The World Bank Gets Behind Universal Access

"An investment in the Internet is an investment in humanity."

When Secretary Kerry spoke these words at the World Bank in Washington DC yesterday, it was both something that Internet insiders have believed for years, for decades even, and something of a turning point in the appreciation that Big Government and Big Development Banks have for the role of the Internet.

As an example, at that session, it was clear that

  • A dig-one policy will be favored: if any infrastructure is to be built, be it water or power or roads or rail, this infrastructure should have an Internet component, and that building a new physical infrastructure should be considered an opportunity to layer in an Internet extension. Building a road? Laying water or sewer or gas pipes? Trench in fiber or add microwave towers at the same time.  This is not a radical idea in telecom, but difficult to implement anywhere - and wonderful to see that development banks are grasping its importance.
  • Internet infrastructure is as vital to any country's economy, any region's vitality, as any other infrastructure. 10 or 20 years ago, Internet was considered by many a secondary idea, along the lines of "yes, but our people need schools, need water ... Internet can wait."

Of course, the devil will be in the details. Almost all aid is in the form of development loans, and their terms are sometimes crafted to benefit the sources more than the recipients. Will IMF and other funding agencies provide some relief on debt caps to allow Internet growth - with the expectation that this will accelerate GDP growth, undergird progress toward the sustainable development goals, and enhance the real wealth of the poor? Will economists who supervise these financial instruments look at the gains in externals as they consider the loans?

The external returns on Internet can include more girls and boys in school, better health outcomes, improved agriculture, bank services for the un-banked, and so on. If one does not include consideration of these externalities, it's difficult to justify Internet expansion, but it's absurd to exclude them. It is one thing to nod to the understanding that each increase by 10% in Internet penetration can boost GDP growth by 1% to 2%. But it's difficult to get from that idea to a business case that bankers will accept as basis for broader loan covenants. Will development banks stick to the old, traditional, Beltway-Bandit vendors, or will they allow and adopt disruptive approaches?

So, with thanks to President Kim and Secretary Kerry. I was privileged to be there as part of the supporting efforts: together, we were able to put a spotlight on the key role of finance ministers and multilateral development banks in accelerating progress towards connectivity and also of the critical role for the technical community, and the linkage between connectivity and advancement of all people.

The work ahead of us includes taking Global Connect to a global endeavor, and truly leveraging the power of Internet technologies to connect and benefit all of humanity.