GENEVA United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan made a strong push for universal broadband Internet access in the ribbon-cutting ceremony that opened Telecom 99 on Saturday (Oct. 9). Annan's message was echoed by International Telecommunication Union (ITU) secretary general Yoshio Utsumi, and by keynoter Kurt Hellstrom, president of L.M. Ericsson, both of whom emphasized equity and fairness in delivering broadband services to the developing world.
Annan also raised some eyebrows in the Geneva Arena, where he opened Telecom 99, when he invited Cisco Systems Inc. chief executive John Chambers and U.N. Development Program Director Marc Malloch-Brown to the podium with him and praised the two men for organizing the three NetAid concerts, which took place Saturday in New York, London and Geneva. This move was controversial to some on the ITU board, who worried about the heavy presence of Cisco. By inviting NetAid sponsors to the podium after some had urged him to avoid all mention of the concerts, Annan made clear where his sympathies lie.
Cisco also faced some criticism on the eve of the concerts when singer Harry Belafonte withdrew from the event, saying Cisco had sought too much credit in its sponsorship of the concerts and of the NetAid Web site. Chambers shrugged off the critiques in a Saturday evening press conference, saying that pioneers will always be criticized for ways and means , and that Cisco was "more than used to being challenged on many fronts." He said the critics were, for the most part, well-meaning individuals who sought the same goals of alleviating world poverty, which had led Cisco to launch the NetAid effort.
Utsumi set the stage prior to Annan's speech when he said that the goal of assuring that every human on earth had nearby access to an analog phone was not good enough for the 21st century. Not only does the goal of universal POTS service have a long way to go, Utsumi said, but companies and government agencies should concentrate on providing all humans with access to wideband digital data services over the next decade. "This is not just a matter of justice, but is vital for the continued improvement of the whole world," Utsumi said.
Annan fleshed out Utsumi's speech by stating that telecommunications advances create transparency in human behavior worldwide that "leave the tyrants, polluters, and even ineffective governments, nowhere left to hide . . . But these advanced capabilities must be harnessed more closely to serve the global struggle for human rights and dignity."
Annan said that these advances could not be made without transnational institutions like the United Nations forming compacts with the communications industry, which is why the U.N. supported Cisco's NetAid efforts, he said. When diplomats talk only to leaders of governments, they can get a very grim picture of what the future may look like, Annan said. But when he sees the advanced communications technologies displayed by private corporations, "I see a far more encouraging picture," Annan said. He said this means that private industry can play a positive role in strengthening transnational institutions.
Cisco, along with Akamai Technologies and KPMG, contributed more than $10 million in labor and equipment in setting up the NetAid Web site, and Cisco contributed an additional $10 million toward concert logistics. Annan and Chambers both emphasized that bringing a return from the concerts will not constitute a success in sponsors' eyes, if people are not motivated to continue to work with the NetAid organizations. As the first Web feeds from the Wembley and Giants Stadium concerts were beamed to Geneva, Chambers said he was excited by the crowds, but recalled the comments from U2 lead singer Bono that "even though it looks like a home run, it represents just one week's debt repayments among the developing nations."