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Remarks of Assistant Secretary Irving at the NTCA-World Bank's First International Conference on Rural Telecommunications

Forging A Connected Global Village
December 01, 1998
"Forging A Connected Global Village"
Remarks by Larry Irving
Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
U.S. Department of Commerce
at NTCA-World Bank's First International Conference
on Rural Telecommunications
Washington, D.C.
December 1, 1998


Good afternoon. I'd like to thank you for inviting me to join NTCA-World Bank's First International Conference.

This conference focuses on one of the key issues for the future of developing countries and rural areas: expanding access to telecommunications. The following anecdote illustrates this point. This study describes what the world would look like if it were reduced to a village of 1,000 people:

There would be 584 Asians, 124 Africans, 136 from the Western Hemisphere (both North and South America), 95 Eastern/Western Europeans, and 55 Russians.
520 would be female, and 480 would be male.
650 would lack a telephone at home.
500 would never have used a telephone.
500 would have to walk two hours to the nearest telephone.
335 would be illiterate.
333 would lack access to safe, clean drinking water.
330 would be children.
70 would own automobiles.
Ten would have a college degree.
Only one would own a computer.

The Global Communications Gap

One of the most striking features of this global village is how few would be connected by either telephone or computer. While many developed nations enjoy varied forms of telecommunications, the vast majority of the world - particularly in remote and rural areas - still has no access to any means of communications. According to the latest reports from the International Telecommunication Union, 80 percent of the world's 600 telephones are located in just 25 countries. This means that the remaining 20 percent of the world's telephones are spread among approximately 9/10 of the countries of the world. Given these figures, it is not surprising, although it is disappointing, to note that one-half of the world's population -- or three billion people -- has never made a phone call.

Our challenge as telecommunications officials, industry executives, and policy experts, is to find ways to close the gap between telecommunications-rich nations and those that lack means of communications. Today, there are still vast regions that don't have basic telephone service. While the United States has 63 telephone lines for every 100 people, China has only two lines and India has only 1.5 for every 100 people. The African continent, which contains 55 countries and one-eighth of the world's population, holds only 2% of the world's telephone lines. The city of Tokyo alone has more phones than the entire continent of Africa!

The communications gap is even more glaring when you look at the numbers that have access to the Internet. In the United States today, approximately one-quarter of our population is on-line; in Africa, that figure is approximately one out of 5,000. Iceland, with a population of 250,000 has almost four times as many Internet hosts as India, with a population of 930 million.

If we could change this balance, our global village would look tremendously different. If phones were readily available in every community, it would no longer take a village member days to walk to the city to inform a relative of a family event - time that might be better spent at work or home. A child suffering from a rare illness might actually be able to communicate with a world-renowned specialist through the Web or satellite. Adults that are unemployed or "underskilled" could take training courses from schools thousands of miles away.

Electronic commerce can also raise the economic hopes for developing businesses. Yesterday, the White House released the First Annual Report from the U.S. Government Working Group on Electronic Commerce, reporting on recent electronic commerce initiatives. In that report, Vice President Gore noted that "[i]n this emerging digital marketplace, anyone with a good idea and a little software can set up shop, and become the corner store for the entire planet." A family that grows vegetables or weaves rugs can actually access the worldwide market. Farmers can track the demand for their crops in foreign markets and determine where they can find the best price. Small businesses can pocket the entire profit earned through electronic sales, rather than losing profits to the middle men.

Electronic commerce and e-mail can change the fortune of a village. Yesterday, President Clinton described how technology empowered one small farming hamlet in Peru, which markets vegetables to New York using a new Net connection. Prior to e-mail, the town's income was $300 per month; now the 50 families in this hamlet are earning $1,500 per month thanks to marketing on the Net.

Bridging the Gap Through Investment and Technologies

All of us here today recognize the potential for new technologies to change the face of the global village. The question is how we can bring about such change. It took the United States 80 years before three out of four households owned a telephone.

While such changes do not happen over night, we have good reason to be optimistic in our progress thus far. For the first time in our world's history, all nations, no matter what their stage of development, are experiencing some form of the Information Revolution. This distinguishes the Information Revolution from the Industrial Revolution, which struck certain nations centuries before others. When we look at the communications revolution, by contrast, it is clear that all nations are affected to a certain degree by increased investment in telecommunications infrastructure and the development of new technologies. And both these developments are serving to connect an increasing number of people worldwide.

