Last Friday, I traveled with Colombia’s ICT Minister Diego Molano and representatives from Facebook and Qualcomm to Bucaramanga, Colombia. We visited Internet kiosks and computer centers that his government funded in two rural communities. We also joined local officials handing out tablets and laptops to hundreds of students to make the Internet connectivity made recently available at their schools more accessible and useful to them.
This visit stands apart from others I have made as the U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy in the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs. The students, the community, the teachers, and the parents were not just appreciative, they were inspired. And they were inspiring.
The kind of connectivity we have grown accustomed to in the United States constitutes a new lifeline of opportunity for students in low-income communities in Colombia and elsewhere. It makes it possible for citizens to access information about their government and to petition their leaders through social networks for better services. And it enables students to envision a life on a larger platform than the four corners of the town they live in.
That field trip brought to life the policy dialogue our two governments and the private sector had the day before in Bogota where we challenged ourselves to answer the question, “What kind of Internet do we want to leave for our children?”
Our priority is to leave the next generation an Internet that is open, free, global, and interconnected. We are asking governments across the world to work with us to ensure that we preserve that future. We are asking governments, NGOs, and the private sector to join with us to push back against efforts to centralize control of the Internet in the hands of an international intergovernmental organization and ensuring that all relevant stakeholders are able to have a voice in governance of the Internet.
The Colombians’ priority is to create for the next generation an Internet that is accessible, generates jobs in Colombia, and improves the lives of people living in low-income communities. The Colombian government asked us to join them in a collaborative effort between our governments, the private sector and universities, as well as Internet activists to develop the training and applications to make that possible.
These are not only mutually compatible efforts, they are mutually reinforcing.
So what’s missing, and what can the Internet community do to make both of our goals achievable?
In the first instance, innovation, private sector investment, and technology, combined with pro-market, pro-competition universal service efforts have to drive the universal deployment of wireless and wired networks and affordable access. In the United States and the majority of Colombia, the fiber is laid, the licenses to operate wireless networks have been issued, and there is Internet access in public places for those who do not have Internet access at home. But for low-income communities, particularly in Colombia, the service is not as affordable as we would all like. Efforts like those Facebook and its partners are executing through Internet.org show some promise toward bridging the affordability gap and we encourage industry and the community to do more along those lines.
But beyond access, we need the Internet community’s activists, engineers, training, and know how to help release the untapped talent around the globe. We have to do a better job of coordinating private sector and university-led training efforts and work together to better standardize certifications in software development in order to make those trained employable anywhere. We need to encourage and incentivize the private sector to lead the way in developing applications and services that will make Internet access useful and productive for the millions of people in Colombia and the billions of people worldwide living on less than $2 a day-- as our colleagues in Bogota referenced as “the base of the pyramid”. And we also want to do a better job of sharing best practices among government Chief Information Officers so that the government agencies they help run can better serve the people. In this way, they will effectively and fully leverage the ICT tools the Internet makes possible.
We acknowledge the needs of the Colombian community and those living under similar economic conditions. To best serve these global communities, we need a global, open platform that is responsive to multistakeholder concerns. An effective Internet system must be able to transfer data freely across borders in order to facilitate innovation. These are the only policies that will make possible the economies of scale and the aggregation of sufficient users at the base of the economic pyramid to make the creation and delivery of services economically viable to the billions of people who most need it.
Together, with our friends in Colombia and the global Internet community, we can and will meet the needs of all communities and help build a world that is more peaceful and more prosperous for our children.
About the Author: Ambassador Daniel A. Sepulveda serves as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy in the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs (EB).