O’Brien calls on internet giants to help pay for broadband in developing world

Digicel chairman accuses Google, Facebook etc of ‘lobbying heavily’ against access expansion payment

Denis O’Brien in conversation with Reza Jafari of e-Development International, at the GETHealth, Global Education & Technology Health Summit, in Dublin Castle yesterday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Denis O’Brien in conversation with Reza Jafari of e-Development International, at the GETHealth, Global Education & Technology Health Summit, in Dublin Castle yesterday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Telecoms billionaire Denis O’Brien has challenged Google, Facebook and other internet companies to contribute to the cost of making broadband available in the developing world.

The Digicel chairman has accused the internet giants of lobbying heavily to ensure they did not have to pay for expanding internet access globally.

He also expressed opposition to charging large sums for mobile phone licences in the developing world and criticised “publicity-seeking” among some aid agencies.

Mr O’Brien was speaking yesterday at the GetHealth summit in Dublin on the use of technology to train health workers in the developing world.

Broadband was a human right, he said, and should be explicitly recognised as such in UN goals. “If you really want to have economic development and move globalisation to the developing countries, you have to have the umbilical cords and the very best technology.”

Better networks

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Some 2.5 billion people in the world now had access to broadband, mostly in the developed world, he added. However, in parts of Asia and Africa, broadband access was less than 10 per cent and plans for growth were heavily dependent on the networks.

Mobile phone companies were investing heavily in developing their networks but they were subject to pressure from investors who wanted the companies to be more conservative in their approach, he said.

“On our own, mobile phone operators in Africa or Asia won’t be able to do it. We need a contribution from OTT [over the top] operators, people like Facebook, Google or WhatsApp, who ride on top of the network.”

Mr O’Brien criticised US president Barack Obama’s stance on the issue, saying he had “put two feet in it” and “got it wrong again”. Net neutrality (the principle that all data on the net is treated equally) was great in the US but awful in Africa, he said, and was holding back the development of eHealth.

Google had 200 lobbyists in Brussels who were “rattling the cages” of the European Commission on the issue, he told the conference. “Normally, America leads the way on a lot of these things, but because of the lobbying power of Silicon Valley, which were major contributors to the recent elections there, they are ruling the roost.”

Balancing act

Speaking of Haiti, where he has extensive charitable as well as business interests, Mr O’Brien was critical of “fly ’n’ drive” NGOs who work around national governments rather than with them.

Some “publicity-seeking” aid agencies viewed the earthquake as an opportunity to raise money and build their profile, he said, but the real work was done by groups such as Concern, which were already in the country.

Contractual letters

Money paid for these licences was money taken out of the network. Even in Ireland, a licence was sold for €300 million, he said.

While the argument “went both ways” in the developed world, there should not be any charge in developing countries. Governments should obtain contractual letters to make sure operators kept their promises about rolling out the network.

Mr O’Brien said Digicel was now operating in 32 countries and employed a full-time “secretary of state” whose job it is to visit governments. In China alone, the company employed 3,000 people.