Global Mobile

Here Comes Net Neutrality

The FCC voted this morning to move ahead with a discussion of Chairman Julius Genachowski's new rules to protect net neutrality.  Generally, the corporate battle lines are drawn between the service providers (especially AT&T) who oppose the new rules, and online services (e.g. Google, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook), who support them. 

Net NeutralityThe principles of net neutrality are, in their essence, intended to keep the internet free and open, and prevent service providers from owning the network. Specifically, the rules will try to head off efforts by service providers to treat certain content or devices preferentially, whether by speeding up service for sites that pay a fee, or blocking services competitive with their own.  The service providers counter with the argument that it hardly makes sense to legislate against a problem that isn't a problem-- aside from some black hat activity by Comcast, there hasn't been much bad stuff going on that would seem to necessitate the new rules.

Chairman Genachowski has coupled this new initiative with a commitment to make the FCC a more open institution: He's published a draft of his proposed rules, and he's keeping the period for comments open longer than usual. I suspect that between now and January 14, when the comment period ends, we'll move toward a middle ground that is comfortable for most parties involved. Even though Verizon, as a service provider, is opposed to the rules, Verizon Wireless and Google found common ground, and their two CEOs released a joint statement in support of light-touch regulation.

Everyone seems to agree with the concept that the internet should be open, and nobody wants any "walled gardens." Still, it will be important not to stifle innovation with rules that restrict service providers from, well, providing good service. Here's to a vigorous debate!

Broadband for Hispanic Americans

Somehow I passed over this when it was released a month ago, but Mobile Future and the Hispanic Institute collaborated on a new report about broadband access and usage among Hispanics in the US.  The essay makes the macro point that Hispanics have higher rates of mobile broadband usage than most other demographic groups, ergo policymakers should account for and include mobile when making broadband policy-- and not focus exclusively on fiber networks.

Mobile or Fibre?The point is well taken, but the paper casts Hispanics as having a preference for mobile broadband, which I'm not sure is quite right. I would argue that Hispanics aren't big wireless users despite having lower rates of in-home broadband access; rather, they're big wireless users because they have less fiber access in their homes. As we know, high-speed internet is increasingly a necessity for everyday life and business, and if you can't afford to hook up your computer, you'll opt for a cheaper wireless connection.

The conclusions here are very much right: As the FCC reviews our broadband policy, it will be important for them to take into account the the needs of poorer Americans, and their dependence on wireless broadband access. 

I would just add a bigger point: Wireless broadband is great for economic development, but in-home, fibre-optic broadband connections are even better.  Our policymakers need to look especially hard at how we can include every American in the global ICT network.

Taxing Telecom

Last week, Finland made broadband access a universal right.  Now, Mexico has announced their intention to levy a tax on all telecom services, including internet.  If that seems regressive to you, that's because it is.

Broadly speaking, it makes good policy sense to tax items with negative externalities (like tobacco, alcohol, or, say, carbon emissions) and to leave untaxed things that help create a better society (like food, or, ahem, internet connectivity).  I can sympathize with the Mexican government's desire to raise revenue from a quickly growing sector of their economy, but there's got to be a better way than actively discouraging broadband uptake.

Fortunately, for Mexico's technological elites, Twitter has given them a forum to make a fuss.  The hashtag #InternetNecesario (which means, basically, internet is a necessity) has been the convening point for people wishing to speak out against the policy.  The hashtag briefly made the top ten "trending topics" list this morning, right up there with Rihanna and the Baloon Boy.

With the stellar Alliance of Youth Movements summit taking place in Mexico City last week, featuring an awful lot of interesting discussion about broadband, Twitter, and all these other technologies, I have to think somebody's paying attention in the government. Let's hope this bad idea goes away.

A Piece of the Brazilian Action

We had the Brazilian Ambassador Antonio Patriota here at NDN yesterday, and he offered a wonderfully cogent picture of where Brazil is today-- economically, politically, and in its relations with the rest of the world. Rumors and hearsay suggest that the Ambassador could soon be recalled to Brasilia to serve as Deputy Foreign Minister, but for now, he's here in Washington, and serving as a valuable bridge between his country and ours.

A video of his talk is below, which you should watch, but really that was just a glorified lead-in to a rather scanty blog post...

GVT LogoThe Economist has an article in their latest issue about GVT, a relatively small Brazilian mobile operator. Despite its meager market share, a bidding war is on to take the company over-- Spain's Telefonica has the highest bid right now, over France's Vivendi, and rumors abound that TelMex might be interested too. The take-away here is that Brazil is one of most stable of the fast-growing markets in the world, and everybody wants a piece of the action:

Since Brazil’s telecoms monopoly was broken up and privatised in 1998, the number of landlines has more than doubled from 17m to 41m. The growth of mobile phones has been even faster. Brazil already boasts more 165m of them, just 25m short of one for every person in the land. Internet coverage is less good, but the government plans to lay 31,000km of optical fibre with the aim of bringing broadband access within reach of 162m people. The race is therefore on to create telecoms giants that can offer a range of services to Brazilians in the farthest corners of this vast country.

Like I was saying, everybody wants in.  And the Ambassador agrees:

Broadband Internet Is Your Right! If You're Finnish.

Interesting news out of Finland, where new legislation will make 1mbps broadband internet a legal right. Most of the country is wired, but the new law will force broadband providers to extend their networks to rural areas. Says the legislative counsellor of the Ministry of Transport and Communications:

We think it's something you cannot live without in modern society. Like banking services or water or electricity, you need Internet connection.

