A win-win future for the internet

The current internet versus telcos debate is still following an old confrontational pattern. However, it's time we started to look past the clash of cultures.

The current internet versus telcos debate that is going to be played out at the WCIT conference in Dubai later this year is still following the old confrontational pattern.

The telco industry, for all the right reasons, started off as a monopolistic one. With the limited technology and knowledge of that time this system has been able to deliver telephone networks to all the countries in the world, and the industry can be proud of that achievement.

However, technology and knowledge have progressed and we now live in a different era, where the rigidness required in the past is no longer needed.

The internet developed independently of the old structures of the telecommunication industry, and adopted a totally different culture. A monopolistic approach was no longer needed and that in turn led to the evolution of a much freer and open system.

Most telcos and governments around the world admit that the internet would never have become what it is today if it had adopted the old telco structures – or if it had been led by governments. This applies equally to international organisations like the ITU, who also subscribe to that conclusion.

But we have now arrived at a different stage of the internet and as we have indicated in our report “The Future of the Internet” a range of issues is surfacing that can be grouped under the header the of Governance of the Internet:

  • Vested interests want greater regulation on content and copyright (SOPA, PIPA, CISPA, ACTA, TPP);
  • Technologically advanced nations are now also using it for cyber warfare;
  • Several developing economies, and in particular less-democratic countries, want to assume greater control over it;
  • Other countries want greater protection for children and other vulnerable people in their societies;
  • The internet community wants to keep it as free as possible from national or international interference;
  • The commercial interests of the telecoms industry;
  • The new commercial interests of the trillion-dollar digital industry.

However, with the internet becoming increasingly economically and politically important, we are now seeing a clash between two cultures: the monopolistic structure of the telco industry, based on a culture of mostly bilateral negotiation; and the collaborative culture of the internet, based on multilateral arrangements. The first group mainly works on the principle of win-lose, while the second focuses on win-win. The telcos are keeping quiet during negotiations, using their lawyers to address issues such as those listed above, while the internet industry prefers to have its CEOs and specialists sitting around the table, sharing their knowledge and experiences and getting things done that way.

I admit that this is a rather blunt black and white statement, but I hope it gets the picture across. Whether parties like it or not the internet requires an integrated chain approach from all parties involved. There is simply no alternative to this; it is the nature of the ICT industry.

A key problem for this new industry is that governments and their bureaucracies are in general more attuned to the telco way of doing business, rather than to the more ‘freely operating’ internet-based companies. Also international bodies such as the ITU have traditionally been affiliated with this culture – nevertheless it is good to see that the ITU is trying to open up the debate and make it more inclusive. This is judged by some to be cynical, but we believe that it is a genuine attempt by the ITU and that it should be accepted in a positive way. Let us at least give this approach a chance.

The reality, however, is that the future lies in the internet model and not the telco model, so we need to work on a more collaborative approach with the internet model in mind.

This will be a very difficult challenge. That is not to say that the telcos do not have legitimate issues as well – such as content transport and infrastructure capacity requirements – but they need to be resolved within open models and win-win scenarios.

It is clear that internet users do not want to give up the open internet. Very few would argue for a telco-dominated environment. So, while the vested interests might have the balance of political power, governments have been put on notice that people power will be an equally important element, and that it will have to be taken into account in their deliberations.

There are legitimate questions on the table from all the players involved. There is no clear black-and-white solution. It is in everybody’s interest to have a free, affordable, safe and non-monopolised internet. People expect a rational approach to the challenges, with rational decisions – decisions that are not driven by vested interests; decisions that work to further develop the national and international social and economic benefits that flow from the use of the internet.

For this purpose people expect the experts from around the world to work together and come up with win-win solutions. So, for those travelling to Dubai later this year, leave the lawyers at home, sit around the table with each other and find genuinely good solutions that are in the best interest of all citizens of the world. Soon there will be six billion internet users, a clear indication of how important the internet is to their daily lives and economic circumstances. Surely these people should also have a say in the future of the internet. Their voices should not be drowned out by the legalistic behaviour of those who are there simply to protect their own vested interests.

I certainly do not underestimate the challenges that will be faced at the WCIT conference, and the odds are against it reaching collaborative solutions. Internationally there is a lack of political leadership (in most global affairs) and this will most likely also be the case with the ICT industry when it meets in December. But if those from the world of communications – when they sit together in Dubai – are unable to communicate in a collaborative way, what hope is there for other sectors? Our industry should set the example and show that solutions can be found by collaborating and communicating with each other. That is what the ICT industry is saying to its customers; now is the time to put it into practice themselves.

Paul Budde is the managing director of BuddeComm, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy company, which includes 45 national and international researchers in 15 countries.