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  • ICT Infrastructure in Emerging Asia: Policy and Regulatory Roadblocks
  • Francis Edward Hutchinson
ICT Infrastructure in Emerging Asia: Policy and Regulatory Roadblocks. Edited by Rohan SamarajivaAyesha Zainudeen. New Delhi: Sage Publications India; Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2008. Pp. 333.

Drawing on research carried out by LirneASIA, an information and communication technology policy and regulation capacity organization active in the Asia-Pacific, the book sets out to explore the principal challenges to increasing access to telecommunications in South and Southeast Asia. Containing contributions from a range of telecoms experts and industry players, it refers to data and case studies from: Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.

Notwithstanding the technical language, the questions the book poses and the arguments it puts forward will be of interest not just to telecoms policy-makers, regulators, and policy-makers, but also a wider readership that is interested in the policy-making process, the effects of technology, and the role of institutions in shaping outcomes.

Starting from the contention that connectivity, defined as “the opportunity to engage in electronically-mediated communication, information retrieval … and publication” is positive, the book then looks at what technological and regulatory barriers impede greater access to telecommunications services. Influenced by the work of Mohamed Yunus and C. K. Prahalad, the book is particularly interested in exploring what demands and needs consumers from the poorest sections of society, termed the Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP), have insofar as telecoms services. In particular, the book seeks to understand why access has not expanded more quickly in the region given liberalization of the telecoms sector, falling costs associated with economies of scale and, most importantly, huge unmet demand.

The book is structured in four parts, each looking at a different aspect of the telecoms sector and containing specific questions.

The first section, “Demand at the Bottom of the Pyramid”, seeks to uncover what BOP consumers want with regards to telecoms services by drawing on extensive primary data gathered in Sri Lanka and India. The first chapter by Zainudeen looks at the choices made by BOP consumers between fixed, mobile, and public access modes. Zainudeen and Iqbal look at strategies BOP consumers use in accessing telecoms and cutting costs. The chapter by Samarijiva et al. looks at the demand for telecoms services in conflict-afflicted areas, drawing on survey data from northern Sri Lanka.

This makes for interesting reading, as it is not often that policy-makers are given this type of “fresh” data. Consistent with the wider Making Markets Work for the Poor literature, the findings undercut commonly held assumptions of BOP consumers. The survey findings establish high demand for telecoms, willingness to pay given the correct price structures, and quite a high level of awareness and sophistication among BOP consumers. While BOP consumers do not often use conventional cost-cutting strategies seen elsewhere, this may be more to do with the constraints under which telecoms services are accessed rather than a lack of sensitivity to cost. Demand for telecoms services is even higher in conflict-afflicted areas than elsewhere, as people need to contact family members frequently and organize remittances.

The second section, “Access, Against All Odds”, looks at expanding access to a broader range of consumers and seeks to explore the question whether technological advances in themselves are sufficient to increase access, or whether an enabling policy and regulatory environment is also necessary. In particular, the section looks at how non-state actors have found unexpected solutions through initiative and policy “work-arounds”. Knight-John looks at the business model of the Grameen Village Phone programme in Bangladesh, which has been able to provide access to 45 per cent of villages in that country. Iqbal and Purbo look at community-led efforts in Indonesia to delicense a frequency for Wi-Fi use, and Goswami looks at the potential for greatly increased access to ICT in Indonesia as a result of this. [End Page 242]

The findings of these chapters are very interesting from a policy point of view as they show that, in spite of its much-lauded potential for change, technology cannot be a silver bullet. Rather, for technological advances to be optimized, they must be accompanied by...


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