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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Emerging Internet Infrastructures Worldwide

This special section focuses on the emergence of Internet infrastructures in the developing world. The imposing word "infrastructure" is used for a reason. An infrastructure has economic and political as well as technological connotations. It implies a large-scale platform with high fixed costs that serves as the support system for a broad range of social activities.

The rise of the Internet is sparking profound and interesting changes in the global telecommunications infrastructure. Computer internetworking was originally grafted onto the periphery of the public telephone network, just as the telephone was, in its earliest days, thrust into a world dominated by the telegraph. It was an environment dominated not only by a different technological paradigm (analog, circuit-switched networks vs. digital terminals and packet-oriented communications), but also by a different politico-economic regime. Telephone companies were typically state-owned monopolies confined to a national territory. International telecommunications was the process by which these monopolies agreed to correspond and interconnect with each other under the aegis of the International Telecommunication Union.

By now it is clear that data networking based on the TCP/IP protocol suite will swallow up and subordinate circuit-switched voice networking—and probably much of video and audio communications as well. The Internet, coupled with telecommunications liberalization, is already beginning to disturb many of the international and domestic regulatory arrangements organized around circuit-switched telephone service. Infrastructure transitions of this sort are not simply a matter of installing new technology and tossing out the old. They involve huge and often wrenching changes in industrial organization, public institutions, laws, regulations, and power relationships. Business empires rise and fall. Community boundaries are redefined. New models of business organization and political interaction emerge based on the new system's special capabilities.

Business empires rise and fall. Community boundaries are redefined. New models of business organization and political interaction emerge.

Why the focus on the developing world? Two reasons. The first is simply that conditions are very different there, and we need to be aware of the differences. Many of our assumptions about the importance and value of information, computer networking, and e-commerce are put to a severe test in societies like China, Haiti, India, Kenya, and Thailand. Many of our assumptions about what is the normal process of development or the effects of policies can be challenged or stretched by examining the experiences of still-evolving economies. Second, the developing world will play a more important role in the future than it does now. As Petrazzini and Kibati cite, 73% of the Internet hosts as of July 1998 were in North America, 18% in Europe. The current Internet infrastructure is still highly skewed toward its U.S. origins (see my commentary on how the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers may claim ultimate authority to regulate the Internet's root-server databases). As the emerging economies come online, the characteristics of the Internet, the telecommunications infrastructure, and the global economy will change drastically. Until this happens, we do not really know what the Internet is or what it can do. Ultimately, it is in the global arena where the real long-term effect of the Internet will be played out. Cohen's article on the changing international topology gives us an inkling of the changes in store.

What we were looking for here is descriptive material that accurately documents the growth of Internet infrastructure in particular developing countries or that address key economic and policy issues affecting Internet infrastructures in emerging economies. We were interested in the construction of Internet backbones or exchanges, in pricing structures and the cost of international circuits, in competitive and monopolistic Internet service markets, and in the relationship between Internet service providers and the telephone companies.

With only a limited number of articles at our disposal, we only scratch the surface of this subject. Some of them, such as those by Tan et al. (on China), Agarwal (on India), and Peha (on Haiti), focus on individual countries. Peha, for instance, analyzes Haiti's struggles with the government-owned telephone monopoly and political instability and shows that Internet connectivity can take unusual forms in unusual circumstances. Kibati and Krairit compare Kenya and Thailand, arguing it is more cost-effective for developing countries to install wireless technologies with broadband data capabilities than to upgrade later. Tan et al. document China's distinctive approach to Internet regulation. Agarwal's account of India's plans for a new national Internet backbone complements this perspective.

Meanwhile, Petrazzini and Kibati and Cohen explore broader patterns of Internet development across several countries. Petrazzini and Kibati show just how radically different the economic factors affecting Internet growth and penetration are in developing countries. Cohen explores the economic topology of the Internet, arguing that the Net's current U.S.-centered nature is in the process of changing.

And a notable sidebar in Petrazzini and Kibati's article highlights one of the more important emerging political controversies—how the major Asian telecommunication carriers want to restructure international circuit settlement arrangements with their U.S. counterparts.

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Milton Mueller ( is an associate professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y.

©1999 ACM  0002-0782/99/0600  $5.00

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