Next Billion Conference

David Weinberger blogs about a conference “sponsored by VON and hosted by the Berkman Center, called ‘The CEO Forum on the Next Billion: Finding ways to move access to communication from 1 billion people on earth to 2 billion and beyond.'”

David writes about a talk given by Tom Evslin of Evslin Consulting:

Tom says that wifi is the next VoIP, an industry/infrastructure ready to take off.

He’s worried about the lobbies arrayed against VoIP. He recommends the VON Coalition as a counter-lobby. He also thinks that, although he’s generally a free market guy, some regulation may be required to ensure that “the last mile monopolies aren’t used to stop the provision of services.” Maybe, he says.

He says that the movement of support jobs to India is a huge success made possible by the low cost of communications. A middle class is growing in India. But not in sub-Saharan Africa. He describes instances where communication has transformed poor villages in Bangladesh. The same model worked in Uganda. [Here’s the model as described in the Grameen Foundational Annual report: “Today there are over 25,000 village phone operators in Bangladesh. Phone Ladies earn extra income for themselves (an average of $71 per month, more than twice the average Bangladeshis monthly income), while allowing others in the village to conduct business or keep in touch with friends and relatives from a distance.”]

He says he thinks he knows how the industry is going to go. “Think of a box,” he says. It has to be self-powered. It’s satelllite linked to geostationary satellites. The box has wifi or wimax coming out of it. “This box, dropped almost anywhere in the world, creates a cloud of IP connectivity over a couple of square miles, depending on the geography.” This, he thinks, is a better solution than the phone ladies reselling the existing cellular network. And, besides, people need more than voice. They’ll need all sorts of IP connectivity. At first, people will use the cloud with cheap wifi phones, but eventually computers will get there. “Even if the box doesn’t make engineering sense, and it makes anticorruption sense because it doesn’t need to connect to a monopoly.” He talks about the need for microcredit and maybe subsidies, but, as much as possible, these boxes and the provision of services over these boxes (which need not be the same) should have a local stake with local gain in order to encourage development.

Judith Meskill adds:

Ethan ZuckermanGlobal Internet, actually and truly globalhow do you build the on-ramp to making this a reality. There is no charitable way to go out and provide this access to the world, must be for profit. Low cost way to start global dialoguebringing IP dialtone to the rest of the world. VoIP becomes WHY broadband comes into play. The reason people are putting up the money is high quality IP connectivity.

[via Anish Sankhalia] David Isenberg writes on his take-aways:

1) Tom Evslin has the right idea — a stand-alone connectivity box, the analog of a village phone. I am consistently impressed with Tom’s grounded insights and his entrepreneurial humanitarianism.
2) I was delighted to meet Ory Okolloh, a Berkman student, a Kenyan, an articulate questioner with an infectious smile and a worthwhile blog. Ory’s excellent perspective on Next Billion day is here. I was also pleased to meet Richard Whitt, author of “A Horizontal Leap Forward” which puts forth model legislation for the next telecom act, notable because the proposed law is structured much like Internet architecture.
3) I was gratified that the two people who I think know the most about connecting the under-developed world were there. Monique Maddy had the best idea for a village phone that I’ve ever heard of — when the population is illiterate, you must have voice, and when teledensities are so low that the probability of having a face to face conversation is approximately zero — and she actually implemented such phones until conflicting goals of her two types of investors (VCs and NGOs) came to a head. And Iqbal Quadir, who founded Grameen Phone, which implemented the village phone idea in Bangladesh and, in a year when B2B and B2C were flying around coined the term B3B for the bottom three billion, the planet’s poorest humans. I felt privileged to be in the room with these two.
4) The person with the biggest chance of helping bring most of the next billion on line said almost nothing. Jeffery Paine President of UTStarCom, which sells mostly in China, sat quietly and left early. I was disappointed. Nobody else was there who represented China. The next billion online will almost certainly be 50% (or more) Chinese — why’d we miss this opportunity?

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.