By Amanda Valerio, staff editor On a stormy day in January 2008, a ship veered off course by the northern coast of Egypt to avoid bad weather. Within days, an internet blackout left some 75 million individuals in India, Egypt, and parts of the Middle East with limited internet access. In the chaos that ensued, the Egyptian Communications Ministry publicly implored internet surfers to stay offline so that businesses would compete with less traffic. Explanations and conspiracy theories abounded. Some believed the ship’s anchor broke the underwater fiber-optic cables. (The Egyptian government dismissed this theory.) Insinuations from Iran suggested the U.S. and Israel had intentionally broken the cable. (This seems unlikely, as many U.S. industries rely heavily on Indian telecommunications.)
Underwater cables transmit about 95 percent of the world’s Internet and telephone traffic. However, this submarine fiber-optic network is a relatively new development to some parts of the world and is far too fragile in other parts. Countries in East and Southern Africa only recently gained access to broadband technology in 2009. Prior to the World Bank Africa Regional Communications Infrastructure Program, East and Southern Africa accounted for less than one percent of the world’s bandwidth capacity.
What does this new technology mean for citizens of these countries? Although internet access remains an upper class luxury for many in the developing world, cell phones can have a transformative impact on the poor. If you’ve ever wondered how farmers in Ghana set prices for their crops, the answer is that—for the most part—they don’t. They have historically been price takers who accept prices dictated by traders. However, SMS programs, such as the Esoko program, provide real time information on the price of crops and fertilizer. This gives Ghanaian farmers the ability to earn a trade surplus they can invest in housing, education or healthcare.
And the capabilities are not limited to farming. A program called Globe GCASH provides SMS banking in the Philippines. A program in Colombia allowed the government to combat guerrilla warfare in isolated villages using text messages. An East African open source project, called Ushahidi, aggregates real time maps of natural disasters using bystanders’ text message data.
Broadband technology can transform societies. But the technology itself isn’t enough. Governments with existing access to broadband should do more to protect their infrastructure. Governments with recent access to broadband should partner with programs like Esoko or Globe GCASH. More importantly, they should promote these innovations in rural, hard-to-reach areas. The difficulty communicating with populations in rural or isolated villages means that developing nations stand to benefit most from broadband technologies. However, for precisely the same reason, promoting broadband innovations can be a significant challenge. The public sector should step in to do this. Public policy does not end with the acquisition of new technologies; technology inevitably pushes policy forward.