- Published: 12 February 2017 12 February 2017
Strongman rulers delivering better results. We like to think democracy and openness are the keys to expanding broadband, and some very prominent ideologues have been making that claim. The data show otherwise. Egypt, the current growth leader, is a vicious military dictatorship. Vietnam remains a single-party socialist republic. The Chinese government has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, one of history's greatest achievements. The horrors of 1958-1975 are now in the past, but it remains an authoritarian state.
Thailand, #4 among nations with 1M or more connections, remains under a military government. #5 Belarus makes the Soviet Union look like a model Democracy. Among smaller countries, the leaders are Sri Lanka, Kosovo, and Syria. The growth rates for Q3 2016 of these countries ranged from 3% to 8%.
Much as we'd like to believe it, the evidence is clear broadband growth does not require openness, freedom of speech, public private partnerships, light touch regulation, or the other recommendations of the Washington Consensus. Nor is "multi-stakeholder" control required. These may be good things - I support most of them - but making stupid claims in public is not the way to achieve them.
For a decade, much growth in both broadband and ICT, has been in countries that do not live up to our aspirations. China I know best, which defined what the physical networks had to be and then manipulated the companies to build them. The government owns a strong majority of the shares and the Minister hires and fires the CEOs on a regular basis. The result: 270M Chinese have landlines, almost all of them fiber home. Landline growth is continuing despite over 500M 4G subscribers.
The U.S. instead believes in working indirectly, creating "incentives for investment," and urges that on poorer nations. The "invisible hand" is great when it works, but that's rarely true in telecom. The limited competition is most extreme where the need is greatest: rural and poor areas. The problem there - as in the noted States - is that it's hard to attract the 4-7 companies for strong competition. Most cities are now relatively well covered, even in poor countries. The priority today is the areas where competition isn't delivering.
The rhetoric that plays so well in DC, the World Bank, Geneva, and the OECD often isn't the way to bring access to those who don't have a connection. The right answer needs to be determined empirically, rather than ideologically. Direct action will often be the right choice.
The gap between China and #2, the U.S. (104M) widens by the millions every quarter.
(The data is Q3 from Point-Topic, for more than a decade the most reliable source of world broadband data. They do a better job than anyone else at weeding out misleading government claims. Data from OECD, etc. is not much different.)