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Making Sense of the UN’s WSIS

By | January 12, 2004

      By David Hartshorn

      GENEVA – The recent World Summit for the Information Society (WSIS) – a United Nations initiative that aims to bridge the digital and knowledge divides — yielded a promising outcome and set the stage for what may be expanded access to communications in developing countries and tangible opportunities for the satellite industry.

      More than 25,000 delegates participated in the event, amid private- and public-sector suspicions that the results would resemble so many other high-level political forums – all talk and no action. However, WSIS’ first major meeting held Dec. 10-12 at the Geneva Palexpo Center ultimately may result in increased adoption of and funding for satellite-based services aimed at applications such as distance education, tele-medicine, e-government, and network solutions for small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), particularly in the emerging regions. If the full promise of WSIS materializes, this will transpire against a backdrop of policies and regulations that more effectively facilitates the cost-effective provision of satellite services.

      Delivering a Tall Order

      Likewise, if the potential satellite-industry dividends appear generous, it is because the goals defined by the WSIS participants are massive. The summit’s proposed objectives include linking all of the world’s villages (approximately 1.5 million remain unconnected), as well as all of the educational institutions, health centers, hospitals and local and central government departments by 2015.

      What may appear as overly optimistic aims are backed up partly by investment of political capital at the highest levels – more than 50 heads of state were hosted by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan during WSIS – and partly by past performance of the telecom sector. For example, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reported during WSIS that the last two decades have borne witness to enormous progress in deployment of telecom infrastructure in emerging regions:

      For example, fixed telephone lines in developing countries make up 43 percent of the world’s total today, up from 12 percent in 1984.

      In the last four years, 1.5 billion phone lines were added to the billion laid in all previous years. Further, three out of four new telephone users are in the developing world.

      Even so, the WSIS objectives are a tall order. Fewer than 3 percent of Africans can access telecommunications of any kind. Only one-third of developing-country inhabitants are Internet users. And the 400,000 citizens of Luxembourg have more international Internet bandwidth than Africa’s 760 million citizens.

      One of the first challenges to overcome during the WSIS process was establishing a political consensus on how to address such disparities. This was achieved with the unveiling of two key documents – the Draft Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action, both of which were approved just 24 hours before the official summit opening. Finalizing the documents involved a year of political wrangling and marathon document-drafting sessions, as government representatives negotiated problematic issues such as Internet governance, intellectual property rights, the media, security, traditional knowledge, and labor standards, among others. Lobbyists, meanwhile, jockeyed to promote causes that ranged from creating opportunities for women, children and the aged, to alleviating starvation, disease and poverty.

      The vital role to be played by satellites in serving such interests was promoted by Strengthening Access to Communications, a consensus-based document established by the regulatory working group of the Global VSAT Forum (GVF) and posted earlier this year as an official WSIS submission. The document also offered a regulatory and policy guidance to national administrations interested in optimizing access to satellite communications.

      That message was re-enforced during a WSIS panel entitled, Satellite Communications’ Contribution to Bridging the Digital Divide. Chaired by Viktor Kotelnikov, scientific officer for the program on space applications at the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, the panel included presentations by the author of this article; R. Dunnette of Worldspace Corp.; Vasanta Kumar, engineer with the Indian Space Research Organization; Tom Rebbeck, an analyst with Euroconsult; Joaquin Restrepo of the Programa COPARTEL at the Colombian Ministry of Communications; and Jose Toscano, director of external affairs at the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (ITSO).

      Meanwhile, as these and other key satellite-industry contributions were being made during the summit’s political agenda-setting process, the business of structuring and funding projects was underway in the exhibit hall next door.

      Where’s the Money?

      “Imagine a world without wires, cable or satellite service,” opened one of the main WSIS briefing papers circulating in Geneva. Entitled Connecting for Global Progress, it showed how telecom can improve lives in remote areas, citing Bhutan’s postal services, which will soon employ satellite-based systems.

      The case study, which was also promoted separately during WSIS by the Bhutan government and the Switzerland-based Universal Postal Union (UPU) – a UN agency responsible for regulating international postal services – clearly demonstrated to governments how satellite-based information and communication technology (ICT) can contribute to development today. “With millions of people still without computers, it illustrates perfectly the relevance of the postal service in the information age,” said UPU Director General Thomas Leavey.

      The Bhutan project and others like it stimulated strong interest in satellite communications from governments and funding agencies, which, driven largely by momentum from WSIS commitments, are planning to undertake a vast range of ICT infrastructure and connectivity projects. This will require increased government budgetary allocations, as well as private-sector investors and development partners to fund ICT projects.

      Despite the hype associated with WSIS, this first phase of the initiative served as an effective agenda-setting forum, as well as a constructive platform for public- and private-sector cooperation. A clear vision for potential work between stakeholders has begun to be established during the two years before the next major WSIS meeting in Tunis in 2005, as well as in the decade that will follow.

      David Hartshorn is secretary general of the Global VSAT Forum.

      He can be reached at 44 1727 884739 or .

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