Strategies for Low-Cost Deployment of ICT in Developing Countries

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  • Article: 1) (Part I) Low-Cost Strategies for ICT Deployment in Developing Countries ; 2) (Part 2) Low-Cost Strategies for ICT Deployment in Developing Countries [1]. By Roberto Verzola.


Roberto Verzola:

"As these examples indicate, we need to develop strategies for low-cost deployment of ICT. Five core strategies proposed for developing countries are as follows.

1. Use an appropriate (i.e., intermediate) technology, which may not be the latest or the most advanced, but still improves significantly on the current ways of doing things and is much more affordable to those who will use it;

2. Use free/open software (e.g., Linux/GNU, OpenOffice, etc.), to drastically reduce the cost of software and to invite deeper knowledge about the technology through the availability of the source code;

3. Where commercial software must be used, encourage the government to apply genuine compulsory licensing;

4. Deploy pay-per-use public access stations which do not require users to pay fixed monthly charges (the public phone booth model); and

5. Explore community/public ownership mechanisms to minimize private rent-seeking.

With these strategies, low-cost knowledge sharing is even more feasible, because of the nature of information itself. However, the low cost of global knowledge sharing presents some difficult issues for developing nations. These issues must be addressed for the proposed strategies to be effective." (


Roberto Verzola:

"The introduction of ICTs is clearly an expensive proposition for most developing countries. They compete for our peoples' time, skills and attention, taking resources away from essential activities like food production, health services, basic education and so on. Yet, the possibilities of the new technologies are also tantalizing, and many people sincerely feel that these technologies also have some benefits to offer and, properly deployed, can facilitate solutions in providing for basic needs.

How does a poor country solve the problem of providing for its people facilities which are terribly expensive and which are hardly affordable? I propose a five-point strategy for doing so:

- stick to the idea of appropriate technology, make do without the online frills, and concentrate on low-cost offline technologies, which can bring in the most essential services;

- use free/open software where they are available, because they take full advantage of the benefits of pooling together the intellectual resources not only of a country but of the whole Internet community;

- apply genuine compulsory licensing where commercial software is the only option; GCL is an internationally-recognized mechanism that allows poor countries access to technologies on their own terms;

- set up public access stations that do not require the ordinary citizen to pay a fixed monthly charge; and

- work out a system of public ownership over the hardware infrastructure to minimize rent-seeking by private interests, which can lead to further concentration of wealth.

Appropriate technologies

Countries must practise extreme care in selecting the technologies to tap, identifying those which are lower-cost, simpler, and capable enough to provide the most essential services. Often, as Schumacher pointed out, these are intermediate technologies, which greatly improve on the old ways of doing things but are very accessible to poor communities because the technologies are simpler and more affordable. Schumacher's ideas remains as relevant as ever in the information sector.

An example of appropriate technology is low-power, community-based radio broadcasting. As the table of technology costs above shows in the case of the Philippines, this technology can provide 100% access and approximate interactivity with very affordable investments, while the more advanced technologies would require billions of dollars of investments every several years or so and yet leave half of the population unserved.

In computer communications, appropriate technology would be offline technologies, i.e., technologies based on store-and-forward email and email-based services such as mailing lists, email-enabled access to ftp sites, Web sites, etc. Such technologies would be text-mostly, offline, low-bandwidth, and low-cost. They would run over the basic POTS ("plain old telephone system") network, instead of requiring a huge and expensive network of dedicated data lines.

Free/open software

The basic principle in overcoming high resource requirements is to pool meager resources and the share the benefits with as many people as possible. This is exactly what free/open software does: it pools the intellectual resources available over the Internet, and shares the results freely with the rest of the world.

The result is something dramatic, effective and reliable. Free/open software have proven themselves equal to if not better than commercial software in terms of quality and reliability.

The most popular example of this approach is the Linux/GNU operating system.

A philosophy of freedom

Linux represents a philosophy of freedom. It is freedom that makes free software like Linux/GNU "free": the freedom to use it; the freedom to copy and share it; and the freedom to modify it, because the source code is available.

