Networks for Small Blue Planets

Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications Inc., moderated this afternoon panel at Freedom to Connect, which concentrated on the telecommunications challenges and opportunities outside of the United States.

Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications Inc., moderated this afternoon panel at Freedom to Connect, which concentrated on the telecommunications challenges and opportunities outside of the United States. Participants included Brian Condon, CEO of the Access to Broadband Campaign, Farooq Hussain, principal of Network Conceptions, Rahul Tongia, a research engineer at Carnegie Mellon University, Daniel Berninger of Tier1 Research, and Rebecca MacKinnon, a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. What follows is a partial transcript of their wide-ranging conversation:


Brian Condon: I have one slide to show you and then some pictures. I’m not going to talk for long. What’s it’s about, I believe, more than the stuff we’ve heard is take up and use. We’ve heard a lot about technologies this morning. But I want to point out this one statistic — broadband subscribers per 100 head of population. We are short of metrics linking economic development to broadband deployment.

This is where the UK gradually, gradually crawled up to. This is where we’d like to go. And that is where you guys are. Interestingly enough, the top bars are alternative platforms. In Korea, only 2% of the population uses alternative platforms. The Europeans use no alternative platforms. Wireless is under the radar of the regulator and the government.

One more thing: It cost me $5,000 to come here. I’m here to hear what the best brains in the U.S. are all about. Stop dicking about.

Farooq Hussain: I spent a lot of time hooking people up to the Internet in foreign countries. NSFNet ended up connecting people overseas to the United States and very few backbones. It’s not a crisis, but it’s the end of a particular row. There are about 30 backbones that connect to the top three four in the U.S. That accounts for about 90% of the exchange. What’s happened in the last six months is that the top carriers outside the U.S. that deliver their traffic to the core infrastructure have decided they won’t with the same commercial infrastructure.

The top infrastructure backbones have really been central to carrying traffic. These global backbones won’t be that important any more. People have found ways to get where they want to.


Condon: What happens when there is a problem in the core backbone of the Internet?

Hussain: That’s depreciating. The United States infrastructure is less important than it was. Your traffic probably won’t get where it’s supposed to go without your provider paying more than it’s used to.

Rahul Tongia: My work is on developing countries and infrastructure. We’re here talking about freedom to connect. Free as in beer. Free as in speech. Let’s talk about free email. You still need a computer. You need connectivity. What are your restrictions to connection? It comes down to infrastructure. The digital divide still gets a lot of attention. They talk about Internet governance issues. That’s not the reason connectivity is problematic in other countries. Economic, social, gender, age, and geography divides are more of a problem.

Connectivity is just one subset of the digital divide. In Africa, affordability is a key issue. You need access. You need a connection. Shared access is a very good model. That still needs a lot of buying from government. They need to rethink networks. Cell phone companies won’t solve the problem. Think of rural electrification.

Most countries in Africa are small in Internet scale. Yet they’re all trying to reinvent the wheel. International connectivity isn’t what we should talk about. We need domestic content. We also need to think big — incremental change will only lead to incremental benefits. Waiting for the market won’t be enough, and it won’t be sustainable. We need to find a balance between St. Mark’s and St. Market.

In the U.S., we’re struggling to get open access done right, and we’re facing legislation that’s trying to keep that from getting done. I don’t want to see that happen. You don’t need to learn from the West.


Daniel Berninger: I want to introduce the idea of an international Internet treaty. We’ve got them for the oceans. For outer space. Why not for the Internet? As users, we own the Internet. Remember John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace? We need a Declaration of Independence. With this treaty, with is basically the space treaty with very few words changed, we’ve declared our independence.

Rebecca MacKinnon: I’m coming from an interesting perspective. I moved back to the States about a year ago after living in Asia for 12 years. I’m really glad Daniel brought up the issue of governance, because I wish that there were an entire conference devoted to that. Most discussions of governance focus on the United States first and then the rest of the world.

And I’m glad, Brian, that you brought up that chart. The United States was, what, number 10? If the best and brightest minds in the United States are only thinking about connectivity in a domestic fashion, we’re going to go further down.

Since leaving CNN, I’ve been focusing on grassroots interactive media. Right now I’m working on a project called Global Voices Online with Ethan Zuckerman. If you’re going to know what an Iraqi thinks, you had to go through your national media or governmental intermediary.

We believe in free speech and in global access to the tools of free speech. There need to be more active attempts to build bridges.