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Groping towards a `connected' world

Print edition : Jan 13, 2006 T+T-

Maitland+20: Fixing the Missing Link, edited by Gerald Milward-Oliver; The Anima Centre Limited, Wiltshire, United Kingdom; pages 244, 30.

`TO postpone a decision, form a committee' has served as the reliable mantra of government agencies worldwide, whenever a swift stalling action is called for. Like so many rules of bumbling bureaucracy, this one is proved by the occasional, inspired, exception. When the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an arm of the United Nations, set up an independent commission 20 years ago to examine worldwide developments in the telecommunications sector, it had no inkling that its final report would end up as a heavily quoted trend-setter, a document whose mixture of sound common sense and prescience would profoundly influence the massive changes of which the Internet and the mobile phone are just two of the most visible manifestations.

The report was titled "The Missing Link" - but it soon became known as the Maitland Report after the commission's chairman, the British diplomat Donald Maitland. It was ahead of its times in a key aspect: it recognised that telecommunications was not just about technology but about people. Long before the phrase `digital divide' become a buzzword, Sir Donald and his enlightened fellow-commissioners put human development squarely at the centre of their technology mandate.

The second and concluding phase of the U.N.- and ITU-sponsored World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS), which took place in Tunis in November 2005, seemed appropriately timed for a backward look at how far the world had come along the path the Maitland Report had sign-posted two decades ago. Which is why a handful of academics, analysts and industry-watchers have contributed an essay each on the concerns first voiced by Maitland, some successfully addressed, some still poignantly outstanding. Maitland+20 is a collection of these essays.

Tim Kelly, the ITU's head for strategy and policy, lists some of the telecommunication myths and near-misses: citations from the Maitland Report or its authors that have not stood the test of time - and rightly. In 1985, it was factually correct to say "there are more telephones in Tokyo than in the whole of Africa", "half the world's population has never made a telephone call" and "there are more Internet users in Iceland than in Africa".

None of these statements are true today. The most dramatic reduction in the digital divide has come with the Internet. In the decade since 1992, the gap between Internet use in developed countries and the developing world has narrowed from 41 times to nine times. Kelly suggests that routinely highlighting the gap downplays the very significant strides made by countries such as India, where mobile phone densities have sky-rocketed.

James Deane, Managing Director of the U.K.-based Communication for Social Change Consortium, argues that the real divide is neither digital nor telecom-based but a gap in information. Which is why so many African countries at the WSIS echoed a common feeling: "The radio is our Internet." On a continent where the telecom infrastructure, and hence the Internet, is still woefully inadequate, thousands of FM radio stations play a crucial role in information-sharing.

Upbeat statistics sometimes hide glaring inequalities. Prof. Robin Mansell of the London School of Economics and Political Science points out that while more than half the world's households are now said to have access to a fixed-line telephone, and the footprints of mobile operators cover 77 per cent of the world's population, the scenario looks quite different when one looks just at the rural areas. As many as 800,000 villages (30 per cent of all villages worldwide) do not have any form of connectivity. The Simputer developed in Bangalore in 1999 was a brave attempt to make the Internet accessible to rural India, but the project could not scale up to the commercial numbers required to become a viable product. The Tunis event saw the launch of the much-hyped $100 laptop computer developed at the media laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Yet the enticing numbers do not tell the whole truth. The laboratory's Prof. Nicholas Negroponte agreed during the launch that the product could be sold at that price only if a million pieces were ordered at one go. More down to the earth, perhaps, is an initiative like TeNet, launched by the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, which addresses the basic problem of rural connectivity.

Maitland+20 also includes a contribution by Chetan Sharma, who as CEO of the Datamation group of companies and the founder of a non-profit trust created by the company, represents what enlightened entrepreneurs in India can do. Sharma's organisations have helped bring the benefits of business process outsourcing to some of the smallest villages in India where Datamation has made bold to set up call centres staffed by two and three persons.

The Swedish government's Adviser on Information and Communication Technology, Astrid Dufborg, draws attention to an interesting project of the UN ICT Task Force: Global eSchools and Communities Initiative. Now an independent non-governmental outfit based in Ireland, the GeSCI works in Namibia, India, Ghana and Bolivia. Interestingly, its Indian efforts are directed by Aruna Sundararajan, whose long stint as the Information Technology Secretary for Kerala, saw meaningful projects such as the Akshaya e-literacy campaign take root. The GeSCI is working closely with Rajasthan on its pilot project.

In an interview that concludes the book, Maitland looks back at the trends and technologies that have followed the publication of the report that bore his name. Sri Lankan fisher people and Masai cattlemen now use mobile phones to empower themselves.

He is candid enough to admit that the tools he suggested to fix the missing link in global communication have, in many cases, changed beyond recognition. "But the missing link is being fixed, and that's what matters," he says.

In another age, novelist E.M. Forster used as the coda of his novel, Howard's End, the phrase "Only connect!" It still remains a succinct expression that sets the world an agenda for a future where every human being is truly connected and empowered.