These freedoms are the mark of free software. A legal document called the General Public License (GPL) was carefully formulated by the Free Software Foundation, also headed by Richard Stallman, to protect these freedoms while the protected software goes through the process of use, sharing and modification. Thus, free software can also be defined as software that is protected under the GPL.

The access to source code that Linux/GNU makes possible represents at the R&D level the same kind of pooling of resources, an approach perfectly suited to a poor country like the Philippines.

The source code of a computer program is the equivalent of the schematic diagram of a piece of electronic equipment, the architectural plans of a building, or the mechanical drawings of a machine. Once a piece of equipment, a building, or a machine becomes complicated enough -- as most pieces of software are -- modification becomes extremely difficult without the corresponding schematic diagram, architectural plan, mechanical drawing, or source code.

Microsoft doesn't make its source code available; Linux/GNU does. Since the Linux source code is available, Linux can be customized much more easily and flexibly than software without source code. Windows users have to wait a long time for an improved version of the software to be released by Microsoft. Linux is being improved all the time by the Internet community, which includes thousands of independent developers and programmers who volunteer their time and effort making the software faster, more robust, and generally better." (

Working in harmony with the nature of information

One of the key concepts in ecology, is the idea of harmony. We must learn to search for harmony and to work for it, because the dynamic balance that it represents gives peace to our lives. Thus, today, it is now commonly accepted that we must work in harmony with nature instead of in opposition to it. For to conquer nature and to defeat it is, in truth, a self-defeating goal, because we are part of nature.

Information has its own nature. It is non-material; basically a numeric measure of resolving uncertainty. By its nature, information is easy to duplicate at little cost, unlike material goods which require significant amounts of matter and energy to go into every unit. As the economist would say, the marginal cost of reproducing information approaches zero. It is this nature of information which determines its social character, why people tend to copy it, to share it, to exchange it. As the mathematician would say, the acquisition of information is not a zero-sum game, it is a positive sum-game. To use a popular term today, sharing information goods like software is a "win-win" situation, because you do not lose what you give away.

Free software like Linux/GNU works in harmony with the nature of information, because it recognizes and takes advantage of its social nature. Intellectual property rights (IPR) like software copyrights, on the other hand, work against the nature of information because they create statutory monopolies that artifically create information scarcity, so that the privileged monopolists can dictate their price of a good that, by nature, is easily available to all once created.

That is why, despite that power of Bill Gates and his fellow cyberlords, they will never be able to completely implement their so-called property rights over information, because they work against the very nature of information. The social nature of information will continually assert itself and people will continue to copy and to share whatever information they find useful and worth sharing. On the other hand, free software and its copying license, the GPL, work in perfect harmony with the nature of information. In the future, IPR will become obsolete and GPL and similar practices consistent with information's social nature will become the general rule.

When we work in harmony with the nature of information, it becomes easier to improve, and its quality, reliability and usefulness rised rapidly This is probably why Linux is superior to Microsoft Windows in many respects. It can do many tasks (multitasking) and service many users (multiuser) at the same time. It has all the facilities for communicating with other computers (networking): it can be used as a workstation, as a server, or both; e-mail is built-in; and it is Internet-ready. Linux can also be configured with a graphical user interface. Unlike Windows which inexplicably stops every now and then (sometimes taking your work file with it), Linux machines run twenty-four hours a day for months with no problem. Ask any local Internet service provider (ISP): many use Linux, hardly any uses Windows NT.

Linux, furthermore, is Unix-compatible, a Unix look-alike. Who hasn't heard of Unix? It is THE operating system, the one which runs on almost every computer from lowly 386s to supercomputing Crays. Nearly all computer science departments in every self-respecting university in the world use Unix as their platform for teaching and research. The latest developments in computer science often make their appearance on Unix first, before trickling down later to other operating systems like Microsoft Windows or the Mac OS.

