Creating digital inclusion and regional connectivity
By Cassandra Mascarenhas
Offering an insightful view into international trade law and electronic transactions across borders, the second and final day of the regional expert consultation on connecting Asia-Pacific’s digital society for building resilience organised jointly by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka (ICTA) saw the local and foreign participants deliberate and discuss many issues
pertaining to the topics.
The day commenced with a session on promoting digital inclusion moderated by Information and Communications Technology and Disaster Risk Reduction Division Director Shamika Sirimanne.
The first presenter was LIRNEasia Senior Research Manager Ayesha Zainudeen who spoke on digital inclusion and resilient development and the way forward. She drew upon the results of four surveys conducted by LIRNEasia in six countries, namely Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Java, Indonesia. Through a sample of 10,000 individuals across the six countries, they looked at the lowest socioeconomic groups in them.
Most people at the bottom of the pyramid have no personal income or very irregular personal income and have very little education, mostly either primary schooling or no form of schooling at all, she explained.
“On the upside, most of them had used a phone three months before we conducted the survey – numbers are very high and positive. Phone usage is pretty much universal 75 per cent has access to a phone within the household. Phones have overtaken radio everywhere except in Sri Lanka,” Zainudeen revealed.
Sri Lanka has a little bit of fixed phone usage at the bottom of the pyramid but it’s mostly mobile phones being used. There is a particularly high usage of mobile phones as of late in Sri Lanka and Pakistan and in terms of rural and urban disparities, it was observed that there is a marked difference in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. There is also a high ownership amongst males in these countries.
A factor all six countries share is the lowest total cost of mobile ownership in the world, well below the average of US$11.5. However, computer and internet usage is very low in these six countries – 15 to 20 per cent in Sri Lanka, Java and Thailand and close to zero in the other three countries.
Other than voice, it’s mostly SMS use, along with missed calling. Voice connectivity is almost ubiquitous. “The bottom of the pyramid is very well positioned to receive infomation and services on mobile phones via voice and maybe SMS but much remains to be done with more than voice services. Current awareness of voice services is very limited in terms of banking, government services etc. The highest awareness is in the entertainment related services,” she stated.
“The question is whether affordable services actually exist for this group of people. Accurate, relevant and timely information is needed for useful apps to be developed. For agriculture, health and banking services to exist, you need accurate, relevant and timely information. We feel that service design and development are better left to the private sector,” Zainudeen recommended.
A lot of these countries have operators and donors promoting platforms for app developers, for example, Sri Lanka has a very active and enthusiastic Android web developer platform. She further recommended that governments open up their data where a large amount of information and knowledge resides, and have it codified and made computer readable so that service providers can easily take the data and run with it.
“The bottom of the pyramid requires useful information and services in order to benefit fully from mobile use. So the best way to deliver these kinds of services and information is through mobile. Computers and internet is probably not the best way forward in the short to medium term. Governments need not do it all – the private sector too should work on developing apps and services,” she added.
Having said that, she noted that governments need to facilitate an enabling environment, especially in terms of smartphone proliferation.
The second presenter, Digital Divide Institute Chulalongkorn University Thailand Director Craig Smith introduced to the audience a meaningful broadband model and expanded on its application and potential in Asia.
“Developing countries are falling behind in terms of broadband even in countries that are achieving cell phone ubiquity. The cell phone gap is closing but the broadband gap is widening and although almost all Indonesian families now have access to a cell phone, only 2.5 per cent of consumers and 10 per cent of enterprises have broadband,” he revealed.
Smith added that this has had two effects, internally it has led to the creation of a digital caste system and externally, it has resulted in digital colonialism.
He went to list out five domains of information: public policy and regulatory innovations, technological innovations, financial innovation, management innovation, ethical innovation needed for the implementation of the broadband model.
Public policy and regulatory innovations
Reassessing contemporary approaches to digital inclusion and broadband development, the third presenter, Office of the General Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission Thailand Telecom Economic Policy Analyst Akarapon Kongchanagul, spoke on meaningful public policy and regulatory innovations.
“Effective access to ICT is not simply about having the fastest internet and having the most and latest technology. It’s about how you use the ICT in order to better your life and improve it,” he said.
In the model of developing broadband that the World Bank and developed countries endorse, there is investment into infrastructure on one side and ICT programmes in order to create readiness on the other. He explained that by creating access, the model creates demand which in turn reduces the digital divide.
This model comes with problems, one of which is the fact that investors are profit driven. Kongchanagul pointed out that they undertake activities in order to make money and although the government may give them incentives, he felt that the current model has too much focus on creating infrastructure but not enough emphasis on investment in products and services.
“The products and services created through this model will only serve the top of the pyramid. When this happens, there won’t be enough demand generation and so there won’t be effective access to ICT and broadband,” he said.
