Category: Craig Smith

The IT Diaspora Factor and Democracy 2.0

by Craig Warren Smith

Absent from the enthusiastic press coverage of Egypt’s democratic revolution are two important trends that didn’t get mentioned: the IT Diaspora Factor and Democracy 2.0. Both notions are essential to strategies for closing the Digital Divide and for our agenda at Digital Divide Institute.

The best and brightest young techies from authoritarian nations like Egypt escape to America for a higher education; they stick around USA for a while to work for companies like Google. They often meet each other abroad, forming an “IT diaspora” of early adopters of new technologies from each country. But they are hardly revolutionaries in the Che Guevara mold. They are mostly just techies with a typical geeky disdain for politics, and a preference for open societies and open systems. Nonetheless, some eventually return home. When they do, they can have a disruptive effect that can change the world.

Consider Wsel Ghonim, a mild-mannered Egyptian, who was named Product and Marketing Manager for the Middle East for Google. After getting a finance degree from American University and spending some time at Mountain View CA Google headquarters, he returned to his home region (Dubai). His job was to promote the ArabNet conference and sell Google AdWords vouchers to small businesses in an effort to grow an incipient ecommerce economy, upon which Google’s profits demand. In Dubai, he was like so many others from many companies and countries who launched Arab-language websites. Their purpose was basic: to teach people how to search, chat and email.

Nothing particularly political about that, right?

Well, Ghonim got pissed after one of his Egyptian clients, Ali Khaled Said, published a web site that revealed photos documenting corruption by police. The police immediately hauled Khaled out of a Cairo internet café, beat and murdered him, while others in the internet café quietly snapped photos on their mobile phones.

Mr. Ghonim used those photos for a Facebook page he created called “We Are All Khaled Said.” That visual evidence undermined the official explanations for his death. The Facebook page immediately attracted some 500,000 members and, voila, the revolution had begun.

Mr. Ghonim’s story reminds me of an experience I had while lecturing at Google in 2003.. Looking out into the vast, multicolored young faces in my audience, it was obvious that they were just in the early phase of their careers. Chatting with some of them later, they explained they were just there to get the skills they need before they go back to their country – from Estonia to Mongolia — to bring the transformational impact of broadband (and Google) to the benefit of their people. Many of them admitted to feeling uneasy and even guilty at the luxury surrounding them at Google which seems more like a 5-star spa than a corporate headquarters.

This is an old story, as old as the digital economy. We first heard about it in the 90s from the young Irish who overcame decades of terrorism promulgated by their griping elders, to turn Ireland into a peaceful IT hub. In the next decade we heard from the “oversees Indians”, who left their posts at MIT, McKinsey & Co, Oracle and IBM to return to Banglore, and Hydrabad as whose 24/7 lifestyles, transformed and boosted the Indian domestic economy. Now we are seeing a different version of the same trend: A handful of brilliant “early adopters” from oppressed countries who use their skills to clear out the bad guys so that markets could be built. In the meantime, they go through a rite of passage. They grow up. They have stories to tell their grandparents, who mostly still live in rural villagers: Mr. Ghonim has bragging rights: “You see, grandpa, we Google-ites not just selfish yuppies. We are protectors of our homelands.” This is the sort of story that the mythologist Joseph Cambell, once called A Heroes Return.

This brings us back to the second trend, the democratizing effect of broadband, called Democracy 2.0. That revolution, postponed by George W. Bush, has just begun. Soon, many IT Egyptians will pour back to Cairo, establishing its digital economy.


Preparing for the NBTC

Like a lotus born in the mud, the new Thai regulator NBTC may arise like a beautiful flower after the 3G auction mess. It could do what NTC lacked the mandate to achieve: a distinct Thai model of digital convergence that could trigger the equitable growth economy which can bring the nation back together.

Sure, it will take some months for this flower to bloom, perhaps a year.  But that year is needed, because it buys time for researchers to present the new NBTC regulators on Day One with a plan to interlink the full power of all media for the benefit of all Thais.  It could correct the mistakes of Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore which each has leaped into ubiquitous broadband without asking themselves broadband’s true purpose.

