Meaningful Broadband

Meaningful Broadband is the zeitgeist or “meta-factor” of Digital Divide Institute that cross-cuts everything we do. It is not just a theory but an emergent model, now being tested in the real world. This FAQ provides current answers to general, non-technological questions about the Meaningful Broadband model.

Meaningful Broadband, as envisioned by Digital Divide Institute, refers to establishment of “national broadband ecosystems” that are optimally affordable, usable and empowering to users. By “ecosystems” we refer to co-deployment of many new technologies that involve the interaction between supply and demand. Such ecosystems are designed to elicit “meaningful use,” as measured by their impact on citizen behavior. Such ecosystems would not simply imitate legacy systems of communications copied from the West, but be “context relevant” to low-income majority populations of emerging markets. Telecommunications in the West was designed primarily to achieve ubiquitous telephony. Telecommunications in emerging markets will serve purposes not yet imagined.

Broadband is not just defined by high speeds but by the breadth of internet – broad enough to empower citizens, and institutions in light of their own distinct context. Broadband is not just an upgrade to an
older technology but an altogether new technology that introduces new and uncertain impacts on human behavior – for better or worse. In our use of the term, broadband does not refer only to wireless or wireline broadband infrastructures but to an ecosystem of inter-related broadband-enabled technologies by which data arrives at the backbone, and then transmitted to users via a Last Mile solutions.

Meaningful refers to three key terms, each of which can be subject to measurement:

1) usable, 2) affordable, and 3) empowering.

Meaningful also means “adjusted to context.” In other words, a technology that fits smoothly and practically into its own environment and which adjusts to the current motivations of users is meaningful. A DDI research team is dedicated to operationalizing the term by producing an index that measures the degree of “meaningfulness “of any technology or mix of technologies.

No. Our approach pre-empts censorship. It does so by embedding responsible use of the internet into the shaping of broadband ecosystems. It must be achieved with full cooperation between sectors of business and governments, which both have an interest in reducing censorship as much as possible. We believe that market forces can be voluntarily induced to align with government reformers to achieve this optimal impact. As a result, political forces are less likely to impose  censorship.

Well, two big, “messy” nations – Thailand and Indonesia – have already adopted Meaningful Broadband. It is because we bowed to the short-term agendas that drive each nation’s key players in both business and politics – while still innovating for the long term. Our views are backed up by international best practices and intellectual capital from the world’s finest universities, as well as the top national universities in the countries where we operate. Five domains of research  technology, public policy, management, finance, and ethics) are being combined and balanced to produce this model– which then become subject to test-market deployments which quantify results.

The lead author is Craig Warren Smith, a former professor of Science and Technology at Harvard’s
Kennedy School of Government while he was also a Senior Fellow at MIT Media Lab. Meaningful
broadband emerged from a 2001-2004 academic task force at Harvard and MIT. At that time was under
the supervision of Professor Jeffrey Sachs (at Harvard) and Alex (Sandy) Pentland, (at MIT), whose
perspectives both contributed to Meaningful Broadband. Since then, dozens of academic, corporate and
governmental thought leaders have contributed and moved it towards implementation in Asia’s emerging markets. Two individuals that have had an enormous influence in Asia are Prof Prasit
Prapinmongkolkarnas, former chairman of Thailand’s telecommunications regulatory agency, and Ilham
A Habibie, Director of Indonesian ICT Council, who is the DDI-Indonesia vice chairman.

As evidenced by a list of more than 100 national broadband policies,  most existing broadband-deployment models are based on countries like South Korea, Singapore or Australia whose circumstances do not apply to the realities faced by most low-income countries, large and small. They are mostly “trickle-down” models which are designed to serve affluent urban sectors and institutions. Unlike these, our model is not just a government “policy,” but a framework for mobilizing all sectors in a country– governmental, commercial, academic, NGOs, and media – and it stimulates a continual revolution in the country by which a constant flow of “next generation” digital technologies are introduced to continually update each nation’s broadband ecosystem. Its focus is not just on rapid broadband deployment but on “meaningful” deployments in which benefits to the nation are defined in ethical as well as economic terms. The model not only involves innovative policy-formation but a way of implementing these policies by engaging the thinking of innovators in each country – including thought leaders living outside the country. Indonesia provides the best example for how this model can work in the real world.

Not anymore. We believe that virtually all nations – even many of the least developed countries — can now mobilize the investments they need to fund Meaningful Broadband. The key lies in mixing money from commercial, governmental and commercial sources, which in some cases can be augmented by foreign aid (Official Development Assistance.) Nations can also put their taxation system to good use by applying their “universal services” funds to Meaningful Broadband. Furthermore, small clusters of nations can form cost-cutting coalitions to effectively enhance their bargaining power with large multinational corporations.

DDI offers a series of services to introduces and develop Meaningful Broadband and Meaningful Broadband Working Groups. At the same time, DDI formulates theories, methodologies, strategic partners (combining multinational and domestic corporations), and formulates innovations on five levels (public policy/ regulation, technology design, management, and ethics) which can help any participating nation to optimize the impact of broadband.

This is the name for our advisory board in a country where Meaningful Broadband is in development. It is usually overseen by a leading ICT stakeholder, such as the head of an inter-ministerial broadband task force or chairman of the national telecoms regulatory agency. They oversee the development of several reports from Digital Divide Institute that influenced the creation of a national broadband strategy for that nation. In Thailand, the MBWG was composed of CEOs of the five leading telecommunications operators (AIS, DTAC, True, TOT Telecom and CAT Telecom) along with the chairman of the country’s independent regulatory agency, National Broadcast and Telecommunications Union. In that country,
MBWG has functioned as an advisory body, not a policy-making group, since the reports issued by MBWG represent the analysis of academics, backed by extensive research into domestic and international best practices. In Indonesia, the Meaningful Broadband Working Group is less formal. It has been conducted from the Office of the President (Istana Negara), and serves as a bridge between the nation’s President and other national stakeholders.

