Telecom Confronts Poverty and Oppression

Telecommunications infrastructure is exploding across underdeveloped nations, giving people the power to leverage their economic activities and to voice their political opinions to degrees that have heretofore been unmatched.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, cell phones are transforming markets by allowing Nigerian farmers to quickly gather market information, saving time and money because they no longer have to travel to distant markets to gather pricing figures.

In India, traditional fishermen employ their cell phones to arrange trades with buyers back at marinas, brokering the exchange of their catch on the way back in to port rather than waiting to do so upon arrival—a small change meaning they can spend more time catching more fish and making more money.

Indeed, telecommunications infrastructure has penetrated underdeveloped and developing countries to an unprecedented extent, and innovative people are finding new ways to harness mobile devices and the Internet for commerce.

The communication revolution entails not only the economic revolution but the social one too, as feature-phone-bearing people from oppressed nations are finally finding the wherewithal to project their voices. And it’s not just the phones. Broadband, importantly, has ushered the Internet into impoverished regions, bringing upon its coattails the liberating media of social networking and search.

One of the most poignant examples occurred following the Iranian presidential election of 2009. Citizens harnessed Twitter’s power to foment thousands of protests following the June election, where incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad allegedly rigged the vote and quelled his popular opponent, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Violent clashes raged across the country. Soon, Twitter was ablaze with Iranians coordinating protests and describing human-rights violations. Citizens of the world tuned in too, conversing with Iranians and showing support.

Similar circumstances can be found in China, in Moldova, in Burundi and more as telecommunications are growing ever-more pervasive and penetrating deeper into the underdeveloped world.

Currently, 28.7 percent of the planet’s population has broadband access. That’s 1.96 billion people. Strictly by the numbers, the continent of Asia’s 825 million users put it ahead of the rest of the world in broadband subscribers, bolstered, of course, by India and China. The Middle East has just over 63.2 million subscribers, while Latin America has 204 million and Africa 110 million.

Over the past ten years the growth of broadband subscribers in these continents has been extraordinary. For example, in 2000 Asia had only 114.3 million broadband users, meaning the number of subscribers has jumped 621.8 percent. Africa’s broadband users rose 2,357.3 percent over that same period.

These numbers, though representative of a positive incline, can be somewhat misleading; the vast majority of people in underdeveloped nations remain beyond the reach of fiber-optic lines.

For example, only 21.5 percent of the population in Asia has broadband access. In Africa, the country farthest behind in the information revolution, only 10.9 percent of the population can access broadband.

By contrast, North Americans enjoy the greatest degree of fiber-optic connectivity, with 77.4 percent of the population accessing the Internet.

In order to expand telecom’s reach in underdeveloped regions, NGO’s, innovators and governments have taken up the banner and are in a constant push to increase broadband’s penetration.

In 2003 and 2005 the UN held a two-part World Summit on the Information Society where telecom-industry moguls and heads of state from 192 countries met to outline a plan to usher the information age into the hands of the world’s poor.

The summit gave the impetus to such projects as “One Laptop per Child,” a pioneering effort to put inexpensive laptops in the hands of impoverished children with the idea that access to the Web will catalyze education. According to the site, the laptop can be produced and donated for $199.

It is through innovations such as these, along with the inexorable march of broadband, that people are becoming connected and freeing themselves from both poverty and the poverty of unawareness.

Thomas Paine once said, “But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants is the liberty of appearing.”

The communications revolution is allowing for just that: the appearance of truth.