Here are three reasons why NBTC do this, when NTC could not:

The B word (broadcasting): By adding broadcasting to telecommunications, the new regulator has the mandate to influence content as well as infrastructure.  It could be the author of a comprehensive broadband ecosystem could integrate the full power of multimedia to fulfill explicit national goals.

The P word (policy): At last, the regulatory agency has the benefit of being guided by an inter-ministerial National Broadband Committee.  At last, the PM, the Foreign Minister and the ICT Ministry are all on the same page.   Let them go behind closed doors and emerge a coherent framework for how public and private operators can combine their separate strengths to make broadband affordable, usable and empowering for all Thais.

The S word (sufficiency economy): NBTC is not limited to the conventional functions of regulation, such as “creating a competitive environment” or “extending access.”  Hidden deep in the legal language is a surprising phrase:   NBTC must further the King’s ethical concept of “sufficiency economy.”  Other than tiny Bhutan, Thailand will be the only telecommunications regulator which is driven by such an ethical mandate.  Once it is clear to NBTC that the purpose of broadband is to “unlock human development,” all other decisions can flow from that mandate.

To turn these three factors in a vibrant plan of regulatory innovation, researchers must look beyond competing interests to provide answer to these six questions:

1) What are the benefits – and the harm – that broadband can bring to the nation?   Thailand needs its own answer to this question, not one borrowed from South Korea or the World Bank.

2) What in fact is the optimal role for 3G, Wimax, Fiber and Satellites?  How should they complement each other?

3) How should spectrum and “universal service” taxation policies be altered to force mobile supply chains to innovate produce “data services” that bring wealth and learning (not just entertainment) to Thais who earn less than 12,000 baht per month?

4) How should NBTC and the government pool their efforts, combining “sticks” (of regulation) with “carrots” (of government subsidy) so markets empower Thai youth rather than addict them.

The answers to these questions are not readily available through any survey of “international best practices.”   They must come from the best thinking of the best Thai researchers drawing upon the best data.   Furthermore, all the answers cannot be found among the engineering and computer science faculties of Thai universities.   Researchers in non-technological disciplines (economics, management, anthropology, communications, political science, even philosophy) must join in. Also, the whole spectrum of cabinet ministries, ranging from agriculture to tourism, must join, drawing the Ministry of Science and Technology as their aggregator.  Once they find their core research questions, these researchers can engage and challenge the thinking of the so-called Thought Leaders who are conceiving next-generation technologies in the big international labs of the West, Japan, China and India.   With the help of these researchers, NBTC would able to anticipate and absorb worldwide innovations which will double bandwidth’s power every year through the 21st century.

Can this research campaign happen?  Yes!

Luckily the National Research Council of Thailand (NRCT), chaired by the Prime Minister, which oversees the research needs of the nation, has stepped forward at this crucial time.   NRCT will join with Chulalongkorn’s Digital Divide Institute and a coalition of other universities on October 29 to announce a research coalition that aims to prepare the NBTC for the tasks ahead.  They will offer the vision that may not only shape the direction of the new regulatory body, but the future of Thailand itself.

Craig Warren Smith is Senior Advisor at University of Washington Human Interface Technology Laboratory,  and Chairman, Digital Divide Institute of Chulalongkorn University ( Prof Smith may be contacted


Decision Time for Thailand’s Communication Future

Craig W. Smith

The decision to be made about how to license 3G in Thailand has huge consequences. Broadband has become the overall driver of social and economic change in Asia. Thailand’s pathway into broadband will help determine whether the economy will be competitive in the 21st century and whether its distinct culture can survive. This is the conclusion of the 127-page Chulalongkorn University report on “Meaningful Broadband” (see URL below). It has three implications for the 3G licensing process, as follows:

Let’s Do It: Any issues raised in this hearing should not hold back the immediate licensing. The NTC has overcome considerable hurdles to initiate licensing of 3.9G. Though Thailand is a latecomer to this 10-year-old technology, it has the latecomer’s advantage. All conditions are in place for Thai business and government to join into massive upgrading from 2G to 3G for 80% of the population. Moving ahead will support the government’s “national reconciliation” plan, showing that this economy is not rigged to the benefit of Bangkok elites.

