Emuekpere, Undiga (2017). 'Defining Capabilities in the Network Society: Challenging Inequality with Capability Approach based Telecommunications Universality Policy and Regulation' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.



Many commentators believe that one of the greatest challenges of our time is inequality. The tragedy of the growing rate of inequality is that it is happening at a time when the world, as a whole, is experiencing rapid advances in technology, economics and other spheres of human endeavour that have delivered significant levels of economic and material prosperity. Unfortunately, it is clear that an unprecedented majority are being left behind, and even forgotten, in this great wave of social change that has come to be known as the information age.


One of the greatest contributions, and also the source of much criticism, of the Capability Approach, is that it provides an abstracted but powerful normative framework for the definition and assessment of justice. Under this approach, justice is a multidimensional and dynamic concept defined in terms of freedom, human wellbeing and development. The idea of what is just is therefore contextual and not static, moored and not tethered in the society it seeks to assess. The contextuality of justice is an inescapable tenet of Sen’s elaboration of the Capability approach. He speaks of capabilities and the functionings, which people have a reason to value, implying that the very perceptions of value are fluid and not fixed. Nussbaum develops the concept even further identifying certain capabilities as central. The very conception of value is something that is deeply rooted in context itself, meaning that the assessment of justice is an exercise subject to periodic if not constant re-evaluation. Any policy or implementation framework based on the capability approach would therefore be required to the same social evolutionary trends, which provoke a re-evaluation of the parameters of justice, and development as translated into legal and regulatory goals.


If the Capability approach is understood in this way, it will not be outlandish to consider that in this information age, where the access to and usage of telecommunications networks and services is so critical, that a reappraisal of the informational focus of what constitutes justice and the appropriate state response is required. Castells and Himanen for instance call for a reconceptualization of development,[1] while others focus more on the interplay between a redefinition of development from the perspective of exclusionary effects of telecommunications network infrastructure. The exclusionary effect of the absence of telecommunications network infrastructure is well documented in the digital divide literature but this is rarely analysed from a capability perspective.


Considering the reconceptualisation of development demanded by the information society, and the sheer diversity of online socio-economic activity, it appears to be valid to begin to consider the fact that in this age a distinction between offline capabilities and their telecommunications –mediated or online comparators may be required.  Telecommunications services constitute the interface between network infrastructure and the subscriber. Telecommunications services can be broadly classified as voice and data services such as Internet. The location, type and quality of telecommunications networks and the services they enable access to may now have to considered as subsumed within the informational basis of justice in the information society. Consequently, the response of states to the challenge of ubiquitous distribution of quality telecommunications infrastructure and services, otherwise known as Universal Service, is not only relevant to the digital divide but also to the exercise of valuable functionings and ultimately an assessment of justice.


This paper proposes to evaluate Universal Service policy and regulatory goals using a capabilities approach based justice framework. It will analyse the main approaches to Universal Service and service level guarantees included in legal instruments, operator licenses and national policy. This will be targeted to assessing the extent to which a capability approach definition of Universal Service would condition the definition of telecommunications development policy goals as translated into law and ultimately operator’s licenses.


This paper proceeds from the premise that the state cannot abdicate its primary responsibility to ensure human development in all ramifications and that in fact throughout the history of telecommunications the state was always the primary investor and risk taker. This is in keeping with the central argument of scholars such as Mazzucato.[2] If this is the case then the state should not and cannot expect the public sector to relieve it of the leading role it has to play in telecommunications development, especially in developing countries. If the evidence from many developed countries is anything to go by, then it would appear that more rather than less public intervention in telecommunications would be required in developing countries.


There is at the very least a clear tension, if not outright conflict, between the profit driven accountability of the private sector player to its shareholders and the state’s more altruism based development and justice- based mandate. Herein lies the problem of attempting to rely completely on liberalised markets to deliver equitable telecommunications infrastructure, as there is little incentive for private operators to supply the poor. It is for this reason that Public Private Partnerships in telecommunications development may supply a valuable third way to address the challenge of ubiquitous infrastructure within the overarching framework of liberal markets.  However there is need for a definition of a corpus of development-oriented guiding principles.  It is in this regard that a capability approach based telecommunications implementation framework would be invaluable to help address the issue of telecommunications induced inequality.

[1]Manuel Castells and Pekka Himanen, Reconceptualizing Development in the Global Information Age (Oxford University Press, 2014)10

[2] Mariana Mazzucato, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public v Private Sector Myths (Anthem Press, 2015)

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