Hamadoun Touré, secretary general of the International Telecommunications Union, has a grand vision—one that was born of the current financial crisis. The ICT sector, he believes, has the potential to lead the world out of recession—and the ITU can play a key role in making that happen.

Mike Hibberd

September 15, 2009

8 Min Read
Public private partnership
Hamadoun Touré, secretary general of the International Telecommunications Union

Hamadoun Touré, secretary general of the International Telecommunications Union, has a grand vision—one that was born of the current financial crisis. The ICT sector, he believes, has the potential to lead the world out of recession—and the ITU can play a key role in making that happen.

When the organisation began marketing its Telecom World 2009 show, which takes place in Geneva in early October, it was met initially with reticence, fuelled by the downturn. Travel is one of the first casualties of straitened times, while exhibition space and delegate passes can quickly come to be seen as luxury items. Touré decided that the ITU—which he says is unique among industry groupings in that it counts as its members 191 sovereign states and 700 industry companies—had something unique to offer visitors to its events and decided to try and bring the governments and the private sector together.

“We have extended the participation in the event to include heads of state,” Touré says, during a brief visit to London a month ahead of the Geneva show. “We went with the concept of national pavilions at the show and we’re inviting heads of state to give them the opportunity to meet with industry leaders. Even though it is the most resilient sector in terms of the financial crisis, this industry needs a boost. Not a financial bailout, but a political and policy boost that we believe will come from having these people at the event.

“We believe that the ICT sector will take the world out of financial crisis, because it’s the only industry that’s still growing,” he says.

These are bold, rallying cries—but are they a triumph of hope over realism? Scan the industry, after all, and it seems easy enough to find news stories that argue against the idea that the sector is in rude health; big names are struggling and suffering. But Touré does not believe there is a substantial problem.

“We have only had one major bankruptcy, and that was Nortel. And that would have happened anyway. You could see from their business model that they would have problems. In this industry you can’t put all your eggs in one basket, you have to diversify.

“The crisis in this industry came in 2002 and 2003,” he continues. “You don’t have two crises in the same industry in a single decade. The lessons we learned from when the bubble burst are still being implemented, and we had consolidation in the wake of that. Of course there are new mergers happening [Touré spoke to telecoms.com on the morning that Orange and T-Mobile proposed the merger of their UK operations] but I don’t necessarily believe these are linked to the financial crisis,” he says.

“There is no such thing as a superpower in the ICT world… Nobody should fool themselves; there are 6.5 billion people in the world and 6.5 billion potential ICT superpowers because the human brain is the power here…”

Touré points to developing markets—a principal focus for the ITU, which is closely involved in the United Nations’ global development activities—as evidence of the strength of the ICT sector. The African market is still profitable, he says, and leads the world with the positive economic indicator of mobile growth. Facilitating meetings between heads of state in developing markets and industry leaders looking for new profit centres is how the ITU is hoping to stimulate the sector and help achieve development goals like connecting the world by 2015.

“Developing countries are an opportunity today, and that opportunity is for all countries,” he says. “The developed world is creating the industry in the developing world. That’s why I’m saying to leaders in the industry that, when you come to ITU Telecom, it’s a place where you won’t have to expect developing countries to blame you for their poverty, or ask for compensation for something that may have been done 100 years ago. We want a win-win environment where everyone has business to do.”

It sounds like an unsentimental attitude. But Touré, a native of Mali, believes that aid has failed the developing world and that only profit-driven, commercial projects can lift the poorest people in the world out of the mire.

“As an African, my position is that for the past 50 years Africa has based its development on three words: ‘help’, ‘assistance’ and ‘charity’. And I’ve never seen anybody get out of poverty through charity. Aid doesn’t work and, if you’ve tried something for 50 years and it hasn’t worked, then try something else.”

Touré concedes, though, that it’s not as simple as he’s making it sound. When he speaks of connecting the whole world—and its 6.5 billion inhabitants—by 2015, he’s talking not just about voice, or mobile, but about broadband; a far greater challenge. He estimates that perhaps only ten per cent of the world’s population has access to genuine broadband and he sets a challenge to potential investors when he says that developing markets urgently need optical fibre deployments.

Read Hamadoun Touré’s profile in the telecoms.com Top 40 mobile industry leaders

“The biggest challenge that we have is to deliver access to rural and isolated areas that are not necessarily profit-making,” he says, stressing that there is no silver bullet solution to this tricky problem. “In some countries they make it part of the licence conditions, in others they impose deadlines on the operators. In the end the best model for any country is the one the country’s leaders believe in.”

He questions the notion that a successful approach in one country can be easily transposed to another; one of the central tenets of international portfolio building among carriers. “You can’t export a model, and I tell leaders of developing nations that they shouldn’t expect other people to give them answers. Also, they have to be prepared to put the first investment dollar into [their own market],” he says.

Only through connecting the whole world’s population can the information society evolve, Touré argues, into the “knowledge society”. His aim is that, by 2015, “we’ll be entering the knowledge society where everyone can access information, create information, use information and share information.” The technology exists, he says, what is now needed is the correct regulatory environment to make it happen

If the knowledge society is so vital to improving the lives of the world’s poor, what does Touré think about the markets where the access to information is restricted by those very governments he seeks to engage in dialogue with industry? Access to information, he says, is a “basic human right” and the ITU wants to “depoliticise the issue of access.” He cites the example of Burma where, two years ago, anti-government demonstrations were met with the withdrawal of various forms of access. The ITU was quick to condemn the tactic, he says.

But he is less willing to criticise other governments, China’s for example, that have sought to control network and information access as a matter of course. “These deals in themselves are not wrong,” he says. “If they are designed to protect certain citizens then I don’t see anything wrong with it. But in implementing it you have to be sure that it’s not overused. You have to be careful that you don’t cut citizens off. And once they have access, it can’t be stopped any more.”

At best this is a diplomatic assessment, but it allows Touré to segue onto the topic of cyber security, which is another lead agenda for the ITU. The line between security and privacy invasion is notoriously fine and he reveals that initial attempts to build international task forces to combat security issues met with ideological resistance from some quarters. So he changed his tack, he says, and put the focus on protecting children, a move that proved more successful at winning widespread support.

He remains serious about the threats posed by cyber crime, however. Without international cooperation, he says, the problem cannot be adequately addressed since, more often than not, the criminal is not resident in the same country where the crime takes place. The ICT world, he says, does not reflect the political world that we all recognise.

“There is no such thing as a superpower in the ICT world,” he says. “Nobody should fool themselves; there are 6.5 billion people in the world and 6.5 billion potential ICT superpowers because the human brain is the power here and that is equally distributed across the world. There are some lethal botnets out there that people are afraid to test because they can’t even defend themselves against them. We know this.

“There are no borders in cyberspace and therefore only a global coalition can tackle this problem. We need a global framework where everyone commits to not attacking everyone else,” he says.

International cooperation is the theme to which Touré returns most frequently, emphasising the role that the ITU—as intersection between industry and government—can play. It is interesting, he says, that nations which may be locking horns with one another in the macro-political world—the US and Iran are the examples he cites—can be seen cooperating and openly agreeing with one another within the ITU.

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Mike Hibberd

Mike Hibberd was previously editorial director at Telecoms.com, Mobile Communications International magazine and Banking Technology | Follow him @telecomshibberd

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