Two networks will shape your digital future

20 Dec 2017 16:15h - 17:45h

Event report

[Read more session reports and live updates from the 12th Internet Governance Forum]

Ms Marilyn Cade, President, ICT Strategies, opened the session by stating that it almost did not take place due to lack of appropriate recognition of the need for adequate and reliable power supply. Cade said that the IGF has spent a long time understanding the importance of capacity building and the need for affordable devices and access. She noted the work that the IEEE is doing to advance solutions for a more connected world with affordable access for all to improve lives, find health care information, run more businesses, and maintain communication.

Ms Nilmini Rubin, Vice President, International Development, Tetra Tech, stated that 4 billion people are without access to the Internet, 1.2 billion people or more are without access to electricity, and 2.5 billion people or more do not have access to financial institutions. She said that these people most likely reside in Africa or Asia and spend 30 cents per day, not on electricity, but on kerosene lighting. Rubin spoke of multistakeholder efforts for a sustainable development agenda, but this cannot be achieved without electricity. She further explained the effort of the U.S. Government, launched three years ago with 40 partnering countries, which has been picked up by the IEEE and the WEF. Rubin emphasised the need to make Internet access a foreign policy issue and have senior government leaders state that the Internet is fundamental to all aspects of life. 

She further stressed the importance of a more comprehensive approach in engaging the financial community through the World Bank and MDBs. Rubin reiterated the need to empower the technical community to help produce access solutions for emerging countries. She said that there is increasing need for energy to connect to the Internet, to power Internet of Things devices, data centres, and to safeguard existing and future data. She emphasised the importance of energy solutions to provide power to over 1 billion people who currently do not have electricity, as well as dealing with increasing consumption. She stated the need, on a multilateral basis, to adopt a builder’s approach, for example by installing wiring at the time of building a road. She also noted the need to take gender into consideration, as women often suffer more from the lack of available energy.

Mr Kristopher Haag, Director, New Business Development & Emerging Technologies, EMI Advisors, began by saying that the lack of electricity in developing countries is a major barrier to overcome, despite billions of dollars of foreign direct investment over the last decade. He said that the majority of attempts to close the gap are focused on two areas – expanding centrally planned power goods, and deploying small scale stand-alone power generation solutions, or in other words, island grids. Haag said that neither of these approaches have made progress in closing the gap due to the remote nature of the communities.

He noted that in contrast to the electrification gap, there has been massive growth in the deployment of telecommunications services throughout the world, with significant strides made in rural and poor communities. Haag said that telecommunications networks have added over 4 billion mobile phone connections in the last 15 years, growth that can be directly attributed to the global nature of telephone networks. He further explained that the main issues limiting the ability of low-cost power can be broken down to two areas – lack of adequate revenue assurance models, and lack of micro-grid standards. He said the technology exists today to apply smartcode banking to ensure that users can prepay for electricity in the same way that telephone users have prepaid calling cards. With reference to micro-grids, citing his work in Afghanistan, he noted that none of the 40 he had researched were built to the same standards, and had no ability to buy from and sell power to each other. 

Mr Bill Ash, Strategic Program Manager, IEEE Standards Association, noted that both networks were equally important. He highlighted projects that provide power, education, training and employment, while connecting the unconnected and helping to reduce the digital divide. He pointed out that the success of projects will provide the next generation of leaders who will help drive that country and local regions. Ash noted that the costs of deployment are based on economies of scale and that having similar standards reduced overall costs. 

The viewpoint of the technical community was presented by Mr Omar Mansoor Ansari, President, TechNation, Kabul. He began by explaining the geographical importance of Afghanistan and pointed out that while other countries have developed greatly over the last 30 to 40 years, Afghanistan has lagged behind due to conflict. He noted, however, that in the past 15 years as international peacekeeping forces came to Afghanistan, they contributed to infrastructure and capacity development. He noted a number of challenges including connectivity due to its high cost, adding that many do not see the benefit of investing in bandwidth. However if people understood the benefits, such as online education, investment would follow.

Mr Wisdom Donkor, IT Manager, Ghana National Information Technology Agency,  highlighted the situation in Ghana, saying that around 1992 the power grid had been extended to cover much of the nation. Each successive government had committed to extend power to all communities, and today 80% of the country is covered. Donkor said that Ghana was attempting to grow its renewable energy programme, and that the government has good policies in relation to gas and energy, although implementation is questionable.

Mr Manu Bhardwaj, Vice President, Research and Insight, MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth, began by saying that finance companies have an integral role to play in development at large. He cited the story of JP Morgan and his relationship with Thomas Edison to illustrate the need for investors to be part of the conversation with inventors. He said that in order to connect the next 1.5 billion people, 450 billion USD would be required, and therefore it is of vital importance to strategically engage with one another.

Mr Vint Cerf, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist, Global Policy Development, Google, began by emphasising three networks – the electrical power grid, the Internet, and the financial network – all of which are necessary to produce the required benefits. He elaborated on technical needs for data storage abilities and transferring data at different rates, which are not covered by current circuit switched networks. The relevance of the power grid lies in the necessity of reliable storage of power when it is not generated and the ability to use it. He stressed that there are different ways of achieving such storage, singling out the redox flow battery method that is resilient, scale-able, and which has become recently affordable.

Cerf further pointed out that while the panel discussion was country by country, there should be cross country power exchanges and arrangements. He elaborated on the need for Internet Exchange Points to link networks and countries together to have continuous connection, and warned that in the case of network failures, these failures cascade and propagate. He then asked about the connectivity of regional power networks in Ghana and in Afghanistan.

In elaborating the necessity of building telecommunication networks further, Cerf cited the example of Google building an optical fibre network on a wholesale basis in Ghana and Uganda. The wholesale approach was implemented to involve local retail Internet services and investors. He asked Bhardwaj whether an approach distinguishing between wholesale and retail electricity would be possible. Bhardwaj stated in reply that there could be interest from high end capital in such a solution due to the philanthropic effect of such investment, as well as its profitability when scaled up.

Discussion followed with a question on Smart Village activities related to villages in need of power, and the involvement of the IEEE. Ash listed projects in India, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Haiti where a self-sustained micro grid generates and stores solar energy. Through standardisation of equipment, costs are being cut to 2-6 USD a month. In addition, there are efforts to lower the costs of standardisation itself. Cerf commented that there is a rising interest in generating DC electricity due to the ease of its transport and converting to AC only when needed.

In additional comments and questions, the panel and audience discussed the importance of cross-communication, cross-ministry cooperation and openness to competition in order to facilitate access of the private sector, and the access and possibilities of communication with regulatory bodies and their development. They also discussed the rebuilding of infrastructure as a part of disaster relief, difficulties of working with several regulators and government agencies, as well as prioritising needs – such as clean water – when addressing challenges with infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Cade concluded the session by underlining the need for additional sessions since the needs, opportunities, and iceberg ideas require more attention.

By Pavlina Ittelson