Nicholas Negroponte | Professor Emeritus, Co-Founder, MIT Media Lab, Founder, One Laptop per Child

Worldwide Free Internet through a Global Public Sector

I don’t know if people in the room can appreciate my situation because I’ve been a user of the Internet for 50 years. When I started using it, it wasn’t called the internet, but there were only 100 people on it, and I knew them all, and what I didn’t know at the time was that this was going to become like air, something you would only notice when it was missing, and that you would take it for granted which we did, some of us, for the next 50 years, and then as I became more and more involved starting about 30 years ago with the developing world, I started to feel that this is so fundamental, which we all agree now, but it is kind of amazing how we have moved as a society, so I am going to be relatively extreme in my remarks. I’m not going to ask you to believe or agree with everything, but I think we’re at a period in history where the private sector has to now get out of the way, and governments have to get out of the way. So I am going to talk about Internet connectivity as a human right, but I’m going to talk about it in a way that is very different.

First of all, worldwide is important as a concept, free is important. It’s not free to society but it is free to the individual, Now whether that is a civic right, like street lights are free, of if it’s a human right in a deeper sense of freedom, doesn’t really concern me too much, but the concept of free is very different to the concept of low-cost. I hear the word low-cost and affordable. I don’t hear that word when it comes to the rights that we normally think of as human rights. O this is a human right and by the way it’s affordable. Well that is not an appropriate word. And then the concept of a global public centre is basically the definition of the United Nations, but in all due respect, the United Nations, is a very easily criticized organisation for various reasons, but its all we’ve got. We don’t have anything else, so I think in terms of the public sector.

So I also wake up in the morning and ask myself one question, and I hope this audience, this group does it, and we do it as a group: What will market forces not do today?, because market forces will do many things, and I’m not trying to stop them, I’m trying to suggest there are some things market forces don’t do, that we should be doing, and to think very very hard between the difference between a mission, which is what I think we’re on, and a market, and they get confused, and people try to make markets more mission oriented and they try to do well while doing good. That’s a very common phrase these days, and I think that is again not appropriate here.

So by way of background, I think of telecommunications as something that has grown up like tobacco and alcohol. Now I have been through, again through 50 years, of telecommunications development, and those of you who followed, particularly in developing countries, the people who made long distance phone calls were deemed to be so rich, that we could charge them a exorbitant amount to pay for local phone calls or universal access, and then something very interesting happened in history that people don’t remember, the historical coincidence of privatisation and wireless. In Europe, in the 1980s, particularly near the end of the 80s, used wireless to privatise, which was fine. I’m not complaining about the historical coincidence, but people then said, well lets have the business sector come in. We don’t like monopolies, so we’ll create duopolies and more in some occasions, and we’ll privatise, and things changed very dramatically. It used to take three years to get a telephone it Italy before then. You used to pay $5,000 down in some countries and it would take forever. So that coincidence of privatization and wireless is a very important one because a lot has advanced, and its been claimed because of the privatisation, and I think that is a false association. And I want to say one more thing about the privatisation that occurred at that point. Since it was wireless, you needed spectrum, and spectrum was auctioned by countries, and the auctioning of spectrum, I will claim, is an immoral concept; that the state takes something owned by the people, and puts it up for auction, for very large amounts of money, so large that whoever buys it has to carry that cost forward to the users, and the cost has become nervous and the concept needs some revisiting.

So we’re always told the private sector is more efficient than the public sector. Well you’re going to hear today an example where that is not true. You have all been on trains in Switzerland. There are many examples where the public sector can do things. Its not, particularly the United States, a country that as an American, I’m deeply embarrassed to be from it, because of our current ignorant president, but he is bringing with him an even bigger swing in the wrong direction, so we have to look at the public sector differently, and I say, is it, and I will point to Uruguay, and I will let my colleague Miguel Brechner explain what I happening there because it is an amazing role model, there are other places too, but it’s a particularly interesting one that I believe the world should copy.

So here are the goals that I put forward, and they are based very often on children being the most precious natural resource of a country. I cannot tell you how many heads of states I have used that sentence with who look at me as if they were a deer in the headlights. They look and say, my god I never thought of that. I think of oil, I think of diamonds, I think of wheat, food but children as a natural resource? It’s not limited to children, but 1982 was the first time I brought the Internet and connectivity to a developing country, and I learnt one thing. The one thing I learnt in 82 was that those children who did not speak a word of English or French played that keyboard like a piano. There was no difference between them and the suburban kids outside of New York, Boston or Paris. Then 2001, almost 20 years later, I was able to by chance, go to villages that had a per-capita income, annual per-capita income of less than $30, and connect those kids, and give them all laptops, and this was a very early experiment, and it completely transformed the village, and every single kid in that picture, every single one went on to university, whereas usually the village had zero, and when people ask me, what line of non-profit business are you in, my answer was, I’m in the business of hope. Those children had hope. They had hope in such a way, and when they brought those laptops home and opened them up, the light of the screen was the only light in the house, Talk about metaphors and reality. For me it was very, very jarring.

