The information and communications technology (ICT) sector has been a pioneer and a powerful catalyst in addressing the needs and interests of low-income communities in developing countries. But it was not always so. Only in the past twenty years or so has a self-conscious appreciation for the ICT sector’s role in expanding economic opportunity emerged.
One of the principal reasons is that much has changed in a short time. In the technology sector, 20 years are more like five generations. In the 1980s, “universal access” was a goal, but not the reality, of the legacy PTTs, an acronym for the firms providing “post, telephone, and telegraph” services.
The PTTs, comprising much of the ICT sector of their day, were landline-based and, to a large extent, government - owned and -managed. Services were expensive, and in most parts of the world, they had deteriorated to the point where quality could be described as atrocious, if it had ever been good. Data network capability was non-existent. Technological innovation, to say nothing of the business model innovation, was slow. The name of the game was rent-seeking: that is, extracting every dollar of revenue as possible from sunk-cost infrastructure, and, as means to that end, suppressing any new, potentially competitive technology, service, or business model, often using the power of the state for that purpose.
The rate of technological innovation in ICT has accelerated dramatically, and the sector today is orders of magnitude larger than it was 20 years ago, and it encompasses a more diverse universe of players than ever before. Today, the sector includes hardware, software, the Internet, telephony, and content, application, and support service, provided by entities ranging from corporate giants to garage entrepreneurs to individual developers and open-source networks. Relevant content and applications are integral parts of the value proposition, and the “network effect” is crucial – technology only increases productivity when lots of people share access.
As a result, collaboration has become a key business strategy. Some of the largest and most successful firms have established themselves as “keystones” within vast “business ecosystems” in which independent partners, other firms, and even users provide content, applications, and services, thereby increasing the value of their technologies. This report, while acknowledging the incredible diversity in the nature and size of firms in the ICT industry, will focus on such large firms – whether national, regional, or multinational.