The increasing investment in telecommunications information infrastructures has had a profound effect. As we well know, international investment in information and communications technologies has soared in recent years: spending in this area was 40% higher in 1997 than it was in 1992, according to the International Data Corporation (IDC). As a result of these investments, one analyst has concluded that, on average, 50 million people around the world are connected every year. The number of households with telephones has increased more than 30% since 1992. And the number using computers worldwide has grown even more rapidly. More than 118 million PCs are now installed in homes and schools worldwide -- three times as many as five years ago.

New technologies, such as wireless and satellite, are also connecting communities, particularly those in remote and rural regions that are costly to wire. Those countries or regions that have invested little in traditional wirelined telephone service now have the opportunity to be able to leapfrog over development stages and immediately adopt new technologies. A country that has not yet laid telephone lines may choose, instead, to invest in wireless or advanced satellite services to connect remote regions. In some areas of Nepal, for example, it is now far easier to find a cell phone than a telephone.

The "wireless local loop" is one technology that offers significant hope for connecting remote and rural regions. The "wireless local loop" means that the connection between the switched telephone network and the customer is made through a radio connection. In many cases, particularly in geographically isolated communities, this technology may be less expensive to install and maintain than wireline connections. A number of countries, such as China, India, and Brazil, are beginning to use "wireless local loops," and we are even starting to see them appear in the United States as well. This technology, for example, is now serving South Park, Colorado, a sparsely populated area in the Rockies. Some estimate that the cost of deploying the wireless technology in South Park is half what it would cost to use fiber, copper, or wireless point-to-point technologies.

Advanced satellite technologies will also provide another key means to reach isolated or geographically inaccessible communities. Two weeks ago, I read a fascinating article in the Washington Post about a sailor on a solo voyage who operated on his own arm guided by a doctor in Boston. The two communicated through e-mail using an emergency solar-powered satellite communication system on the boat. The doctor's e-mails saved the sailor's life and allowed him to arrive safely at Cape Town the following week. Just as satellite technology connected a sailor in the middle of the ocean, it will also enable us to connect towns that might be geographically isolated or too costly to wire. One satellite phone will enable an entire village to communicate with the other side of the world and could help save lives in times of emergency.

Finally, the Internet holds tremendous potential for developing nations, whether we are talking about e-mail, electronic commerce, accessing information on the Web, or using Internet telephony. We are now able to access the Internet through any number of telecommunications media, including telephone lines, wireless, cable, and satellite. The multiple opportunities to transfer data, and the implications for our legal and regulatory structure, is a topic that the White House will be discussing with expert panels later this afternoon and, again, on Friday. The implications for rural and remote regions are clear: no matter what the geography or distance, every village should have the technological ability to log onto the Internet. I have even heard of towns that lack running water and electricity but have solar-powered or battery-powered Internet access.

The Administration's Initiatives

Given the vast potential of these technologies, it is more important than ever that these technologies become widely available. The Clinton-Gore Administration has made it a priority to maximize access to the Internet and other new technologies. Yesterday, the President and Vice President announced that they are convening an Electronic Commerce Working Group to continue to carry out the President's directives in this area. One of the five subgroups will focus on expanding Internet availability and the use of e-commerce in developing countries.

At the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Plenipotentiary Conference, held one month ago in Minneapolis, Vice President Gore also challenged the 147 countries at the conference to fulfill the promises of a new declaration. In this Digital Declaration of Interdependence (or DDI), the Vice President posed five challenges to use information technology to forge a stronger global community:

  • First, we should improve access to technology so that every person is within walking distance of voice and data telecommunications services within the next decade.

  • Second, we should develop real-time digital translation to enable persons of all languages to talk to each other.

  • Third, we must create a Global Knowledge Network so that education, health care, agricultural resources, and public safety resources can be shared worldwide.

  • Fourth, we must use communications technology to ensure the free-flow of ideas and support democracy and free speech.