“This may actually widen the digital divide. Even if you have 100 per cent access to the internet, if the content is not interesting enough, the bottom and middle of the pyramid will not be willing to pay money to use the technology. Even if the middle and bottom of the pyramid did decide to use the available internet, without an ecosystem that does not support and help the people, how can we have a positive impact of the economy?”
He asserted that governments could provide incentives to content providers so that they would create products and services that can benefit the poor people and this will drive the private sector because they are profit driven. After the demand is driven back into the market, it leads to the narrowing of the digital divide because people start using broadband and ICT to better their lives.
The final presenter, Central Bank of Sri Lanka Economist Kanchana Ambagahawita, described how ICT has been used to make growth more inclusive in Sri Lanka. The Government’s framework for economic growth, she stated, focuses heavily on inclusiveness which was the base on which the country’s national economic growth plan was founded on.
“Access to information is what creates inclusion. Information is needed to make the right decisions. Furthermore Sri Lanka also has geographical barriers in terms of moving out of the Western province. Good institutional support is also a very important factor along with access to finance and efficient payment systems – if people have no way to access money, the system crashes,” she pointed out.
She then went on to outline the national ICT policy and the some of the work done by the ICTA, an agency that formulated a strategy to reach the peripheries of the country. It has gone on to set up IT centres throughout the country at a rural level, improving peoples’ computer literacy.
“We have also seen the strengthening of institutional services. The conception is very good but we need to see how people will start using the government eServices because if it does work and is adopted widely, it will definitely increase the ease of doing business.”
ICT has been used to create platforms and create access but people need to start using it, she explained. “Cash is still the most favoured mode. Why aren’t people using these services provided to them? They lack confidence in these systems – they don’t trust them. Some of the systems are also difficult to use, even highly educated people don’t use tele-banking. It must be more user-friendly so that people will use these more cost efficient systems.”
She added that Sri Lanka needs to start creating demand so that the private sector will start investing in such services. Another challenge and opportunity is the high level of computer skills that the next generation is developing – there is a whole new level of skill coming up and the country needs to prepare itself for something that is going to come up in another five years. “This is an opportunity that the industry needs to see, capitalise and optimise on.”
Defining the regulatory framework
Moderated by the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka Director and Legal Advisor Jayantha Fernando, the following sessions was themed ‘Establishing an enabling cross-border legal environment for regional connectivity: The United Nations Convention on the use of electronic communications in international contracts, 2005 regional coordination.’
With developments in information and communication, the ICT tools are being adopted by countries across the world and the new and novel methods of transacting and engaging with cross-border trade are here to stay. With most areas of trade being conducted through electronic means, the challenge now is to establish a harmonised enabling environment to deal with the potential legal issues that rise,” Fernando stated in his introductory remarks.
The UN Commission on Trade Law (UNCITRAL) has been at the forefront of this and was in fact one of the first international bodies to address the legal concerns arising from the use of electronic technology in international trade. The convention that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005 proved to be a major breakthrough for UNCITRAL to remove the legal uncertainties and barriers associated with international trade.
Singapore Deputy Solicitor-General Jeffrey Wah-Teck as the first presenter went on to give a broad outline of UNCITRAL’s work and progress over the years since its inception. He explained that in 1985, when UNCITRAL was established, technology was still in its infancy but the organisation was already addressing technology-related issues.
“You can’t have a system where the same goods and transactions are subjected to different laws and regulations across borders – it needs to be harmonised. UNCITRAL commenced by formulating good practices for countries to adopt, and then started formulating laws so that the same rules would apply to transactions across borders for the formation and validity of contracts conducted through electronic means,” he explained.
The main objective of all the rules pertaining to electronic transactions was to achieve functional equivalence between paper based and electronic transactions.
Turning his attention to the Electronic Communications Convention (ECC), he stated that it was completed and adopted by the UN in 2005. There are presently 18 signatories which Wah-Teck noted was not a bad record for a private convention, one that is not widely understood at that. The original signatories were Singapore, China and Sri Lanka and since then it has been ratified by three states – Singapore, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. Wah-Teck added that he hoped Sri Lanka too would ratify it in the near future.
He explained that it is an international treaty between states and is an interpretive instrument that sets out what the legal effect of what countries wish to do or not do. There are no substantial rules except where absolutely necessary for working of the convention. It affects private contractual relations but unlike many international conventions, it has no reservations, which he said was the best way to ensure the harmonisation of rules internationally.
The final two sessions of the regional expert consultation dealt with the United Nations Convention of the Use of Electronic Communications in International Contracts, 2005 and its national implementation and building an enabling national and international legal environment for electronic single windows and paperless trade.
Pix by Lasantha Kumara