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Time is ripe to make the Internet a public good

By XN Iraki | September 1st 2020 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Economists love using jargon that leaves the hoi polloi in a spin.

A good example is “public good” also called “social good.” The term is non-excludable, non-rivalry and non-depletable. 

A good example of a public good is street lighting. Everyone enjoys the light, and no one can stop it from reaching their neighbour. 

Can sunshine and rain be categorised as public goods? Let’s remember there is also “public bad” too like air pollution, which though non-excludable and no-rivalry, affects us negatively. Such social ills are often over provided.

Other examples of public goods include highways, sanitation, schools, the national police and fire protection.

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Economists will quickly add that public goods are usually provided by taxpayers or through subsidies, which makes their exclusion hard. Suppose the police were to check if you have paid taxes before assisting you or arresting you?  The nature of public goods is what makes toll stations contentious.

The market would be unwilling to extend these services. They would either be too expensive or impossible to exclude those who have not paid. It’s cheaper to use a public sewerage system than septic tanks. I am sure you know how expensive “honey suckers“ (exhausters) can be. Why is private tuition valued more than the schools themselves? 

Kenyans might argue that public goods are not adequate, leading to thriving industries that provide the same services or goods privately. Examples include private security, private education and private healthcare. The extra taxes we would pay to get the same services might be lower than what we pay in the private market, despite the fear of nepotism. 

If you are keen, you will notice that politicians promise many public goods before polls. It costs them nothing, such goods are paid for by taxpayers.  The non-exclusion leads to the tragedy of the commons, where public goods are overexploited.

Think of fishing in the sea or harvesting firewood in the forests. Remember mali ya uma (public property)? Using licences or other restrictions, including privatisation can mitigate this tragedy. 

Enough on public goods. Should the Internet become a public good just like the highways?

Covid-19 has made the case more urgent. The highways are public goods and through them, we drive both commercial and non-commercial cars, which create efficiency in the economy. Imagine each of us building their road or powerline. In the same way, we should make the Internet a public good. The exclusion of some citizens, including students during Covid-19, has made a good case for the Internet to become a public good. It’s would be cheaper to provide it as a public good instead of privately.

Remember economies of scale? Getting connected to the Wi-Fi does not stop others from enjoying the facility if bandwidth is good. We watch and listen to TV and radio stations simultaneously. Tuning to KBC does stop anyone from doing the same.

Should that not apply to Wi-Fi or the Internet? It does not matter if one is in the rural areas or urban areas, poor or rich, we should all have access to the Internet paid for by taxpayers without excluding anyone. Covid-19 has left no doubt that the Internet is no longer a luxury.

The Jubilee government had foreseen the current situation with an offer of free laptops for school children. My fellow countrymen let us always finish projects; you never know about tomorrow.

The economic dividends of “free internet” would be very high. One is a more informed citizenry. Two is easier access to government services and three innovation. With all the information, creative minds would have a field day. What will come after M-Pesa, Facebook, Tiktok and other applications?  The fear of misuse of such a network should not dissuade us from making it a public good. Accidents do not stop us from designing new cars, roads or airports. 

Waiting for everyone to get access to Wi-Fi is postponing the creative revolution of the next generation.

When we built the Thika superhighway, and bypasses, business followed. If we build the Internet, making it easily accessible to the public, many businesses built on our creativity and innovation would follow.

Those who generate ideas are not necessarily the ones who exploit or commercialise them. The Internet would be a good place to match the originators of the idea and those who commercialise them. Think of a simple example: expired patents can be easily commercialised. But you need the Internet to look for them. If we can date on the net, why not exchange greater ideas? 

Every sector would benefit from the Internet as a public good from education to e-commerce, entertainment, agriculture, medicine, law and government services.

Covid-19 has left no doubt that cyberspace is the next frontier. The market might be too slow to take us there. Remember how the Government optimal regulation led to the growth of M-Pesa?

With the Internet available freely as air, more ideas such as M-Pesa and other innovations would follow. 

- The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi    


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