  • And fifth, we must expand economic opportunity to all families and communities around the world through information technologies.

To help realize these goals, Vice President Gore announced several other initiatives in his remarks. First, he set forth "The Internet Economic Development Initiative," led by the State Department and the Agency for International Development (USAID). Among other things, this initiative will create incentives for public-private sector partnerships to extend the reach of Internet service to rural areas and to promote electronic commerce. This initiative builds upon the Leland Initiative, another Administration program to provide African countries support for Internet connections. Additionally, the Vice President announced a new commitment by the Peace Corps to use information technology and communications tools to help improve education and enhance economic development in developing countries.

At the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference, we also showcased an Administration program, administered by NTIA, that brings new telecommunications and information technologies to underserved communities. This program, called the Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (or TIIAP), provides matching grants to schools, clinics, and other nonprofit and governmental entities using these technologies to spur community development. Through TIIAP, we have funded 378 projects throughout the U.S. to serve as models for communities trying to integrate new technologies.

Given the enthusiastic reception by foreign nations at the ITU, we are convinced that TIIAP has strong applications internationally, particularly in rural, developing areas. For example, we have helped fund a nonprofit Public Web Market that is helping small, rural businesses understand the benefits of electronic commerce and Internet marketing. This Web Market is enabling small entrepreneurs, such as B&B owners and cottage industries, to set up a web site at reduced cost and lower risk.

We have also provided grants to hospitals that are experimenting with uses of wireless and the Internet for telemedicine into the home. These technologies enable patients to stay at home, while still exchanging medical information with their doctors. By cutting down on hospital visits, telemedicine should cut costs for both the hospital and patient.

Other TIIAP grants are helping public officials integrate information technologies in combating crime, fighting fires, or coping with severe weather conditions. OK-FIRST, a program developed at the University of Oklahoma, uses information technology to track weather conditions. In the past, local emergency officials had little advance warning of impending weather emergencies. Through satellites and the Internet, however, officials now have advance warning of impending storms or tornados and know which roads and bridges might get flooded first. Already, officials have saved lives by closing off a bridge that was subsequently swept away in a flood.

These models could clearly be useful in foreign nations trying to cope with severe weather conditions, improve medical service, or expand educational opportunities. I was excited by the discussions at this conference regarding the potential for telecenters. We have had great success through TIIAP with similar models, which we call "community access centers." These centers provide the community access and training on use of the Internet and other new technologies. In one case, a TIIAP project is training teenagers in computer skills and guiding them in running their own Web-design company.

These TIIAP projects can supplement other significant efforts by many of you here, including NTCA's efforts to extend telephone service by fostering telephone cooperatives in the Phillippines, Poland, South Africa, and other countries. NTIA will be hosting a two-day conference on December 8 and 9 to share the lessons learned by our TIIAP grantees, to which I invite you all. We will also be hosting an international conference this spring to bring together TIIAP projects with members of the international community. You can find further information on these conferences on our Web site at

Finally, as important as technology is for enhancing our economic health and welfare, we should also remember its benefits as a tool of self-expression and empowerment. How many of us remember our excitement when we first looked at a painting on the Net or the photo of a friend's newborn? Or, how many of us feel "on top of the world," and connected to the world, when we can follow a political discussion that is going on in Singapore or the European Union? I still remember my joy when I first discovered I could follow U.S. sports scores on line when I was traveling, or when I first heard Miles Davis or Beethoven through an audio file.

The Internet has made us feel connected and informed, reminding us that fundamentally we are truly social and political beings. When I visited a school in Newark, New Jersey, last year, I was struck by one little girl who exclaimed that the Internet was a "window." She said that it provided her a window to view the world, and it also allowed her to open that window and shout out her story. And that is an opportunity that we must share as broadly as possible.

Thirty years ago, Martin Luther King made a prescient statement in one of his last speeches. In talking about the great revolutions of automation and cybernation, he said: "Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this." That statement has never been more true than it is today, and today we have the technology to draw our communities together.

This conference is an important step in that process, and I hope that this First Annual Conference will spur many new endeavors and subsequent annual conferences. Only through our collective actions, and private/public partnerships, can we hope to connect those regions and people in the world that still remain unconnected.

Thank you.