Friday, August 28, 2015

Utopian visions

[This article by  Shailesh Pandey, Harsha Man Maharjan & Yogesh Raj appeared in the Kathmandu Post oped of August 28, 2015. Pandey, Maharjan and Raj are researchers affiliated to Martin Chautari The article can be found here].

The draft National Information and Communication Technology (NICT) Policy 2015, floated for public discussion by Nepal Telecommunication Authority (NTA) on August 4, repeats the flawed visions about the miraculous power of ICTs. We call for the policy to be more evidence-based.
The NICT Policy aims to supersede the related IT Policy 2010, which envisages the Department of Information Technology (DoIT) under the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (MoSTE) as the lead agency. Accordingly, DoIT has floated a draft implementation plan ‘National IT Roadmap.’ The NCIT Policy, prepared by the Ministry of Information and Communications (MoIC), proposes to restructure both the ministries as well as the NTA. The contention over jurisdiction is expected to flare up in coming days, but we would like to draw attention to four more critical concerns in this piece.
Seduction of the internet
The proposed policy claims that ICT will reduce/remove inequality, poverty and enhance economic growth of a nation and quality of life of its citizens and presents ICT as a “tool available to reduce the development divide”. The relationship between internet connectivity and poverty is, however, poorly understood. The draft puts the delivery of the minimum speed at 512 kbps. Notwithstanding the fact that many governments and organisations consider this as a narrowband, the cost of a 512 kbps-leased line is around Rs 2,500/month, and a 2 mbps broadband will cost Rs 16,000. In the best case, a majority of Nepal’s poor will be stuck with the lower limit and sub-standard quality access.
Empirical studies related to the claim are sparse, but they indicate that investments in the internet lead to the growth of the super rich IT-using industries and firms and the knock on effect on country’s growth indicators is visible. The growth rarely trickles down to the poor, disadvantaged and less privileged. Employment records of Instagram, WhatsApp, Skype and Twitter show that these billion dollar internet businesses do not significantly change the job market. The policy has indeed got the direction of the causality wrong. While increased income of a population could have led to the diffusion of the mobile technology, the reverse has not been attested. The past claim that a large-scale diffusion of computers would increase the income has failed. Same was the case for the first generation internet.
The coded numbers argument
Some of the crucial numbers in the draft are global averages. Local evidences are lacking for setting them as a five-year target. Further, few numbers are not interpretable. The goal to establish ICT industry and services to account for at least 7.5 percent of the GDP by 2020 is a global industry average and not even the ICT average as per the publicly available World Bank data. So, why 7.5, and why not 15 or three, is a question to ponder.

The coded number comes from the expansion of the telecommunication sector in Nepal. The goal to achieve a 90 percent broadband internet penetration is optimism fuelled by the mobile phone subscription number. There are two major flaws here. First, this is a subscription percentage and not the percentage of the population having mobile phones. This number can go well beyond the 100 percent as more than 120 percent is a common sight and some countries have surpassed the 200 mark. So what explanation does a 90 percent offer is not clear although this number has been referred to as an impressive achievement to formulate goals 6.3 and 6.4 and the justification behind the promotion of mobile phones for e-services.
Always turned on
In the proposed draft, ICT has encompassed agriculture, industry, health, government and tourism. The policy plugs ICT technologies where it must be always  ‘on’. For a nation with chronic loadshedding, the notion is a hard sell. Critically, the policy has failed to consider the scale and pace of national energy infrastructure developments required to power the digital dream.
First, the saving of critical energy resources due to the adoption of ICT and its efficient use will be buried by the growth expected from it. The increase in the processing power and the exponential increase in the number of computers over the years have cancelled the gains over the years. The Nepali  ‘Green by IT/ICT’ and ‘Green in IT/ICT’ enthusiasts have failed to give due attention to this rebound effect. Second, the optimism of self-improvement faces numerous challenges. The halt in the innovating pace is far nearer than expected (as soon as 2036). Demand for a faster broadband internet and communications have pushed the optical fibre design to the fundamental limits. The semi-conductor industry is already voicing that the halt is near with the Intel CEO recently voiced a similar concern.
The open argument
Even in the developed countries, software prices have not reduced although the price of broadband access has come down. This is a huge bottleneck for a home user and even for small- and medium-sized institutions. There is thus a reason for a flourishing software piracy. Recently, it was reported that the municipality of Pesaro in Italy which had trained 500 of its employees to use Open Office switched back to Microsoft Office due to costs in deployment and IT support among others. Clearly, a piecemeal approach to limit the use of the free and open source software to government offices only is not a solution. Related is the issue with the vague term ‘open-standard’ in the draft. Some definitions focus either exclusively on standards and ignore the notion of open access while others rather refer to degrees of ‘openness’. The open-source community generally agree that most explanations of the term rarely allow free adoption, implementation and extension.
Our concern chiefly stems from the number of abandonment of the e-government programmes in developing countries. The key contributor to these failures is the gap between the design of the future in these programmes and their poor understanding of the present. From the start, the claim of affecting good governance by technologising the government is contrary to the evidence from developing countries. For instance, corruption has continued as favouritism and bribery despite their move to e-government.
The technology-enthusiasts, optimists and experts should be honest in their depiction of the digital society. The faith in the transformative potential of the ICTs is as dated as the early optimism shown towards old technologies such as road, radio and television. While the internet (wires) and the Web (the content and its presentation) are indeed significant human inventions, the ICT with the broadband Internet kept at its core should be seen for what it is: an important tool. It is not a miraculous solution for all the ills in society but yet another technology embedded in the geo-socio-political structures.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Universal Connectivity in Nepal: A Policy Review

[This text has been extracted from the Policy Brief published by Martin Chautari under the Universal Connectivity research. The brief can be  downloaded from Martin Chautari's website [Link to Policy Brief].]

