Maximizing the Value and Impact of East African Broadband for Higher Education
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
Thank you, Kathy [Kathryn Brown, Senior Vice President for Public Policy Development and Corporate Responsibility at Verizon]. I also want to thank Verizon, the Ugandan Communications Commission, the Internet Society, and Uganda Martyr's University for sponsoring this important gathering here today. I am delighted to be with all of you, and especially happy to be back in East Africa. As Kathy mentioned, at Discovery much of the programming that we did was filmed around here and so I’ve had periodic excuses to visit.
I am particularly happy to be here to discuss this critically important topic of technology and higher education. Before I came here this morning, I met with a group of students at the Islamic University in Uganda at the female campus just outside Kampala. Almost the entire session, which went on for almost two hours, centered on technology. So it was a great lead-in to this, to meet with them, understand their needs and their great desire to have access to all the tools that technology will bring to them moving forward.
In addition to the programming that we did at Discovery, we launched a global education initiative, Uganda being one of the countries. This morning as I was getting ready, I was thinking back to 10 years ago when we launched it. I traveled around, I saw an opportunity, and I felt our corporation had an obligation to provide access to educational materials to traditionally underserved areas, to rural areas. So we went around and provided TVs, VCRs, and in some cases satellite dishes. In some cases we installed solar panels to run all of that. We worked with teachers to teach them new methods of learning. One thing I was struck by when we went to these schools was the way little kids would learn and their imaginations would be triggered by seeing videos bring new things to life. I look at what we were doing now, the advances we’ve made, and the opportunities we have to bring those kind of experiences to children, high school students and university students.
After I left Discovery, I spent about a year and a half trying to launch a small investment fund, also focused primarily in East Africa, looking at providing growth capital to small and medium sized enterprises in the consumer goods arena, some of which were also in the educational arena. One of the things that always struck me while I was traveling around was the great spirit of entrepreneurship of all the young people here. This is an area where, if we get this right, we can move this critical part of the world forward.
In my current position, I have been asked by President Obama and Secretary Clinton to lead our efforts to strengthen and expand the relations of the government and people of the United States and the rest of the world. And I can't think of a better way to do that than by working together with all of you to find new and creative ways to expand opportunities for students throughout East Africa. In the U.S., there is much evidence to demonstrate the correlation between access to technology and academic success of students. We are looking at this as a critical issue, and we are doing whatever we can to ensure that no part of our country is left out or unable to participate in the new information age. This is such an important dimension for everyone that the President recently announced in May a national broadband plan, which is really designed to ensure that all of our citizens have access to these critical services.
There is a lot of talk about the arrival of the undersea cable. It is frequently described as connecting Africa to the rest of the world. I like to look at it a little differently. I think of it as providing a pathway to a new and dynamic future for East Africa, where young citizens will be able to develop groundbreaking applications and programs to help solve some of the world’s most pressing problems and seize the many opportunities that we see all around us. And I think that is what the focus of this conference should be.
Based on the U.S.’s experience, I would like to share with you some guiding principles for you as you move forward on this critical endeavor:
First, one of the most important things I have seen and experienced in both the private sector and in government is the critical importance of having a clear, consistent and comprehensive regulatory environment. Now there are many reasons for this. One of these is that clarity and consistency in the regulatory environment is essential to attract the kind of investment necessary required to maximize this opportunity. Investors around the world are looking for new opportunities and will require significant investment capital. They want to make certain when they make their investment that the environment will have some certainty of generating the results they are expecting. I heard in this morning’s sessions and at a dinner last night that significant efforts have been made to create that. But, I want to stress the importance of this, not only from an investment perspective, because in this rapidly evolving world regulators need to establish some rules of the road for all the content providers and all the new players in the field.
One thing going down that path is that you can’t over regulate. I think there is a tendency when you are going down uncertain roads to expect the government to tell you how to do things, how to price a particular product, who will have access to something. I would caution you not to over regulate and not to be afraid of competition. I came from an industry which thrived because the government allowed it to find new ways of doing business, despite the government’s tendency to direct too actively. This needs to be a very collaborative effort.