Our report shows that the low-income population can increase their income by 22% by 2015 as a result of financial and educational services they receive through 3G-enabled devices. Yes, other modes of broadband eventually will be introduced. But none can match 3G to quickly benefit the mass population. Licensing of 3G opens the path for mobile data services for low-income mobile users. These apps need not be entertainment, but services that transmit wealth and learning to the low-income population. Such a campaign presents the cheapest, fastest and best opportunity for the government to reduce the gaps between rich and poor.

Cut the price: It is understandable that the government would want to generate maximum revenue from licensing. But the opening bid price of 10 billion baht is so high that it will cause market developers to focus on the same affluent Bangkok market as they have in the past. “Affordability” is the primary criterion for bringing the benefits of broadband to the nation. Yet the high price may have the unintended effect of causing local telecom operators to simply import apps designed for the global market. Thailand’s mass population would be excluded.

Our team recommends an opening price of 5 billion baht. That falls within the GSM Association’s benchmark and it fits our analysis of Thai demographics. It is low enough to bring 3G to 80% of the population by 2015, but high enough to provide the revenue needed for government to invest in R&D for meaningful broadband.

The 10-billion-baht price is based on two mistakes:

– The assumption that the national treasury will gain through imposing high licence fees on operators. In fact, the opposite outcome will occur. The overwhelming evidence from our 60-nation analysis is that, although the Thai government may gain as much at 60 billion baht in the short term from high-cost licensing, it will forego as much as 750 billion baht by 2015 in lost revenue and savings that would result a “broadband-stimulus” effect. The effect combines a virtuous circle of benefits to the government: a spike in consumption, new investments, cost savings through enhanced productivity of both business and government, and a 22% rise in the tax base.

– The well-intentioned argument of consumer advocates that the Thai public will be served by forcing the big telecom companies to pay high licence fees upfront. Wrong. International data show that low licence fees would drive operators to the 40% of Thais who live in rural villages, causing operators to innovate to serve the poor. The “carrot” of low licence fees should be combined with the “stick” of stiff taxation and more regulation. The government should not hesitate to send the message that, unless licensees use the gift of broadband to strengthen rural Thailand, they have no right to remain in business. However, if the companies show that they can help achieve a more equitable nation, they should be rewarded.

Licensing isn’t enough: We congratulate the NTC for including the provision that 80% of the entire population must be brought within range of 3G cell towers by 2015 – or licensees will face severe penalties. That is a brilliant move. But the NTC must go further to alter market forces so that rural 3G cell towers are fully used. It must assure that universities, government and the private sector are all incorporated into an R&D agenda that will generate demand for mobile services in the upcountry mass population.

The NTC can use innovative Universal Service Obligation (USO) and Wi-Max policies and public-private partnerships to reward and stimulate the private sector. As partners with Thai carriers, foreign multinationals such as Google and Facebook would innovate to serve the fundamental needs of Thais and strengthen Thai culture and Thailand could emerge as a global hub for such technologies.

The NTC, facing its sunset, is now stronger than ever, under the leadership of its chairman, Prof Prasit Prapinmongkolkarn and Dr Natee Sukolrat, who heads the 3G licensing process. It should use its strength to coax the Finance Ministry to integrate 3G deployment into its huge Stimulus II initiative.

The recent political crisis has created rare political will for a more equitable economy. At last, all sectors have the incentives to bring the benefits of the modern Thai economy to the poor. If it has to go out of business soon, the NTC could do so in a moment of glory.(The Chulalongkorn University report can be downloaded from:

Prof Craig Warren Smith, a visiting professor and Director of the Digital Divide Institute at Chulalongkorn University, is the senior adviser of the Human Interface Technology Laboratory of the University of Washington and a former professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He has advised multinational corporations (Microsoft, Intel, IBM, Nokia), philanthropic institutions (Ford, Rockefeller and Kellogg Foundations), ministers of emerging markets (India, Indonesia, Thailand), and helped establish the United Nations ICT Task Force, for former UN secretary-general Kofi Anan. Email:

Meaningful Broadband Forum

The Meaningful Broadband Forum is now rescheduled on November 26, 2009 from 8:30 am to 12 noon at the Sasin Business School, Chulalongkorn University. The public is cordiallyinvited. More details will be posted later.


