E-commerce, digital divide key to Net future
Madanmohan Rao

FROM exploding multi-channel access and lucrative dotcom entrepreneurship to complex cyberlaws and a troubling digital divide, the internet has grown so fast and so vast that fortunes and frustration seem to follow side by side in its wake.

Delegates from over 150 countries gathered recently in Yokohama, Japan, for INET 2000, the annual summit of the global internet Society (
www.isoc.org ), an organisation geared towards the worldwide promotion of the internet.

“The Net is truly going where no net has ever gone before,” said Vint Cerf, co-inventor of the TCP/IP protocol stack and senior VP at MCI/WorldCom, who is widely regarded as the “father of the internet” (some even jokingly call him the “grandfather of the internet”).

“The number of internet-connected devices is going up dramatically, thanks to the converging mobile telephony explosion. We will be forced to move quickly to IPv6 (internet Protocol Version 6),” said Cerf.

Separate address spaces will also have to be created for the upcoming “interplanetary internet” which will include satellites, planets and other interplanetary traffic, he said.

The Japanese Automobile Association has even supported initiatives for internet-connected cars — and online connectivity to digital cameras, microwaves and refrigerators will create other challenges for seamless but secure middleware, said professor Jun Marai of Keio University in Japan.

The Next Generation internet will be faster, always on, and everywhere, according to Michael Nelson, internet strategy director at IBM. The internet will eventually use all kinds of devices, the full range of services, and the entire spectrum of content -- which brings about head-on collision between telecom, broadcast, cable, print and cellphone regulation, he said.

Thanks to the synergistic explosion of the internet and of the Linux movement, much attention is being devoted to new economic models for collaborative software development.

“The community-based open source way of developing software is a paradigm shift,” said Ed Lynch, marketing head of Linux initiatives at IBM. It unleashes programming talent on a global scale, and dramatically increases the rate of innovation for features ranging from software patches to security plugs.

Severe challenges arise, however, in achieving universal or near-universal access to the internet in many developing nations. Overcoming the digital divide via “digital bridges” to bring people out from behind the “information curtain” or “knowledge curtain” is thus a key policy challenge for government and private sectors, and many innovative approaches are springing up in this regard.

Buses with satellite internet hookup make tours of some Malaysian schools in rural areas, offering monthly or fortnightly internet access. The first internet cafe opened recently in Baghdad. internet community centres in Peru have brought internet access costs via shared lines down to about 40 cents an hour, a model to be pursued by Sam Pitroda’s WorldTel in six Indian states.

Other NGOs active in Asian internet initiatives include Kuala Lumpur-based Asia Pacific Devel-opment Information Program (
www.apdip.net ), and Singapore-based PAN (Pan-Asian Network-ing initiative — www.pan.org.sg ). PAN has launched e-commerce services for textile and handicraft manufacturers in Bangladesh and Nepal.

Issues pertaining to the digital divide also featured in another key meeting held in Japan — the G8 Summit — where the Okinawa Charter on the Global Information Society was passed, calling for a Digital Opportunity Task Force (“dot force”) which would formulate action plans for developing countries to harness the Net via appropriate policies, technologies and participation.

Companies in many emerging economies are discovering that e-commerce is much more than online catalogues; real-world logistics and online payment gateways are as important, said Michael Mingus of the Telecommunication Development Bureau at the International Telecommunications Union ( www.itu.int ).

Hence some e-commerce models are targeted more at the diaspora, who can avail of US-based payment gateways and use gifting services for their relatives back home. Governments can also lend a helping hand to domestic e-commerce, as in the case of Tunisia’s upcoming smart card project called e-Dinar.

These cards will be made available at most post offices, and can be used for e-commerce, said Lamia Chaffai, e-commerce manager at the Tunisian internet Agency ( www.ati.tn ).

Developing countries should also track and participate in international fora framing e-commerce policy, said Magda Ismail of Egypt’s Ministry of Communication and IT.

Such fora include the World Trade Organisation (WTO), UN Commission on Inter-national Trade Law (UNCITRAL), World Intellectual Property Organis-ation (WIPO), Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

Another key organisation for all countries to participate in is the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (
www.icann.com ) which oversees domain name and address allocation.

India unfortunately has zero participation on the boards of these organisations, and need to get their act together or be left out of critical decisions affecting their internet space.

The internet could also be used more pro-actively to coordinate relief efforts in the aftermath of natural disasters such as earthquakes or cyclones, or political crises like civil war.

Areas still needing more internationally coordinated work include tracking the growth of the information society in countries around the world, via parameters ranging from connectivity costs and local content to IT skills and sectoral absorption.

Strategies for bridging digital gaps must address all the “8 Cs” of the internet economy: connectivity, content, community, commerce, capability, cooperation, culture and capital.

Despite all these challenges, countries and companies must stay focused on the Net as a strategic platform, according to John Chambers, CEO of internetworking titan Cisco Systems.

“Speed, talent and branding are the key for success in the internet era,” said Chambers. The equivalent of 100 years of change in the Old Economy can now happen in less than a decade, he said.

“We will soon see the emergence of all-in-one data/voice/ video networks, and a consolidation of voice and data communications companies,” Chambers predicted.

“For countries and individuals to succeed today, they must realise that the two key equalisers in life now are education and the internet,” he said.

Companies in today’s world must compete simultaneously in several spaces: local, global, real-world, online, and in stock market valuations, said Ken-ichi Ohmae, Japanese management guru and author of dozens of bestsellers like “The Borderless Economy” and the newly released “Invisible Continent.”

“We are noticing an interesting phenomenon: the growth of small nimble regions which can interface well with the global economy, such as Ireland, Singapore and Finland,” said Ohmae.

These regions can also take off within a country — such as with Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad in India, he said. “These cyber-compatible global business units tend to have optimum sizes of 3 to 10 million people, and are IQ-intensive,” according to Ohmae.

“I am very happy with the success of Indian companies in the software space,” he said. Govern-ments must allow such regions to interface independently with the rest of the world, and provide minimum safety nets, he advised. There should also be de-regulation of financial, transport and telecom sectors.

Information technologies can also have a disruptive effect, and societies must be prepared to handle this. They also lead to quick cross-border migration of information, capital, wealth, jobs and even crime, he cautioned.

With proper planning and attitude, countries have a rare chance today to “reboot” themselves up again, Ohmae concluded.

The author can be reached at madanr@microland.co.in
Source : The Economic Times. August 1, 2000