Social movements and non-government organizations (NGOs) should look beyond the cost effectiveness of Linux, into its philosophy of freedom in software. It is a philosophy consistent with the advocacies of cause-oriented groups, voluntary associations and alternative movements -- a philosophy of pooling resources, sharing, and working in harmony with nature and with information.

Genuine compulsory licensing (GCL)

If the General Public License (GPL) ensures public access to free/open software, genuine compulsory licensing (GCL) provides an internationally-recognized mechanism for public access to commercial software and other copyrighted or patented goods.

GCL works as follows: Somebody who wants to use/commercialize patented or copyrighted material approaches NOT the patent or copyright holder, but the government for a license to do so. The government grants the license, whether the original patent or copyright holder agrees or not, but compels the local licensee to pay the patent/copyright holder a royalty rate that is fixed by law. Many countries in the world have used and continue to use compulsory licensing for important products like pharmaceuticals and books, in order to bring down their prices and make them more affordable to ordinary citizens.

GCL would legalize the operations of computer shops which offer copying of commercial software as a service to the public, but would require these shops to pay a reasonable royalty -- usually between 5 and 10 percent of the local price of copied item -- to the original copyright owners. It would allow the government television channel, for instance, to show on television the Discovery Series, while paying a reasonable royalty set by law.

Genuine compulsory licensing (also called mandatory licensing in some countries) is a demand of many countries who want to access technologies but cannot afford the price set by patent/copyright holders. While this internationally-recognized mechanism was meant for the benefit of poorer countries, even the U.S. and many European countries use it.

In the article "Cyberlords: the rentier class of the information sector", I explained why GCL is an important demand which not only helps poor countries to acquire access to expensive technologies on their own terms, but which also splits the cyberlord class because small cyberlords welcome GCL while big cyberlords oppose it.

When referring to compulsory licensing, it is important to emphasize that it must be genuine, because the GATT/WTO agreement pays lip service to compulsory licensing but defines it in a way that negates its essential purpose by giving back to cyberlords the power to set the terms of the license.

The hardware solution: public facilities / universal access

Publicly-owned, publicly-accessible facilities represent this strategy of resource-pooling and resource-sharing, a proven strategy among poor countries. This approach contrasts sharply with what seems today to be the dominant idea for introducing ICTs: "a computer on every desktop," recalling the "one family, one car" approach in the transportation sector.

These two contrasting approaches are as follows:

    - public libraries vs. a library in every home
    - public viewing centers vs. a television in every home
    - public calling stations vs. a telephone in every home
    - the public access terminals vs. a computer on every desktop

The first represents a community-oriented approach that emphasizes sharing and minimizes cost; the second represents an individualistic approach that creates a huge demand for suppliers.

It is clear what strategy the ICT industry wants governments to take. It is also clear what strategy will be able to deliver universal access at a cost which cash-strapped governments can afford.

Unfortunately, many governments do not give this issue much thought, and accept without question the approach which the ICT industry is taking. The Philippine government, for instance, had in 1998 a project to install a public calling station in every one of the 1,500 municipalities of the country. The budget for the project was drastically reduced; instead the government is relying on private telcos to install telephones, which they are doing, but mostly in urban centers, and the target is to install one in every home.

Public ownership of the infrastructure

Because the ICT infrastructure is very expensive, the effort to set it up presents an opportunity for collective pooling of resources by an entire community. Once the infrastructure is set up, it can then offer universal access, charging only enough to maintain good quality service and provide for future requirements. This is the rationale for public ownership of natural monopolies and large infrastructures.

To open such public works to private ownership open the door to rent-seeking with no time bound, extracts additional cost from users to support the profit-driven rent-seekers who will charge as much as the market will bear, and contributes to the further concentration of wealth in the hands of the rich. Because of the low marginal costs of moving and reproducing information goods, the information sector attracts more than its usual share of rent-seekers. A conscious effort by the government to encourage public or community ownership of ICT infrastructures can avoid this problem." (

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