 Nepal’s UC-related policies envisage both general and specific roles for the technologies related to IBTs in realizing the country as a well-connected, knowledge based society. The policy phraseology has enabled both the state and the private sector to mobilize huge resources to create new institutions, burgeoning market spaces, and influential discourses in the last two decades. The UC-related policies in Nepal are yet to be consolidated with grounded knowledge and empirical content. Available literature on existing policy practice is generally ambivalent with proponents preferring anecdotes and critics falling short of employing verifiable large-scale reviews of evidence. Instead, those looking at ICT4D as a form of foreign-aid driven technological dependency in developing countries merely wish to preserve the credibility of the campaign. Others calling e-governance a myth attribute it a power to “inspire people to strive for realization of issues that matter, whatever the cost.”

Nevertheless, the policies have provided a rationality for mobilizing public resources, for erecting new institutions and facilitating the sustaining of certain business interests, particularly that of the IT elite in Nepal. This review calls for going beyond the promotion of vague and shaky phraseology as they may well turn into opportunities misspent. Specifically, the fate of some non-operational slogans in recent Nepali history, such as ‘Let Us Splash the Source of Development’ and ‘The Asian Measures’ show that empty policy phrases make citizens disillusioned about program intentions rather quickly. The solution does not lie in ever inventing new catch-phrases, but in formulating evidence based UC policies while openly acknowledging the limitations of the technologies in mainstreaming the marginalized and vulnerable section of the population.

Stakeholders for Universal Connectivity in Nepal

[This text has been extracted from the Research Brief published by Martin Chautari under the Universal Connectivity research. The brief can be  downloaded from Martin Chautari's website [Link to Research Brief].]

The Internet ecosystem has changed drastically in Nepal in the last seven years. The ISPs are no longer the dominant actors. Telecoms own a large percentage of the communication infrastructure, individual customer base and are institutionally capable of rapid large scale expansions. The rural market does not offer an attractive investment-return and the penetration there relies on the effective use of the RTDF funds to meet the universal service obligation for telecommunication. The investment guarantee to translate the sound promises of the policies and roadmaps to the poor and the marginalized is non-existent. The proponents claim that the promises in the literature have not been acted upon because the government has failed to prioritise IT. They point to the absence of a dedicated IT ministry, delays in implementation by NTA and in establishing the payment gateway.

More pressing issues, however, are: first, existing policies and plans should be reshaped with primary research on connectivity, access and use of the Internet; second, the design of digital ecosystem should address critical issues related to adjacent technologies, particularly ways to manage immense power demand and e-waste production; and the last, the rights of the poor and the marginalized in e-Nepal should be ensured particularly when the technology shows strong divisive capabilities. The present activities of the key actors in the Internet ecosystem therefore need to orient away from the case of business as usual. From a preoccupation with the struggle to be relevant now, these activities need to cohere around a unified grounded vision for universal connectivity. 

An Insight into ICT’s Energy Consumption and its Implications

[This is a short introduction to the paper of the same title that was presented at "The Fourth Annual Kathmandu Conference on Nepal and Himalaya" on 23 July,2015. The full paper can be found at Martin Chautari's website [Link to Paper].]

The recently floated ICT policy draft and the IT policy of 2010 have both missed to address the energy demand of the proposed infrastructure and service developments beyond hinting it as a barrier. The wholesale developments in the ICT infrastructure to support online services that caters virtually every aspect of the society can bring the power infrastructure to its knees and by its own. There are fundamental limits to how far and fast the efficiency of the digital technology can evolve. The potential of ICT to improve the energy scenario assumes that the digital technology will be situated in every aspect of our lives to extract every tiny drop of efficiency from transportation, power and electricity, telecommunication to lighting our streets. The idea can be described as a move from the material to immaterial resource.

There are obvious flaws to such arguments for a country like Nepal. The saving of critical resources such as the energy due to the adoption of ICT and its efficient use will be buried by the growth that is expected from the IT and ICT policies themselves. This is not a new observed effect in the realm of technology and market dynamics. Since the early days of computing, ICT sector has seen massive improvement in the amount of energy consumed by computations. However, the necessity of the increase in the processing power and the exponential increase in the number of computers over the years have well and truly cancelled the gains over the years. The energy (specifically electricity) required by the computations have overtaken the efficiency in computing. Alarmingly the “Green by IT/ICT" and “Green in IT/ICT" enthusiasts have failed to give due attention to this rebound effect.

The optimism placed in the digital technology to self-improve at a pace in order to be sustainable relies on technological assumptions some of which require the fundamental limits to be pushed by technological innovations. The improvement of the semiconductor industry is closely tied with the economics of the computer industry. The improvement in the technology to meet the doubling effect of number of electronic components inside the chip requires huge research investment. It is widely acknowledged that as long as the industry is getting the returns, the empirical interpretation of the Moore’s law is likely to continue. However, there are numerous challenges to such claims, that the halt in the pace is nearer than expected (as soon as 2036), as they rely on the transistors size to shrink beyond the current fundamental limits.Similarly the demand of the users’ for a faster broadband Internet and communications have been pushing the fundamental limits of the optical fibres specifically the Shannon’s limit Ellis.

These challenges to the trends, the regression effects and the halt in efficiency gains as the technology approaches the fundamental limits is likely to be seen in our lifetime and not in next-generation or beyond. These should have serious implications on the shape and size of the policy interventions regarding situating ICT as the key driver to economic growth expecting it to deliver sustainable growth while these unanswered questions are on the verge of bringing the house down.