As for developing the new regulations, I think it is important for the regulators, those in academia, and the private sector to work together, which is one of the reasons conferences like this are so important. You can come together and share ideas, learn from each other and create new ways of doing things. In the U.S. when we were rolling out things, as Kathy well knows, our government ensured that the needs of academic institutions were being met, particularly at the elementary and high school levels. We developed something called the e-rate, a special discounted rate for academic institutions that incentivized the cable operators and other infrastructure providers to work with education institutions and ensured that our schools were not on the sidelines. Again as the framework is being rolled out, there are several ways to be sure that these critical communities are addressed.
The second principle to keep in mind is to deal with this on a regional basis. Because of the trans-border nature of information flows today, it is critical that you take a regional approach. Someone this morning talked about the fact that in order to achieve this there must be significant political will amongst governments. I have observed throughout the world that progress has been impeded because people haven’t moved forward enough to understand the country-by-country significance of working with governments and how countries have to come together to address all these issues. I think the way to generate that political will is for all of you to raise your voices with your government, the private sector, academia, health institutions and others to continue to remind governments of the importance of working together to see that it happens.
The third principle, near and dear to my heart given my background, is to foster new and innovative content at any level, content that appeals to all the users you are trying to reach, content which is local, content which is relevant to the people and students you are trying to reach. This will inevitably require new business models. Last night in one of the discussions we talked about the challenges. How do you pay for that content? How do you develop it? How do the people who are investing in it recoup their investments? New tools are all around us. Things like Google, Twitter, and all the new applications that are being developed by young African entrepreneurs even as we sit here will make this easier. The more content that is available that people are actually using, the better off everyone will be. One thing we know for certain is that the youth will lead the way wherever we go in this new world.
Fourth, we need to provide all students with access to 21st century tools, laptops, mobile devices, etc. At a time of financial constraint for governments all over the world, and in order to meet this critical need, I think we will have to create new partnerships – partnerships between the private sector and government – and new ways of looking at things. But if we put in the infrastructure without providing the tools that students need, we are not going to make the headway we need. I would encourage all of you to focus on that as an initiative looking forward. If you are in conversations with companies in the private sector, it is in the interests of both the government and the private sector to develop their skills and experience and look for ways that to work together.
The fifth guiding principle I would suggest is the need to move rapidly on all fronts. The world is changing even as we sit here. East Africa cannot afford to be on the sidelines. The potential here is enormous. I am sure you all have read the recent McKinsey report, which talked about the economic potential and the growth markets in Africa. Those opportunities can only be realized if you have a well-educated workforce and if all of your citizens are participating in that economic opportunity. A couple of weeks ago I was at a meeting with Secretary Clinton where she talked about the great potential within African markets of people being able to build new businesses. Here within this region, it is critically important that you all work on that and embrace it so you have the skilled workforce to be able to move forward. But it is up to all of you to work together to seize this opportunity, and, again, you have to forge new and creative partnerships in order to be able to do that.
We, in the United States Government, want to work with you to support your efforts. There are many things we can do to work together, including information sharing in terms of best practices and connecting you with U.S. academic institutions that have already undertaken many of the programs you are trying to do. I know there are a number of representatives from American universities here today. We can link you up with U.S. organizations already active in the technology and infrastructure areas, or with local and state governments that are wrestling with the very same issues you are wrestling with to help you figure out ways of moving forward. You do not need to reinvent the wheel. There are a lot of lessons learned all over the world as people are looking at ways to advance all of these initiatives much more rapidly.
We want to help you do it, but at the end of the day this needs to be an initiative owned by the countries and people of East Africa. You are the ones best positioned to know what you need to do to achieve the objectives and what will really be appropriate for the communities in which your students live. The international community will follow your lead, but you need to provide the direction for us all, only you can define your own paths.
I have to say that indeed these are exciting times. When you look at all the advances that are happening so rapidly around us, the opportunities are enormous. Based on my own experience here, and based on my interactions with young people throughout this region, I’m absolutely convinced that if we provide the students of East Africa with the resources they need, deserve, and will increasingly come to expect, there is simply no limit on what they can achieve. I very much look forward to working with you all as we forge new paths together for a good and bright future for all of your citizens. So thank you very much. What I would like to do now is to turn this into a conversation or discussion, rather than me just speaking to you, and take any questions or comments you might have. So thank you very much.