Rural FinlandOther countries, including France, have mandated internet access, but Finland is the first to set a threshhold for speed. (And they've set ambitious goals for growth, too: 100mbps by 2015) Ban Ki-Moon has made global ICT access a priority, and spoke last week in support of extending networks to schools around the world.

The question of whether high-speed internet access should be treated as a right is one that I think we'll be wrestling with a lot in coming years. Certainly, access to and understanding of the global ICT network is a prerequisite for the success of any child growing up in the 21st century. And increasingly, as more and more services are delivered over mobiles and the web, governments will need to ensure universal access.

We still have a long way to go in the United States, though. We are, in fact, the only industrialized nation without a national plan to promote the spread of broadband. Finland, two steps ahead of us, might be taken as an inspiration...

Connecting Cuba

TeleCuba, a Miami-based communications firm, was just granted a permit by the Treasury Department to lay a fiber-optic cable between Key West and Havana. They'll be investing about $18 million (a pittance!) to tie the last unconnected country in the Western Hemisphere into the global grid.

TeleCubaJust a few weeks ago, President Obama's new policy easing restrictions on family travel, remittances, and telecommunications took effect. (A policy, I might add, that NDN had more than a little to do with shaping) It's good to see it's having an impact already.  And it's happening just in time-- Hugo Chavez recently pledged to lay his own fiber cable from Venezuela to Cuba-- albeit a cable eight times as long, delivered at four times the cost.

I've written before about the democratizing power of connectivity and information. We'll see how this plays out, but I have a hunch that broadband internet, cheap international phone calls, and cable TV will do more to democratize Cuba in six months than fifty years of embargo.

Governor Bill Richardson was at our offices last week talking about U.S.-Cuba relations.  Watch the video of his talk here.  Lastly, a quip I enjoyed from the AP:

The capacity of the cable will be 8 to 10 terabits per second, enough for more than 160 million simultaneous phone calls. The last operational copper cable from Florida to Cuba could carry 144 phone calls at the same time.

Global Mobile Quick Hits: Pedal Power Edition

Tabs I've collected today:

- Twitter is going multilingual.

- A good survey on the current status of mBanking in Africa.

- Another good big-picture review, this one of mHealth.

- And one more, generally addressing the future of mobiles for development.

- An iPhone game from African developers... download iWarrior now, and protect your village!

- And China has barred foreign investment in online games.  Too direct a path to the minds of the youth?

- LG has a new solar-powered e-reader.

- OLPC News on progress in Afghanistan: pedal power!

From the Archives: Tim Chambers

Digging int our mobile archives, I'd like to introduce you to our friend Tim Chambers.  Tim is co-founder of Dewey Digital, the Media 50 Group, and a long-time partner of our affiliate, the New Politics Institute.  In May 2008, Tim joined us to talk about the power of mobile media in politics and outreach. A lot of what he says sounds familiar now, since we saw much of it employed by the Obama campaign last year. Enjoy!

The Challenges and Opportunities of Telemedicine

I was at Brookings this morning for a discussion on "Consumer-Driven Medicine" (A curious euphemism for what I would call "patient-driven medicine"-- isn't it a disturbing reduction to think of patients as simply "consumers" of medical services? But I digress...). Specifically, telemedicine (or mHealth, or whatever you want to call it) in America was the subject of the day.

There was unanimous agreement that telemedicine has the potential to help improve healthcare outcomes without raising costs (and possibly lowering them). Further, as I was saying on Tuesday, the technology is basically already here, and AT&T, a presenter on the panel, has been developing technologies that would network all our mHealth devices. So why can't you track your blood sugar and check your medical records on your Blackberry?  A few key themes emerged:

  • TelemedicineThe biggest obstacle for telemedicine is that insurance doesn't cover it. Part of the problem here is that when the CBO costs out implementation of telemedicine infrastructure, they don't account for cost savings. True, a big upfront investment is required, but telemedicine is all about cost savings. It saves trips to the doctor.  It saves the valuable time of doctors.  Through preventive care and monitoring of chronic disease, people can avoid getting sick-- and that's a massive cost saver. So the CBO issue prevents Medicare and Medicaid from leading in telemedicine, and given a comfortable status quo, private insurers are unlikely to make the initial investment, either.
  • Rural areas stand to gain the most from telemedicine. One of the presenters was Dr. Karen Rheuban, a self-described "country doctor" (and also head of the American Telemedicine Association). Like in any developing country, rural America faces challenges of resource scarcity. Doctors are few, hospitals are far-between, and high-quality specialty care is virtually nonexistent. Dr. Rheuban talked about one initiative in Virginia that brought a mobile mammogram machine into rural communities.  The images were reviewed by doctors in Richmond, and results returned the same day.
  • Patients love telemedicine. Doctors are a little wary. The panelists concurred that after their first experience with remote monitoring or consultation, patients are enthusiastically ready to make it their norm. Doctors, while they know it has potential, and know it's where events are leading, tend to be more dubious. This was interestingly reflected by the audience at the event; in question after question, doctors seemed very wary of telemedicine, and of yielding much control to either data-crunching software or to patients themselves. Change is hard, but this is a case in which progress could lead to doctors having more of their rarest resource: time.

In sum, good event from Brookings on a crucial subject (and one, I'd say, that should have a bigger role in our current healthcare debate). 

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