News Column

WALUBENGO: Internet in Kenya is no longer a luxury

June 10, 2014

John Walubengo -1

Last week's blog earned me the title "communist" from a couple of readers, apparently due to its insinuation that providing broadband internet access to the majority is a more urgent priority than enhancing broadband internet speed for the minority.

As has been the case the last couple of weeks, this triggered some critical thinking. Is there a way we can provide broadband internet to the majority without having to be communists?  Whereas a political scientist is better placed to define what a communist is, most of us understand it to be the anti-thesis of a capitalist.

Capitalism is a well-known economic system practiced chiefly in western countries, where the profit motive by investors leads to more efficient ways of distributing goods and services to consumers. The system provides for competition in a market such that the price of goods and services is determined by the famous laws of supply and demand, rather than government intervention.

Presumably, a communist approach would contradict this and aim to control pricing of goods and services with a view to distributing the service to a wider or majority group of citizens. History has of course shown us that this system did not perform well, as demonstrated in the spectacular collapse of the former Soviet Union.

Capitalism has performed better, but is currently under intense research and review following the financial crisis of 2008, which was triggered by the excesses of capitalism. For those interested in this area, a good piece to start from is titled Capitalism in the 21 st Century

Beyond these contrasting approaches to providing goods and services, however, the United Nations in one of its Millennium Development Goals targets ICT as a critical component of human development. More recently, in its 2011 Special Rapporteur report, it declared that Internet is now a human right and urged all states to ensure all citizens have access to the internet.

What this means is that the Internet is no longer a luxury option reserved for those who can afford it. It is instead a prerequisite, if not mandatory tool, for any citizen hoping to live a meaningful, healthy and productive life in the 21st century.  Finland, a country with well-established capitalistic economic systems, followed this declaration to the latter when it legally declared that all its citizens must have access to at least 1MB of broadband.

Closer home, the government in 2013 amended the Kenya Communication Act to make provision for an independent Universal Service Advisory Council (USAC) that aims to collect a certain percentage of telecommunication service provider's revenues in order to extend and provide affordable telecoms services to regions deemed to be non-economical.

This is a clear recognition of the limitation of a capitalistic economic system.  Investors have absolutely no incentive to build expensive infrastructure into, marginalized, and sparsely populated areas with no guarantees of return on their investments.  However, the citizens in such areas are Kenyans and have the same rights to communication services as those who live in urban areas.

The USAC approach to providing such communication services to non-economical zones does have a "communist" flavour in that it seems to tax the rich in order to bail out the poor.  But from a holistic or national point of view, there is nothing evil about this approach. Kenyans in these marginalized areas have a right to communication services and care less whether these are provided through "communist" or "capitalistic" approaches. It would be nice if operators considered these issues alongside their valid pursuit for profit.

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Source: Nation (Kenya)

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