Throughout history, the distance between technology and society has been a defining characteristic of nations, empires and peoples. While it’s tempting to say that the most technologically sophisticated societies represent the pinnacle of human achievement, that’s not necessarily true. Some would argue that keeping social values paramount and learning how to adapt technology to human needs is a more effective means to ensure the health of a society.
Unfortunately, health, happiness and social justice can’t always be judged using objective economic measures. How does one measure crimes that don’t happen, meals that don’t get missed, sick days not taken?
Economic indicators do serve a number of useful purposes, of course. The Pacific Economic Survey – I wrote about it here – includes some extremely useful and instructive data concerning the effects of market liberalisation on communications. It also pointed out some inherent weaknesses in Vanuatu and elsewhere in the region, particularly with regards to technical know-how.
People in Vanuatu could teach many an economist a thing or two about what makes for a meaningful and contented life. But isolation is part of what has made life in Vanuatu simpler and more relaxed, and as that isolation erodes, we find ourselves facing significant technical challenges, some of which have a steep learning curve.
The small group of individuals who have taken leadership in opening the telecommunications market in Vanuatu have been remarkably successful thus far. People close to the process agree that the settlement agreement and the new licenses are extremely well framed. They have learned by the example of those countries who went before, and have created a comprehensive and detailed framework with very little ambiguity. This allows Digicel, Telecom Vanuatu and future entrants to focus on doing business rather than bogging themselves down in legalese, negotiation and other distractions.
But there remains much to be decided, and much to be done:
RADIO FREQUENCY MANAGEMENT
It’s possible that the negotiators have underestimated the scope and the amount of special knowledge involved in managing the radio spectrum. From a technical viewpoint, radio is not just the thing sitting on your kitchen table. Television, FM and AM radio, mobile telephones, wireless Internet (institutional and personal), satellite communications, aviation, shipping, the military, meteorological and emergency services – all these things and a good many others need to be considered when managing the radio spectrum. It’s a decidedly non-trivial undertaking that requires a strong understanding of physics, electronics and environmental science as well as international law and regulation. Finally, a bit of good business sense and a dose of political sensitivity would be useful as well.
There are innumerable technical, political and social issues regarding Internet use that need to be judiciously addressed – and sometimes judiciously not addressed – by the new regulatory body. The most pressing issue right now is ensuring a level playing field for all those concerned. That requires a high level of technical savvy, especially where enforcement is concerned. We can write good laws and regulations, but if nobody checks to see if the rules are being followed, then we’d just as soon not have bothered.
Network Neutrality is key. Verifying that a carrier isn’t artificially degrading the service of a competitor requires only a few simple tools. But interpreting the output of these tools accurately demands in-depth understanding and much practice.
Likewise the role of consumer watchdog. It requires long experience in the world of business along with a good dollop of discretion. Much of the time, regulators prefer to let the market sort itself out: Let the people vote with their pocketbooks.
There have always been tensions between local and national social conventions and the Internet as a whole. There’s enough content there to offend and even threaten everyone. Countries have reacted differently to this. China, for example, runs everything through a filter dubbed ‘the Great Firewall of China’. Some Middle-Eastern countries allow only extremely limited access to it. The US and many European nations take the opposite tack, doing their best to balance freedom of expression and personal privacy.
The only common thread to their respective and collective efforts is that nobody has successfully managed to change the Internet. Like the ocean, the Internet does what it does, providing us with endless topics for discussion and few opportunities for input. Regardless, politicians and regulators will face calls to define how the Internet is used by businesses and individuals. Discerning the line between what’s desirable and what’s possible will require equal parts perspicacity and tact.
As part of the market liberalisation process, the Government set up the Universal Access Fund. This pot of cash, currently worth several million dollars, will be used to ensure that even unprofitable areas of the country can be serviced. Digicel and TVL have both agreed to pay a percentage of their annual net profits into the fund to ensure that it’s never empty.
When they signed their license agreement, Digicel committed a cash bond to make mobile services accessible to 85% of Vanuatu’s people within 18 months. It’s an ambitious undertaking, one that others said simply could not be done. But with over 50 towers dotted across the islands of Vanuatu, Digicel seems intent on achieving – and possibly exceeding – that goal.
As far as mobile phone service is concerned, universal access isn’t a huge problem. The move to digital technologies, where everything is just data, and low-cost software does most of the heavy lifting, will soon mean that virtually every kind of service available in Sydney will be available in Vila, and in most of the islands as well.
This goes a long way to closing the gulf that exists between technological haves and have-nots, but it raises some questions as well. If everything is digital, who is a carrier? TVL and Digicel clearly fit the bill, but what about the company that sets up Skype services in Malekula? Should they too be paying into the fund? If so, how? Would it be sufficient to simply tack on another percent or two to the company’s VAT remittance?
There’s the issue of who gets the money, too. Micro-businesses are likely the best way to traverse the Melanesian Last Mile, but relying on market forces alone puts most ni-Vanuatu at a huge disadvantage. Many local credit facilities are punitive at best, and kastom land doesn’t count as collateral. But installing and maintaining even a small digital network in the islands is no mean feat. Selecting candidates with the right balance of local knowledge, technical experience and business acumen will require selectors with a strong background in each of those areas. Such people are as rare as hen’s teeth and consequently always in demand.
Australia’s Pacific Economic Survey suggests that we shore up the technical knowledge deficit with outside experts based in a regional body. Such a resource will be useful, but the challenges we face require a level of in-depth, detailed local knowledge that cannot be found anywhere but here. Our investment in developing this brand of uncommon sense among ni-Vanuatu will ultimately determine our future success or failure.