Model of “Meaningful Broadband”

“Meaningful Broadband” Model Released Soon at Chulalongkorn Forum

By Wisit Stephens, special to Bangkok Post

Fed up with delay surrounding Thailand’s 3G and Wimax deployments, the secretariat of a powerful Chulalongkorn-based think tank will release a report October 28, presenting a model to vastly accelerate the nation’s broadband deployment.

Headlining the event, to be held at Sasin Graduate School of Business, 1-4 pm that afternoon, will be True Corp. CEO Supachai Chearavanont, in his role as Rotating Chairman of Chulalongkorn’s Meaningful Broadband Working Group.  The Forum will be October 28 at Sasin Graduate School of Business, 1-4 pm, sponsored by Cisco Systems.

“The report shows that broadband is a necessary condition for macroeconomic growth.  But Thailand ranks close to the bottom of all Asian nations in broadband deployment,” said Supachai. “The situation is reversible.  But unless the country’s leaders in government, academia, business act quickly, Thailand’s entire economy is at risk.”

The report,  A Model to Close Digital Divide, formulates a business model that would more than triple fixed and wireless broadband penetration in Thailand from the current predicted level of 17%  by 2015,  to more than 50%, a target called for by the ICT Minister Ranongrak Suwanchawee.

“The Forum, for the Chulalongkorn community, with some space available to the general public, will be opened by Dr. Charas Suwanwela, Chairman of the University Council. Individuals interested in attending the forum can register after Oct 20 at

Supachai recently replaced NTC commissioners as temporary leader of Meaningful Broadband Working Group, which includes the top executives of AIS, DTAC, TOT Telecom and CAT Telecom, as well as the government’s NTC.   After gaining public feedback, the report will be revised and formally presented for the consideration of the Working Group and to the Prime Minister within the next several weeks.

Thai Telcos Join With Regulators to Establish “Meaningful Broadband”

(Bangkok July 3)  Some of the nations most powerful telecommunications executives and the regulatory agency, Nation Telecommunications Union (NTC), met yesterday for the first time to formulate a plan for Meaningful Broadband.   The plan calls for interacting with Prime Minister, and a spectrum of Thai ministries to establish the role of broadband in achieving public-policy reforms in the Abhisit government.

The event, held at the Oriental Hotel, was the first meeting of the Meaningful Broadband Working Group, led by Craig Warren Smith, a visiting professor of Chulalongkorn University’s Center for Ethics of Science and Technology.  Sponsored by NTC,  the event released a white paper on Meaningful Broadband.

The report rejects the path to broadband favored by Singapore and other advanced nations which serves affluent citizens who can afford high speed internet.  Instead, it calls for a new “broadband ecosystem” for Thailand, that is focused primarily on the Middle of the Pyramid (MOP), a middle-income group of Thais who make from $2 to $7 dollars per day.  By bringing 28 million of these MOP Thais into subsidized meaningful mobile broadband applicatons,  Smith predicts a “wealth effect” that could bring equity and sustainability to the Thai economy.

Responding to the framework,  Khun Supachai called was one of several members of the group that advocated a follow up study that would prepare for a meeting with Prime Minister Abhsit along with ministers of Finance, Education, ICT and other relevant parties.  “We need to figure out the roles of government, the regulator and the telecomunications operators in establishing broadband that brings optimal benefits to Thailand.”  Supachai, agreed to be host and sponsor of further research in preparation of the next meeting of the Working Group to be held in September.

“Along with painting the big picture of how broadband could serve the nation, we should focus specifically how it can serve education and human resources development,” said Montchai Noosong,  Executive Vice President of TOT.

“Central to the ‘meaningful‘ idea is a new approach to Ethics, said Chulalongkorn University Soraj Hongladarom.  “We want Thailand to develop a way to help users choose broadband applications that will lead them to happiness not addiction,” he said.

For a copy of Meaningful Broadband:  A Manifesto for Thailand, sponsored by NTC, send a request to