“It is no overstatement to say that the successful launch of the AEC in 2015 will depend upon the ability of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to interconnect,” says Rajnesh Singh, Asia-Pacific regional director of the non-profit organisation Internet Society, which together with the Singapore-based Telecommunications Research Project released a report (22 March) on unleashing the potential of the internet for ASEAN economies.
The report analysed existing infrastructure of ASEAN countries, grouping them in three clusters based on income level and internet penetration: (1) high income, high penetration (Brunei, Malaysia,
Singapore); (2) low income, moderate penetration (Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam); and (3) low income, low penetration (Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar).
The report cited bottlenecks in national bandwidth, lack of access to international submarine and landline cables and prohibitively high costs of broadband data as the main reasons for both low penetration and slow internet in the two low performing clusters.
The report advised governments to promote interconnectivity to build digital economies that promote cross-border trade and information delivery and the transition from internet communication system IPv4 to the more modern IPv6.
“We believe the benefits of a shift to the economies of scope of a digital economy will be truly transformative,” Singh tells SciDev.Net.
Critical to interconnectivity is the ability of online tools to work across platforms, not only within countries but throughout ASEAN. This means that mobile phones, servers, desktops and e-government interoperability must be built into all services delivery.
The Internet Society plans to release the report in each ASEAN country separately and directly engage with governments and ASEAN agencies.
“The ultimate plan is to influence agendas of different countries and ASEAN as a region. We want to get as many policymakers to read the report,” says Singh.
“The digital economy that we envision is not just an economy run by the internet but one where public services are also digitised,” adds Yoonee Jeong, one of the report’s primary authors.
The report also recommends that governments extend internet infrastructure and the envisioned digital economy to marginalised communities to promote empowerment and poverty alleviation.
Andrew Schroeder, research and analysis director of the humanitarian NGO Direct Relief who has worked extensively on web infrastructure initiatives in disaster relief projects in the Philippines, believes this will be easier said than done.
“The digitisation of social services is not just a technology issue but also a social and political issue. The same governance issues that produce inequalities will likely govern the implementation of digital social services,” Schroeder tells SciDev.Net, adding that the report did not touch on this variable.
Still, Schroeder sees the report as a strong foundation for regional progress. But he says international agencies must be a part of the planning process since “we play a significant role in continuing to provide technical services to the poorest in many of these countries”.
>Link to full report
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.