No. Broadband does not qualify as a “public good,” in the same way as a utility might serve a nation. By contrast, broadband is a moving force, doubling in communications power every year which can bring benefit or harm to a society (or more likely a combination of both). Still in its infancy in emerging markets, broadband is not just another medium of communications but a meta-medium which will eventually encompass all other media.

Thus, broadband will not merely convey information but increasingly it will shape behavior of citizens – competing with the power of culture itself. Given the consequences of broadband to society, it is essential that broadband be harnessed by leaders to achieve optimal benefits to society, and to anticipate and mitigate any harmful impacts that would occur if unwise governmental or commercial practices are accelerated through broadband.

If guided by unsound public and private policies and any ill-conceived regulatory mechanisms, broadband could accelerate gaps between rich and poor, produce massive net job loss through automation, undermine cultural and spiritual values, accelerate urban sprawl, undermining rural economies, cause widespread addictive behaviors, and deepen a country’s carbon footprint.

Meaningful broadband properly deployed and funded, could bring equity to emerging markets, scale up microcredit and boost small and medium enterprise (SME) growth, creating a new non-consumerist middle class that could bring stability to fragile economies. Broadband could shift the focus of economies towards human-resources development via lifelong learning, workforce development, It can enable reforms of basic public education as well as introduce informal interactive learning via data apps delivered through mobile devices or a convergence of multiple devices (TV, radio, PCs, phones) linked via broadband. It could cause a reverse emigration from cities back to rural villages. It can transform the agricultural sector and shifts the population away from unprofitable farming or logging and towards ecotourism.

Broadband could enhance the productivity and accountability of government bureaucracies, reducing corruption while strengthening democratic processes from the bottom up. Broadband is essential for extending banking services to the unbanked and in that way it can promote savings and creditworthiness among low-income populations. Broadband could also help citizens in a more general sense by “unlocking human resources,” enabling citizens to become more creative, open and flexible in their behavior.

No. Private sector investment and market-development activities are essential but not sufficient to deliver the benefits of broadband. But markets, rather than government bureaucracies, must play the starring role in delivering these benefits. Market forces must be reshaped through public policy, regulation, subsidy and voluntary practice to enhance benefits of broadband as well as to minimize harm. However, none of these positive changes made possible by broadband can emerge without the coordinated and skillful development of complex broadband ecosystems. Perhaps more than any other industry, telecommunications industry must create a new social compact which reinvents how business and government sectors share costs and risks of bringing the benefits of broadband to mass populations and institutions.

No. It may surprise you to know that support for meaningful broadband has come more from business than government. Though mobile supply chains have been able to achieve remarkable cell phone penetration without active assistance from government, they have not had corresponding success with broadband. For example, commercial forces need governments’ help to induce cell phone users to upgrade to mobile data services or video-enabled mobile devices or activate high speed government intranets serving local units of the public sector. To fulfill their own ambitious goals for broadband penetration, commercial forces must form alliances with government reformers. They cannot get this help without establishing broadband as a public good, e.g. assuring governments that broadband will have meaningful impacts. To guide this process, Digital Divide Institute will develop a “meaningful technologies index”• that can be used to help regulators, technology designers, and educators distinguish between technologies that help, and those that hinder the welfare of citizens.

Not necessarily. It is true that governmental interests may seek to prevent reforms needed to bring the full benefits of broadband to a nation. But governmental interests are not monolithic. Reformist politicians and bureaucrats can use the resources of Meaningful Broadband to overcome entrenched forces, just as they have done with the wireless revolution that leapfrogged over the wireline industries. The struggle within governments to bring the benefits of broadband to all citizens is one of the great dramas of the 21st century. Digital Divide Institute wants to help strengthen reform by working through the most credible universities, academic programs and most influential professors. They are in the best position to ntroduce the innovations needed for Meaningful Broadband.

The critical outcome is that Meaningful Broadband defines what mix of government intervention via tax incentives, regulatory requirements and legal inducements and subsidies (via budgetary and extrabudgetary sources) are needed to stimulate and shape market forces in the telecoms sector — then we build structures for testing, revising and scaling Meaningful Broadband.

After 15 years of deliberations and hundreds of conferences on the topic of “digital divide,” held all over the world, the theme of broadband has emerged as the highest priority among governments, think tanks, business associations, intergovernmental agencies, NGOs, and leading corporations. After years of debate it is now generally accepted by all ICT stakeholders in emerging markets that the key to closing the Digital Divide is to shape the deployment of broadband. The concept follows the 15-year journey of Prof Craig Warren Smith, who is one of the founders of the global movement to close Digital Divide.

Whether applied globally, nationally or to specific initiatives or institutions, Meaningful Broadband’s aim is to formulate policies, products and services that produce “net betterment” (optimal benefit minus harm).

Meaningful Broadband is a broad framework that has influenced policymakers on a cross-sector basis in ten  Asian countries where local governments have hosted seminars – India,  Sri Lanka, Indonesia,  China,  Malaysia, Singapore, Bangladesh,  Thailand,  Taiwan (Republic of China), and Vietnam. In two of these nations,  Thailand and Indonesia,  Meaningful Broadband has been formalized explicitly as national policy.  In China and Indonesia, Meaningful Broadband has been tied to regional test-marketing.

In 2020,  China is the primary focus of Digital Divide Institute, where our chairman,  Craig Warren Smith is being appointed as a Visiting Professor at Peking University’s Department of Information Management.  In that country, our focus is the ethics track of Meaningful Broadband,  where we advance the theme of “Confucius and the Internet,”