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Netting a Billion New Customers

by Glen Emerson Morris
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The recent Information Highway Summit in Brussels has provided a good indication of the state of communications development outside of the United States.

The phrase "Information Highway" is a now global buzz word. Every nation seems to be aware it's in some kind of race it can't afford to lose. The developed nations are in a race to upgrade their communications systems, and the developing nations are in a race to have any communications system at all. It's only a matter of time before the phrase "communications gap" is regularly heard on the nightly news.

The communications race has become a variation of the arms race, except a tie will result in everyone winning, not losing. In this race, nations have a vested interest in seeing their opponents win. Every new person online adds to the pool of dollars to be spent through the net. With DHL and other international delivery services, it's possible to send products from anywhere in the world to Timbuktu in just a few days now. If the product is information, delivery can be immediate.

The two common problems every nation seems to face going online are issues of money and politics. It costs a lot of money to build a communications infrastructure, and requires a singularity of enlightened political will to overcome existent bureaucracies. The results so far indicate it is better to have no money and no bureaucracy, than to have a bureaucracy with money.

Of all the world, Europe seems to be facing the most difficult time building the IH. The Common Market may have done away with national boundaries within Europe, but it left the continental myriad of communications monopolies untouched. Some European countries have nationalized phone systems, others have multiple systems, and none of theses bureaucracies seem willing to give up any autonomy for the sake of a greater Europe. The Internet is the only cross border communications standard likely to be available throughout Europe for years.

Japan has money, and only one bureaucracy, giving them a singular advantage in the communications race. The cornerstone of their communications strategy is a flat rate for all calls made within Japan, made possible by a national fiber optic network. In the Japanese strategy the fiber optic network is merely a means to an end, not the end itself, as with the American policy. The combined effects of the rate policy and their "just in time" delivery service will likely produce a much more efficient economic engine than the United Stares or Europe, and is needs to be watched carefully.

At the Brussels Summit, nearly every country in the third world seemed to want to be online as soon as possible, and are seeking the funding to make it possible from more affluent developed nations. The developing nations have no money and no bureaucracy, and are in an excellent position to make immediate improvements without the delays bureaucracies impose. All they need are loans to get going.

The world financial powers have been cool on the idea. The World Bank has been rethinking it's policy of funding large infrastructure development because decades of dam, highway, and similar large scale projects haven't made an appreciable dent in third world poverty. The new policy seems to favor investing in "human capital", but hasn't defined this particularly well yet, except to say that it isn't an information highway.

This is a big mistake, for "human capital" is exactly what is created when information is exchanged. By connecting every person in the third world with all the information they need to make a more efficient living from their environment, they will overcome both poverty and ignorance, and have the money to buy a great deal more than they do now. This information is available free, on Internet servers at universities across the world. Failing to subsidize the development of networks in developing countries may delay their development for years, keeping a billion prospective customers off-line in the process.

We have only to double the income of the billion people in the world who live on a dollar a day, to create a new billion dollar market, every day. Europe may well spend more to dismantle their communications bureaucracies than it will cost to bring the Third World online.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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