Digital dividendsGovt should formulate a clear policy on using technological innovations for development
Nepal Telecom (NT) is putting finishing touches on its plans for launching the 4G services in the country from January next year. The regulatory body, Nepal Telecommunications Authority (NTA), gave permission to NT to operate the 4G services without auctioning the spectrum, as has been the case in many countries, including India where the government had been planning to fetch a whopping $84 billion from the auction of the 4G spectrum. Not only has this deprived the treasury of additional revenue, but it also appears to be undercutting a key benefit that consumers should have with innovations of technology: better services at lower costs.
Now the NTA officials argue that their decision to allow the operation of 4G services from the existing frequency is in line with ‘technology neutrality’—a concept that can mean several things depending on the context. But in essence, it is designed to limit undesired effects and ensure standard performance without favouring a certain structure.
It is not immediately evident how the NTA’s
adherence to technological neutrality in this case will achieve the core objective of the principle in the first place. With NT reluctant to bring down the cost of 4G services, even the general assumption that technological innovation would drive the cost down will not hold in this case.
For instance, the cost of using 10MB unlimited internet access in Nepal every month is comparable to that in developed countries like the Netherlands and France, according to Numbeo, a user-generated cost-of-living statistics website.
While NT and the private sector telecommunications service provider Ncell applied for the permission to operate 4G services in July, only NT could obtain it. Officials attribute this to the controversy surrounding Ncell’s non-payment of capital gains tax. That may be so, but a monopoly on such a vital sector by any company prevents digital dividends from spreading. This case also highlights the need for greater transparency in the technology sector.
But it is ultimately the Nepal government that must take the blame for the failure to have a clear vision on technological innovations and leveraging them for the benefits of the masses. Technology has a huge impact on development, particularly in developing countries like ours. To a significant extent, it reduces the cost of doing business, removes geographical barriers and levels the playing field. The World Bank estimates that a 10 percent increase in high-speed internet connections increases economic growth by 1.3 percent.
Clearly the government needs a policy on exploiting digital dividends and using them as a catalyst to accelerate development and delivery of services. Policy on technology can no longer be left to one ministry or department. It should be overseen at the highest level of government.