The Secretary General of the CTO explains its mission to bring connectivity to everyone across the Commonwealth
Most people in Britain’s interaction with the Commonwealth is limited to the quadrennial Commonwealth Games, most recently held in Glasgow, but the union fulfils a number of other functions, not least in communications.
The Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) traces its origins back to the creation of the Pacific Cable Board in 1901, which worked on connecting the far-flung territories of the British Empire through undersea cables.
The organisation’s modern guise was created in 1967 but with telecommunications a global issue affecting all countries in the world what is the purpose of limiting discussion among a group of nations who happened to be part of the British Empire?
“The Commonwealth faces many challenges but it is a concept I believe passionately in,” Tim Unwin, Secretary General of the CTO told TechWeekEurope. “Non-Commonwealth countries can be members. South Sudan is a member and we’re talking with some Francophone countries about membership because they see value in what we do in a practical sense.”
“Everyone has an equal voice. A small island like Vanuatu or Samoa through to big countries like Nigeria and the UK are all in it together. A lot of people in Britain don’t understand the Commonwealth and a lot of people in other countries understand it and appreciate it a lot more and that is bizarre.
“It absolutely isn’t a neo-imperial body. Britain doesn’t have a particularly strong role in it. Many would argue it should have a much stronger role and put some money where its mouth is. Even when you take India out of the equation, the Commonwealth still has a huge population. If we can get an agreement on telecom issues in the 53 countries of the Commonwealth, isn’t that a good thing for the likes of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)?”
Role of the CTO
The CTO’s central ambition is to use ICT and telecommunications for development and has three main vehicles. One is training, another is research and the third involves conferences and workshops like the Cybersecurity Forum held in London last week. These events share best practice and develop policy frameworks for member nations.
Unwin said the CTO is a good example of a multi-stakeholder organisation comprising industry bodies like the GSMA, the private sector and public sector.
“We focus on six priority areas: broadband and mobile broadband, regulatory issues, cybersecurity, IT with disabilities, IT for skills and entrepreneurship and youth,” he explained. “We’re an international treaty organisation and so we represent our members’ interests. For example, at the ITU, ICANN etc., we convene Commonwealth participants and anyone interested and reach agreements.
“We very rarely come out with our official statements because we tend to work behind the scenes. We’re not like the ITU where everyone has to agree on a document.”
Different challenges, same ambitions
Of course there are vast economic differences between Commonwealth members, which influence the CTO’s role in development. The issues, such as access, affordability and technology, are universal said Unwin, it’s the barriers that are different.
“Britain has 15 percent of households not connected and wants to go to digital by default. Therefore it marginalises those people,” he said. “Sierra Leone has 1.7 percent connected – that is just a difference in scale. The technology can lead to increasing inequalities.”
“The question is how we make sure the poorest, the most marginalised get access,” he continued, stating that the role of the public and private sectors need to be balanced to ensure everyone is covered. “We target the most marginalised and that’s my passion.”
The type of technology is different too. In the UK, although state funding has been provided for the Mobile Infrastructure Project, the majority of investment has come through the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) initiative.
However in emerging countries, mobile Internet access is much more prevalent and with a large proportion of the Commonwealth population aged 25 or under, many have never known anything different. But Unwin said no matter what the method, the connectivity aims are the same.
“We’re now in a mobile age and that’s happening for everyone in the world,” he said. “We don’t enough about what the real implications for that are.
“I think Mozilla’s $25 -30 smartphones could be a game changer. They could be really disruptive.”