IDEOS smart phone. Telecom operators in emerging economies struggle to afford the latest network equipment, but Single RAN is simple to install and maintain even in remote locations, and because it allows operators to receive and transmit across all mobile generations (2G, 3G and even 4G) it offers backward and forward compatibility for the price of one installation. We consciously developed a feature-rich but sub-$150 smart phone (released in 2010) to stimulate take up in the developing world which, due to lack of telecom infrastructure, jumped straight to mobile broadband solutions. Access to low-cost smart phones has spearheaded a wave of innovative micro-businesses, micro-credit projects and apps.
But providing the technology is only part of the contribution that ICT companies can make in emerging markets. I think we also have a responsibility to set up and run training programmes, like our ‘Telecom seeds for the future’ scheme, which nurture talented youngsters in their quest for innovative solutions to their countries’ challenges.
ICTs are also the backbone supporting e-government developments, which I believe are fundamental to bridging the digital divide. Through their policies, procurement and services, governments play a huge role in promoting development, in particular as a ‘first adopter’ of innovative technologies that drive change. In today’s financial situation, Europe and elsewhere will really benefit from the sort of streamlined internal processes and cost savings enabled by ICTs.
There are many other hot topics for 2012 which can have a development dimension, too. Cloud computing, for example, is a paradigm shift in the notions of IT ownership. With broadband in place, any sized organisation, anywhere in the world can do serious computing tasks without expensive servers and IT teams. They just need a ‘dumb terminal’ and something like our ‘cloud office’ network solutions and the rest is downloadable or outsourced at a reasonable cost.
Open source (OS), interoperability and standards are also important so that poorer countries don’t get unfairly locked into a cloud silo, especially on the terminal/operating system side. Here, I’m in favour of the market finding the most efficient solutions on a fair playing field along the whole value chain, backed by long-term vision and policy guidance from governments. Right now, the OS market is fragmenting between three main players. The Commission may seek industry agreements on a system of ‘functional interoperability’ between these OS systems.
Security is big challenge in the context of broadband, cloud computing and indirectly the digital divide. The benefits of ICTs and the whole notion of a ‘future internet’ of things all linked up through sensors and smart ‘mobile’ devices can come unstuck if security holes aren’t plugged. The internet is geographically agnostic so the developed world could find itself just as exposed. But Huawei believes that through regulation, standardisation and technological collaboration solutions can be found.
I could also talk at length about the China/India equation and their emergence as major players in the IT world and how this works as a blueprint inspiring greater ‘ICT literacy’ and take-up in that region and beyond. But that’s perhaps something for a future contribution!
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