Saturday, January 20, 2007

At the CPRsouth conference

I'm still not quite sure why I was invited as a delegate to the CPRsouth conference, but I'm certainly learned a lot and had a good time in the process.

As I've mentioned in a previous entry, CPRsouth is a regional group of economists and government regulators studying the effects of ICT policy. There's a lot of emphasis on the young scholars conducting research on specific countries. But there's also the sage advice of established professors and officials in regulating bodies. The interaction is fertile training ground for the up-and-coming policymakers in Asia.

This is an international gathering, with representatives coming from the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Samoa, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and the United States.

And, of course, the lowly representative of Davao and Dumaguete.

It was a full two-and-a-half days of discussions and presentations. I was afraid I would keel over from the details of the research methodologies. Nevertheless, the conference was lively and accessible, and from it, I came away with more germs of ideas for further development.

I took as many notes as I could of the CPRsouth presentations, and over the course of the coming week, I'll try to put down the key learning points. In the meantime, though, I'll have to leave off with some high-level summaries of the conference itself.

The telecom regulatory environment (TRE) was the major focus area of the conference. How does a country regulate its telecoms sector? What are the effects of competition? What is the impact of foreign direct investments (FDIs)? These were the main questions, and for which there were no easy answers, given the unique situation of each country.

What was most valuable to me, though, were the comparative situations of the telecoms sector of various countries, specifically, China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, and India. (Unfortunately, the Philippines was not represented.) Across these six countries you already cover a wide combination of telecom policies in varying degrees of liberalization or control. Of these, you end up with a wide spectrum of results.

All of which really makes for fascinating study. My preliminary personal conclusion is that the Philippines has actually done quite well in comparison with other countries, especially in the mobile area. There are several benefits that we also enjoy in fixed line market. Theoretically, then, what if alternative paths had been taken? More practical still, what could be improved?

But of greatest interest to me was the area of content, specifically in blogs Coming from a contentious free-for-all environment of the Philippine blogosphere, it's a real eye-opener to see how other countries were dealing with the blogging phenomenon. Control is still comparatively tight in many countries across Asia, and some topics are considered out-of-bounds (OOB). Significantly, too, at the conference, we learned that a Malaysian blogger had just gagged by the government.

There were other topics, too, for consideration in CPRsouth: e-governance, competition, community WiFi, bridging the digital divide. Really, the most important result, at least for me, are seeds for ideas for action. But more on that later this week.

Deserving of special mention is the dinner presentation of Dr. Ashok Jhunjhunwala, who's doing work to bring ICT benefits to rural India. Several possibilities for emulation here in the Philippines, such as telemedicine, agriculture, and education.

In hindsight, its probably because of my experiences with ICT initiatives in rural Dumaguete over the past two years that I was able to contribute most to the CPRsouth discussions. Policymakers and academics can sometimes take a 20,000-foot view of things, missing several details and the human touch in the process. Never mind that not all the initiatives I've involved in were successes, I do have ground-level experience, and that's just as valuable, too.

He he. Now I can really say that I come from the school of hard knocks.