Everybody wants his or her town or city or island or valley or village to become a “smart community”. Canada’s officially blessed community-based IT projects (www.smartcommunities.ic.gc.ca) are moving ahead, each seeded by $5 million of public money and lots of in kind support from software and telecommunications companies. But how do you forge a smart community if you are, say, the Kingdom of Bhutan or the Lao People’s Democratic Republic? Those challenges were addressed recently at a forum in Chang Mai, Thailand, organized by the Asia Pacific Telecommunity (www.aptsec.org), a group that fosters telecom cooperation in the Asia Pacific region.
Stuart Davies has a good perspective on the problems and the promises discussed at the forum. He’s a lifelong Pacific Islander, and currently CEO of Telecommunications Cook Islands Ltd. He lives on the tiny island of Rarotonga and faces the special challenges of bringing the wonders of telecom technology to a small (around 15,000 and declining) population base.
“One of our big problems is managing expectations,” he told the APT meeting. “People hear about the benefits of having a Web site and they immediately want one. Then when they learn about the costs and problems of maintenance they become very disillusioned.”
His observation is confirmed by the experience of American Samoa which saw Internet service introduced in 1996. The ISP quickly went into receivership and people lost their connections. The government had to intervene, putting the Internet under the former Post Office Department. There are now three ISPs in this country of 170,000 giving customers dial up service with some leased lines up to 128 kbps. Because nobody is willing to run big pipes into such small countries, they must rely on expensive satellite links for connectivity.
However, there are some advantages to being a tiny country with a small number of users. Often you can often just throw away your old technology and move on to the latest gear. American Samoa now boasts a 100 per cent digital phone system and not every country can say that.
Another plus is that, in small and poorer countries, people do seem more willing to work together. The American Samoan government shares some of its capacity with the National University of Samoa, which allows them to conduct videoconferencing, do telemedicine, and use certain forms of distance learning.
With exorbitant travel costs to reach big cities like Auckland and Sydney, this use of technology makes a great deal of sense. I’ve seen the same phenomenon in Canada’s North, where one community (which should remain nameless since what they did was probably highly illegal) cobbled together a town-wide network using hand-strung cables and RF links. They tied together everything from the school to the town office to the Northern Store, using a combination of public and private resources without much regard to who owned what.
In reporting their favourite achievements, the Samoans boasted that a local school headmaster carried out research in three hours that would have taken him three weeks without the Internet. And a surfing resort on a remote beach in Samoa ran a contest broadcasting daily events to prospective visitors around the world. The pictures originated from the owner’s beach Samoan house (also known as a fale) and were sent by cell phone. Preserving national culture and traditions is an important consideration for many of the 24-member countries of Asia Pacific Telecommunity. For example, the Kingdom on Nepal’s official Information and Communications Technology (ICT) policy states that “content shall be prepared to enhance Nepali materials on the Internet and to preserve Nepali arts and culture.”
There was considerable interest in the “dark side” of technology, such as handling inappropriate Internet content. With some of the member countries holding quite strict religious beliefs, this is a real issue. Dr. Pirongrong Ramasoota of Chulalongkorn University in Thailand argued that “people are not rendered more informed or knowledgeable by new technologies, despite the increase in volume and speed of information flows.” Indeed, she said that “overload, noise, data flak and deliberate misinformation may multiply ignorance and confusion.” She recommended strict law enforcement to fight illegal content such as child pornography, and self-rating and filtering to protect people from “legal but harmful content.”
The APT group spent a full day making a site visit to a rural e-commerce project being organized by the Telephone Organization of Thailand and the country’s Communications Authority. Pilot projects like this can certainly serve as models for other countries in the region.
But it’s also clear that every country is different. Several delegates made the point that while information and computer technology is vitally important to their countries, they may have even more pressing needs. Thinley Dorji, Director of the Bhutan Telecommunications Authority said that his people require training in computer literacy, and literacy in general, to make use of technology. And he raised a provocative question: “What is more important? Access to ICT or access to safe drinking water, medicine, food and shelter?”
Luckily, that’s a choice we don’t have to face in Canada.
Dr. Keenan, ISP, is Dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Calgary, and teaches a course called Hot Issues in Computer Security.