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The following interview of Lawrence J. Lang, Vice President Service Provider Marketing,, Cisco, took place at World Telecom a couple of days after the press conference for the World Telecom Internet Days.

From being helped to being customers

Why should a company like Cisco get so involved in helping developing countries?

There are a number of reasons. First of all, on a human level, it's the right thing to do. Another reason, which I don't think is contradictory, is that presuming we make progress, those people stop needing help and start being customers.

One interesting thing about networks is that, according to Metcalfe's law, networks grow with the square of the number of people who are on them. That suggests that a network with six billion would be more valuable than one that had only a billion people on it.

There are a lot of people in Cisco who believe strongly that this technology can either lift people up or widen the gap and that we are at a crucial junction where this is being decided. Even if you don't do anything, it is still a form of decision. We at Cisco are making decisions about that.

The packet telephony approach often has a lower cost than you might otherwise have to pay. So that can turn out to be very attractive. In addition, as we go through our growing pains, a lot of those markets are going to be more patient with us. Packet telephony systems don't scale up but in developing countries they don't have that size need anyway. So the traditional systems that are geared for very high levels would not be appropriate. As John Chambers said "If they are starting now, why would they put anything other than IP telephony in their countries."

Such an ethical approach implies a longer term perspective on the market.

Sure. We've just been through the NetAid project. I'm very conscious that we have to keep track of getting something for Cisco out of it. That is not contradictory. Making sure that Cisco is getting something out of it is how we sustain interest within the company. It is important that it not just be based on personal interest, but rather becomes institutionalised. We don't just get money out of it. One of the things we get is learning new ways to do things. In the case of NetAid, we learnt how to do things on a very large scale with 2.5 million video streams. The largest that has been done to date. But we can also learn how to scale things down and enter new areas where you can't take such things as accessible power for granted.

In the opening session of Telecom there was talk of the work done by the Grameen Bank in providing mobile telephones to people. There are interesting solutions in empowering people that are much smaller and more effective.

The Internet technology lends itself to that. In the early days of the Internet, people hacked things together. Nowadays, there is an ongoing effort, for example, to put IP over ham radio.

One of the reasons why we are involved with UNDP is that they can provide the physical infrastructure necessary to begin setting up the networking infrastructure. In Boutan, for example, the offices of UNDP are amongst the places that are able to provide power, that are suitably dry and clean so that equipment can be installed. They can be the starting place. One of the services the network in Boutan is providing is to allow local farmers to be aware of the global price of their crops. As a result, in negotiating with buyers, they have a better idea of what the goods are worth. They can also make more precise decisions about what to grow.

Cisco's products require considerable know-how to run. Is training part of your effort towards developing countries?

There was a move in the States to wire schools through the NetDays. We discovered that it was all very well to wire schools but after you left, the school called back asking for further help. That couldn't possibly scale. So our education group put together a programme called "Network Academies". A lot is delivered and tested over the Web although there are hands on elements as well. This is provided to schools. We start with a regional network academy, possibly in a university. That will serve as an anchor for more local academies or getting down into high schools. We give away the curriculum. Networking Academies exist in dozens of countries all over the world. It is a real win-win situation for all concerned.

How do you see the future in Cisco effort in terms of development?

I view the future with a certain amount of humbleness. I am sure we will learn as we go and interact. I would not presume to know the answer on how to make networking spread in the developing world. We will go forward with the intention to help and will let the people who know about the environment help teach us what it is going to take to get there. The future will be based on self-sustaining win-win initiatives. The more people who are winning out of this the better because then it will become institutionalised and sustained.

For those who read this interview, I'd like to say that we are always open to suggestions. We can't undertake every idea that people suggest. However, some of the most interesting projects we have embarked on have been projects suggested by people outside Cisco. We are always glad to hear from people who have ideas of ways we can help.

Lawrence J. Lang, Vice President Service Provider Marketing, Cisco
Interview, Alan McCluskey

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Created: October 15th, 1999 - Last up-dated: October 15th, 1999