So I started it with the UN, and I’m only going to show you pictures because you all should get a tour of One Laptop per Child, but it was an experiment, it had many failings, but it was an experiment that proved to me that the kids are the vehicles. And I look at this particular pictures, I have no idea who takes the pictures by the way, they are sent to me, I can’t associate it with somebody, but look at the concentration on that young girl’s face. I just wonder, I don’t know what she is doing today, but normally school and learning are not with that kind of focus and attention and fascination, and then Matt Keller will later tell you some of the things that were done, but this is the best picture. I’ve never had a picture like this. OK, the kid on the right has nominated himself teacher. There are no teachers in this village. There are no print matters, there’s no book. But look at the kinds using their tablets. The one on the left is touching the tablet of the kid next to him, that kid… talk about collaboration. Usually these go into schools and everyone has the same thing at the same time. The teacher says, one two three, and the kids go one two three, they use the laptops. This is totally different. They created the idea that there would be a place that they would go to. There isn’t a place called school. You’ll hear more about this later.

This is in Ethiopia, there were two places, one in the north, one in the south, and they were chosen because there was no literacy in the village, There was no occurrence of words, there were no signs, there were no magazines, there were no letters, everybody in the village was illiterate, and that was the reason it was chosen, and a whole thing has emerged out of it, which you will hear a lot about today. And then the kids started giving press conferences, which was a disappointment because helicopters were flying in. So pictures like this, to me, are wonderful pictures but they sort of show, to me, the hope, the hope business.

So this really is not the next 1.5 billion people, it’s the last 1.5 billion people. The next 1.5 is piece of cake. You can do that by changing some pricing, some regulation. It’s no effort whatsoever. You could add 1.5 billion people to the Internet, almost tomorrow. The last 1.5 billion is a very interesting problem, because it’s a technical problem. The people who would be in that group, they’re illiterate, they’re remote, there are just many, many problems, and technically they are the ones of interest, but the solutions really are about them.

So I’m going to take two minutes, and just give you some of what I think are the solutions above and beyond the imperative. If this meeting creates the imperative to make connectivity a human right, it will be a landmark. It will be like Bretton Woods was to economics, it will be like the Dartmouth meeting in 1958 where six people met and they coined the term AI, and boom, it took 50 years more for AI to become what it became today, but it was a pivotal point, and I think we can be that too.

So global advocacy is a piece of the solution, its what I think this meeting does. If people hear that the Pontifical Academy, that the UN Women, that the UN Human Rights, that groups like that have come together under the aegis of, amongst others, president Prodi, to basically push this concept, that is a big deal. That is a very big deal. The second thing, and this is my opinion, my opinion is that we should create a global agency, I call it the World Connectivity Organization; how that happens, ways it happens, is that what its called, but there isn’t one now. There is nobody, nobody, at the UN, nobody anywhere who believes their mission is to connect the world, and there should be.

And then, one and the last one, that I think is important only because it is the only one I know how to do, its when you create a plausible solution, people pay attention. With one laptop per child, nobody knows about one-laptop per child, the Zamora family who are doing one-laptop per child, and Keller who did by far the most extensive and exhaustive job, is that it got other people to move, and after we did 3 million laptops, I went first to president Lula, and I said to president Lula, bid, create a bid, a number, and then we’ll bid on it, and we’ll bid on it publically, so that when there is a tender for 10 million laptops, we bid openly, we published it in the newspapers, and we published whatever it was, $182.50, we had credibility because we had done 3 million. And guess what, the winner won it for $179, and I thought wow, that’s interesting. I don’t really want to make laptops, but if I could keep putting in a bid that forces everybody down, and we did 50 million laptops that way, 50 million that got into the hands of kids in many countries, not because we were making them, but because we had a plausible solution that pushed it way down.

And then outside of the nation jurisdiction, I think is important for two reasons, and then I’ll stop. Two reasons: one is that you can’t go country by country by country, whether you think there are 196 or 198, whatever number of countries, it’s almost 200. You can’t possibly go to all 200 countries and have them all agree that this is the way that they’re going to do it, so fortunately, and this is a very wonderful piece of good fortune, the jurisdiction of countries stops at 100 miles. There is a different body of law, that is why we have all sorts of things happening at a certain height, so if you could in some way get the global telecommunications scheme outside the jurisdiction of countries, namely above 100 miles, you will be doing something that no country has to agree to. Let them outlaw it, let them make it illegal, they don’t give you landing rights: so what? It’s there, and if somebody builds a little tin-foil receiver than can receive and send 10Mbits/s, they’ll do that in the jungles. The countries will even sanction it in remote areas. We have for the first time, I’m personally interested in low earth orbiting satellites, they can be fixed, but one of the interesting things about orbiting satellites is it’s the first time in history that there is a geometry that is itself global. That satellite has to go around the world, that’s the way it works, it can’t stop over someplace, it has to keep going, so if it keeps going, let it keep working so you could actually have a global footprint that is global by its nature, not because we built thousands and thousands of them. It is a very, very different world, and I believe, I know sorry, I know you can do it, that’s the $10 billion number, that’s the 0.1% btw, verses quite a bit higher, the $450 billion is the number that the telecommunications companies today believe they have to spend in the next five years to enhance terrestrial communication.

And just as a last remark, I happen to believe that very modest connectivity is just fine. It does not have to be broadband, and we can argue about that. I’ll end with just a little note that we keep forgetting in the United States, the United States is a rounding error, the United States is almost an irrelevant rounding error in the population of the world. We are .3 out of 7.5 billion people, so this is not a United States issue; the United States shouldn’t be running it or doing. It’s really are world problem of which the United States is a very, very, small piece. Thank you very much.