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ITU supremo offers top tips on thwarting next Arab Spring

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MWC 2012 The International Telecommunication Union's general secretary reckons the Arab Spring spate of revolutions is pretty much over, except possibly in Syria, and to keep it that way we need better-connected countries.

Dr Hamadoun Toure was speaking at Mobile World Congress, mostly about how the ITU is absolutely, positively, not trying to take control of the internet. But as well as not trying to wrest control of the internet from the US government, the ITU has been busy marking down frequencies for future mobile use, and would like to remind everyone that investing in telecommunications infrastructure is the most sensible way to prevent more revolutions.

Dr Toure points to Jordan as proof of that, demonstrating that success isn't limited to countries abounding with natural resources (e.g. oil). Jordan, he tells us, invested heavily in IT education, and the infrastructure to exploit those skills, and is now reaping the benefits. His concern about the rest of the Arab world is that if they don't get down to work now then a generation of students will come out of college to find no jobs waiting for them, trigging another round of unrest.

It shouldn't be surprising that the general secretary of the ITU should advocate greater investment in telecommunications, but Dr Toure clearly believes every word he says. He genuinely reckons that providing people with decent (and cheap) internet access is the best way to improve their lives, pointing out that the policy of "Help, Charity and Assistance" has failed to help Africa for 50 years - surely long enough to make an alternative approach worth trying.

Standing in the way are often the national governments, despite the fact that their reps make up voting members of the ITU - the union spends a lot of time trying to convince them to allow investment.

Negotiation is considered the best way to get governments to play nicely, votes are considered a failure of negotiation and Dr Toure is proud that the ITU's $5m conference room, "tricked out with all the high-tech toys I wanted", does not have an electronic voting system. But governments often get blinded by the revenue opportunities of high taxes and auctioned spectrum, both of which Dr Toure believes are damaging to the country concerned in the long term.

Spectrum auctions have been described as taxation by any other name, but, in the UK at least, that is not their stated purpose. The point of making people pay a lot for radio spectrum is to provide an incentive for them to use it properly - radio spectrum allocated to government departments, or the Ministry of Defence, often lies empty as the owner struggles to find a use for it but remains reluctant to give it up knowing that they're unlikely to get it back. Offering those departments cash, or making them pay, can push the spectrum into the open market where it should be better used.

Auctions are far from perfect, and the contribution to government coffers certainly makes them popular, but they are also an easy way to make owners do something with the spectrum they've got.

High taxation is another matter. Dr Toure talks of one unidentified African country that was taxing new SIMs at $9 a time. A year after cutting that to a third, on Dr Toure's advice, mobile connections had tripped and government revenue remains steady. That's a simple example, but one which illustrates what the ITU actually spends its time doing, which is not secretly planning to take over the world, of course. ®

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