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Global Universal Service, a Role for NGOs

10 / 1995

Two currents dominate the global telecommunications agenda -and indeed media more generally- today, especially as far as public debate is concerned: liberalisation and the information society.

They overlap, symbiotically, on a twin-theme running as follows: the information society looks to liberalisation to provide the driving force that will generate investment, stimulate innovations, and sweep aside the inertia of the ancien regime. The liberalisation process, on the other hand, looks to the information society to provide a "vision", or a legitimating ideology, that can simultaneously capture the imagination of the public and offer reassurance that the benefits will reach to all parts of society, and indeed the globe.

Universal service is at the fulcrum of this overlap. On the one hand, the universality of the information society, a defining characteristic, must rely, in the current public penury, on the dynamism of liberalisation. On the other, liberalisation as a naked concept is held in suspicion by many. Combined with universal service, however, competition seems to offer all the benefits with none of the risk. Thus declarations on the information society, from Gore’s Global Information Infrastructure (GII), to the G7 and the European Union(EU), loudly proclaim the centrality of universal service as indeed do the apologists for liberalisation.

Yet beneath the surface, liberalisation is charging ahead full-steam through the World Trade Organisation(WTO), the World Bank, the International Telecommunications Union(ITU)and others, but, despite the promises, only a few crumbs are thrown towards universal service in the form of direct public investment or of obligations on the private sector. Indeed, an analysis of the European Commission’s actions in the area reveals that the information society, with its promises for a better life for all, was ushered in largely as a smoke screen for the final heave to liberalisation and it succeeded.

But those making such rash promises are faced with something of a dilemma. For, far from being complementary, competition and universal service are antagonistic. Even neo-liberals admit that regulation must be introduced alongside liberalisation to prevent radical and rapid deterioration in service and hike in tariffs for much of the population especially in rural and peripheral areas.

Furthermore, the pressure under liberalisation is to offer new services only to larger users and those in urban areas. The dilemma is how, after building up the information society’s expectations, to deliver on the promises.

Of course, politicians hope the issue will gradually disappear from public view as it is just another broken promise to a population lulled into soporific cynicism by a liberalised media. However, there are ways forward at the national level. The debate in the USA is already quite intense and in the EU the issue of universal service and the effects of liberalisation is making itself heard. Indeed, at the national level, although governments are compromised by liberalisation and hence will only act under duress, the political and administrative mechanisms in terms of regulatory authorities are, at least, in place. Thus, with sufficient public pressure (and NGOs can play a central role here), a redistribution can take place to ensure that universal service is addressed.

The problem at a global level is much greater for here the distribution required is not within countries but between them. Worldwide liberalisation means that telecom operators can act on a global scale with virtually no restrictions in the name of "free trade", offering services only in the most profitable areas and balancing tariffs to maximise profits.

Yet, there are no global institutions to ensure that redistribution, essential to universal service, can take place. And, there are no global political structures on which pressure can be put. The existing ones, such as the ITU, the WTO and the World Bank, are all controlled by business and governments with narrow development objectives.

This is where NGOs enter in. NGOs alone represent the development needs of civil society and hence, of universal service. Several ideas can be developed and are afoot:

1. Devise and agree on a common agenda among NGOs involved in communications issues, especially NGOs working internationally, in order to develop strategic coordinated action on communications.

2. Demand the right for NGOs to be involved in multi-lateral organisations such as the ITU and the WTO (formerly GATT)in order to bring about institutional change.

3. Bring pressure on the other main actor: the private sector.

Liberalisation, in all sectors, has essentially meant a loss of public accountability, abrogated to faith in profit maximisation. The most effective pressure that NGOs and the public in general can bring on the private sector is in terms of those profits. Thus, the mobilisation and politicisation of consumer movements around the world to bring pressure on the private sector to provide universal services could be high on the agenda of NGOs.

Key words

communication, telecommunications, information, access to information, right to information, NGO



Translated into Spanish.

A copy of the longer version of this article which was presented at TELECOM 95in Geneva can be obtained from the author.

Seán ó Siochrú is vice-chair of the MacBride RoundTable and a member of: NEXUS Research Cooperative, 14 Eaton Brae, Shankill Co. Dublin, Republic of Ireland. Tel (353 1)282 1003. Fax (353 1)272 0034


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