Developing Nations and Leapfrogging

In Prof. Nelson’s “What’s Shaping the Internet” class yesterday, one of our colleagues gave a good presentation on broadband in Africa.  We discussed a new backbone cable that will go live soon in Africa as well as the new O3b project to provide satellite service to the other 3 billion global citizens without internet access.

Our Yahoo!/ISD senior fellow, Gaurav, is auditing the class.  He stated that in India, where he’s from, they find mobiles to be the preferred form of access to the internet and to their social networks.  Broadband penetration is extremely low.  Contrast this with the US, where we have grown up with the internet, tethered to it by slow modem, slow DSL, slow cable, all the way up to where we are now.  And now devices like the iPhone and Blackberry are familiarizing us with using the internet on a handheld.  But we think of mobile as an add-on to our hardwired world.

The context and culture in which countries and cultures think and will think about mobile vs. hardline greatly varies.

This made me think about how in Africa, penetration is also low while download costs are still prohibitively expensive.  It will likely be decades before Africa is hardwired, if at all.  Geographic constraints and population dispersion may make it uneconomical.  However, submarine cables will bring in bigger pipes for a continent that has shown itself to be ravenous for collaboration, communication, and awareness of the outside world, while WiMAX-like wireless broadband to the last multimiles.  Have you seen the rise in Africa blogs (see White African, found through Kevin Donovan), the success of mobiles (as a result of lower costs for building cell tower infrastructure than for laying cable), and a more optimistic GDP growth estimate now that Africa is emerging from the IMF’s and WB’s disastrous indentured servitude period?

How will developing nations think about their relationship to the internet?  Americans think of broadband as a Comcast coax that goes into their modem.  Mobile access to the internet is somewhat of a luxury.  What will Africa or India think about hardwired broadband?  Will they understand it in ways significantly different than their relationship with mobile internet?

Will there be more pressure on spectrum policy than there is in the US as a result of more reliance on wireless access?  Will the absence of legacy standards and outmoded ways of thinking help developing nations reach high-speed access faster?  What will the internet look like in Africa?

There is convergence in my studies on tech policy, African economic development, international development program design, and fanatical use of the internet, and I don’t think this is coincidence.

My hunch is that Africa’s cataclysmic decline after independence came as a result of external factors, and that it will surprise the developed world in its future growth.  I also think the conditions are right, along with breakthroughs in participatory and collaborative processes, and a developmental move towards good governance, to encourage a groundswell of a lot of the next century’s ideas and inventions to come out of Africa’s diverse (how many countries are there again, all of them different?), untapped base of knowledge and experience.  Already, success in mobile networking and remittances and payment has come out of Africa.  What will be likely to happen next?  I intend to research all this for a 15-page paper in my African development class.

[Funny that as I wrote this, one of my classmates sent out a message promoting the first event for GAIN, the Georgetown Africa Interest Network.  Contact me for more details about getting in touch with them.]

Am I being optimistic?  Certainly.  Africans and development practitioners have their hands full with various poverty traps and tenuous stability.  Movements in Africa have failed many times.  But some of the larger structural barriers are being mitigated (trade regimes, misguided economic theory from development programs, etc.), allowing for humans’ natural tendency to self-organize to emerge once again.

  • “There is convergence in my studies on tech policy, African economic development, international development program design, and fanatical use of the internet, and I don’t think this is coincidence.” I’ve been having the same realization – and it’s super exciting.

    I’d love to hear more about GAIN.