That was the message from internet pioneer and Google’s chief internet evangelist Vint Cerf at Google’s Big Tent event in Johannesburg today.
“A lot of my time is spent on policy,” says Cerf. “A lot of my time is spent on trying to increase access to the internet”. Worryingly, he says that the biggest issue he sees in his efforts toward making that mission a success are regulatory. One example Cerf points to are the policies governing the use of radio wave spectrum. “We’re not using spectrum properly,” he says. “We want sharing of the capacity, but we can’t do it because of regulatory constraints”.
Perhaps the most visible example of this is Google’s efforts at using TV whitespaces to provide connectivity, particularly in Africa. It’s great technology with the potential to bring high-speed internet to millions of people who didn’t have it before, but without government and industry approval it will never go beyond a few select pilot projects.
That’s not to knock government entirely though, as it can play a positive role in online and technology innovation. “Long term high-risk funding from government is also important for innovation,” says Cerf, pointing out that his own early work on the internet wouldn’t have happened without government funding.
He also reckons that innovators can use government aid to break down regulatory barriers. Once again turning to his own career experiences, he says that convincing the government to let him plug its email system into the internet paved the way for the modern ISP.
“Once we had the internet, all the other email services out there demanded to be connected to it too,” he says. That in turn meant that all these services could talk to each other and the internet had a viable use outside of government departments and university research labs.
Soon after that, the first ISPs began selling internet access to business and the general public. If the regulations preventing private access to the internet had not been burst, in part through Cerf’s efforts, then the internet economy we know today might not exist.
Cerf reckons the same logic can be applied to small businesses. Real wealth comes from small and medium-sized enterprises, he says “but only if they’re owned by people in those countries”.
If the prevailing regulations in the country don’t allow that to happen then they cannot hope for businesses to be truly successful. Looks like Mark Shuttleworth might be in good company after all.
Regulation in the age of the MOOC
Beyond government, says Cerf, big institutions need to think about the regulations they govern themselves by.
Take universities for example. Our knee-jerk reaction is that universities should be afraid of massively open online courses (MOOCs). After all, a private player could come in and use a good MOOC to steal away business from traditional universities.
Except those universities still have the academics, they still have the prestige. They should therefore be embracing MOOCs.
And indeed some are. Cerf points out that Stanford president John Hennessy reckons there’s massive economic potential in them. He’s got a point too. Say there are 100 000 people — hardly infeasible when you take Cerf’s assertion that Larry Page and Sergey Bring managed attract around one and half times that number for their Stanford online class — paying US$10 for a class. That’s a million dollars in the university’s back pocket that can be used to hire more teachers, assistants and administrative staff.
You can even extend the logic to companies. Cerf reckons that a large part of Google’s success is that it allows people to build on top of its software and bake its APIs into their products.
It’s all about infrastructure
Ultimately though, even the most well-intentioned innovator won’t succeed if they don’t at least have something going in their favour. And if we want continued online and technological innovation, says Cerf, then we have to keep thinking about ways to get more people online.
Whether it’s weather balloons riding wind currents, unused TV spectrum or even a massive investment in infrastructure such as Australia’s ambitious plan to bring fibre to 93% of homes and businesses, it’s worth doing.