– By Bimal Pratap Shah–

After having missed the industrial revolution, Nepal is still struggling to move past the post-medieval age. And if the country is not careful, it is going the miss the digital revolution as well.

Vint Cerf, the father of the internet strongly believes that governments should make broadband a national priority because it is a powerful force for social change and socioeconomic development. Thus, if governments are serious about prosperity, policymakers should also prioritise broadband internet along with energy and transportation. And there is a good reason for this. The World Bank says that a 10 percent increase in broadband penetration increases a developed country’s GDP by 1.19 percent and that of a developing country by 1.35 percent.

The sorry state of broadband internet in Nepal is proof that the Government of Nepal has turned a deaf ear to Cert’s assertion. And I can only think of one reason for this. The ideologies and socioeconomic development agendas of the mainstream political parties are suited more for governance in the post-medieval era than the digital age, probably, because there is an acute shortage of the Silicon Valley mindset in the corridors of Singha Durbar.

Rise of Korea

In the 1960s, both South Korea and Nepal were both small, impoverished nations with a huge potential for rapid economic transformation. At that time, Nepal’s economic development looked more promising because Korea had just survived a devastating war which divided the peninsula into North and South Korea. On top of that, Nepal was blessed with the Himalayas. If it had a vision, Nepal could have established itself as an international tourism hot spot and reaped huge economic benefits like Switzerland. Sadly, Nepal has not been able to realise that dream till now. It is instead the 19th most poorest country in the world according to the International Monetary Fund.

On the contrary, South Korea has emerged as the 12th largest economy in the world mainly because it was blessed with a committed and competent visionary leadership that took the required steps to propel the country towards new heights of prosperity. More importantly, the leadership also understood technology’s role in economic development and thus invested heavily in technology transfer and skills development. Between 1962 and 1992, South Korea’s economy grew at an average annual rate of greater than 17.5 percent, establishing the country as Asia’s third largest economy of that period after Japan and China.

Once the country was economically sound, the South Koreans set their eyes on the digital economy and invested in a world-class broadband infrastructure with an aim to be the most connected country in the world. In less than two decades, the country has emerged as the leader in broadband connectivity, boasting of almost 100 percent penetration and the fastest internet speed in the world. In Seoul, it is possible to stream movies almost everywhere. Furthermore, the government has set an even more ambitious target for 2020—to increase the current broadband speed by a thousand fold.

A connected India

Closer to home, the Government of India has been implementing a $18 billion broadband programme for sometime.Till date, 20,000 villages have been connected under the National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN) programme. Renamed BharatNet by the Narendra Modi Administration under the ‘Digital India’ programme, which has an increased budget of $11.5 billion up from $3.17 billion now. If spent well, the additional investment is expected to reduce the monthly charges of retail broadband subscription to as low as $2 in poorer regions and $4 in economically-advanced regions, with speeds ranging from 2 to 20 Mbps.

Besides the central government, city governments are also taking initiatives to increase their inhabitants’access to broadband. Cities like Moscow, Amsterdam and Paris, to name a few, are planning to take fibre-optic cables directly into millions of homes to deliver speeds in between 100 Mbps and 1000 Mbps. Indian cities are also in a race to establish free Wi-Fi zones. Bangalore became the first city to have free Wi-Fi zones. Delhi and Ahmedabad are set to follow soon. However, the Indian city that has created a buzz is Patna. With its 18 km long free Wi-Fi zone, Patna beat the record set by the 3.5 km long Wi-Fi zone in China. .

The world, it seems, is rapidly moving towards a broadband internet-enabled digital economy. Digitisation has boosted world economy by $171 billion, creating six million jobs. Analysts predict that the internet economy will increase to $14.4 trillion by 2020. Therefore, to harness the potential of the digital economy, many nation-states have already developed sound broadband policies, a stable broadband regulatory environment and timely cyber-strategies and directives.

Meanwhile, in Nepal

It looks as though Nepal is also getting ready to embrace the ‘digital age’. Almost two decades after the South Koreans, the Cabinet recently approved ‘The National Broadband Policy 2015’ prepared by the Ministry of Information and Communication. The policy, in theory, will expand broadband internet services and supposedly catalyse the development of broadband infrastructure, high speed data connectivity, e-commerce and e-governance. It also aims to increase broadband penetration rate to 30 percent by 2018 with a minimum speed of 512 kbps and at least 10 Mbps download speed in urban areas. Still, I am not sure if we will get to see a drastic reduction in broadband internet connection charges any time soon. But I certainly hope to get a reliable 10 Mbps speed in less than $10 dollars a month.

Only time will tell if the vision set by the policy is going to materialise into reality. I am no Silicon Valley techno-utopian but Nepal’s broadband policy seems to be rooted in the past rather than looking ahead into the future.

On the brighter side, the Government of Nepal recently unveiled an internet-friendly budget. Finance Minister Ram Sharan Mahat unveiled a plan to turn Kathmandu, Lumbini and Nijgadh into smart cities. Furthermore, he also said that broadband internet service will be installed in earthquake-affected districts for effective information dissemination. It looks like the country is finally gearing up for the digital age.

Earlier this month, Nepali lawmakers finally endorsed a draft version of the much awaited constitution. The government even declared a two-day holiday to collect citizens’ feedback on the new constitution. Still, the Nepali people are not sure if their comments will be incorporated in the constitution or not. I know there are many issues that need to be resolved. But, the constitution cannot be considered forward-looking and progressive until and unless unrestricted broadband internet access is enshrined as a fundamental human right in the statute.

Shah is the co-author of ‘Strategic IT Planning for Public Organisations: A Toolkit’ published by the United Nations in 2009

(Source: The Kathmandu Post daily, 26 July 2015)