Our industry is a double-edged sword. On the one hand mobile connectivity is touted as the lifeblood of socio-economic development in the underdeveloped world. On the other hand, depending on your geographic location, operators are increasingly labelled pawns and accomplices of repressive regimes wanting to stifle freedom of expression and monitor the movement of their people.
As media organisations, non-governmental groups and analysts observed, one only has to look at the operation of telecoms companies, including MTN, in Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen and others to see just how rapidly business opportunities can be eclipsed by political and social upheavals.
The truth is that the cellular network industry is behind a revolution to bring high-speed Internet access and next-generation telephony to millions of users who previously had little or no access to even the most basic telecoms services.
Working in partnership with large multinational handset manufacturers and telecoms companies, we are stretching the boundaries of the telecom grid to encompass even the most distant and remote areas, connecting the unconnected, thus becoming the force for good in empowering, uplifting communities and ushering life changing experiences.
However, either way we know it is difficult to satisfy everybody in democratic countries and perceived pariah states alike. It comes with the territory. Mobile telephony and access to such technological advancements has wider social implications that underline equity, natural justice and more.
While proponents have valid reasons to argue that such a right propels wider social and economic indicators, critics also find many challenges in this approach. However, the critics, often scantily, deal with how the role of mobile telephony in driving economies and connecting communities has become the common thread in some of the world's most iniquitous economies.
In their rush for judgement, detractors have failed to grasp that mobile telecommunications is not just about offering a service; it enriches lives, connects people and shapes the future, whether in Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, Nigeria and even the poorer parts of the developed world.
By taking advantage of leaps in technological advancements, the mobile industry is enabling access to information, healthcare, education and finance in some of the most underdeveloped parts of the world.
Mobile telephony has not only enabled people to make a voice call, but connected people to economic opportunities and accelerated the integration of previously marginalised nations into the mainstream of the global economy. As we speak today, the mobile sector is a major driver in global commerce.
For example, the GSMA Mobile Economy 2013 report estimates that in 2012, revenues of mobile operators contributed US$1 trillion or 1.4 per cent of world's GDP. In some regions, such as Africa, the impact of mobile operators is even more significant, where mobile operators generated 3.1 per cent of GDP. The mobile industry also supports millions of jobs - projected to grow to 9.8 million globally by 2017.
Closer to home, MTN 's 15 Foundations across Africa and the Middle East initiate sustainable CSI projects focusing on education, health, economic empowerment and areas of national priority. In 2012, our Foundations established 36 computer labs, awarded more than 1,500 scholarships to deserving students, and provided more than 100 institutions with ICT infrastructure.
We have invested significantly in advanced communications networks to connect our nearly 200 million customers. Since 2008, over US$230 million has been invested by the company in broadband submarine and terrestrial fibre-optic cables (including the ultra-high capacity West Africa Cable System (WACS) linking southern and western Africa to Europe) making MTN one of the largest investors in communication capacity across the continent.
Such investments allow customers to be part of a global community, connect to the world and access m-health, m-agriculture and m-commerce services, which in turn are helping to close the digital divide and make a positive socio-economic impact.
It is exactly this kind of commitment from all role players in each sector, towards infrastructure development, which ispropelling the developing world forward!
The current media interest in MTN's operations in Iran, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and others is understandable. Indeed, the innovation revolution taking place in the ICT sector is helping break down social, economic and community barriers. However, technology can and may also be used by governments and authorities in all countries of the world to restrict basic rights in pursuit of, among other considerations, national interest.
Our critics ignore the fact that every telecommunications operator in the world today exists by virtue of terms and conditions of mobile licences granted by telecommunication regulators. These terms and conditions provide for the ability of governments to request information from the licence holder.
MTN, like all telecommunications companies, being subject to the terms of our licences and local legislation and regulatory conditions, assesses the legality and appropriateness of such requests to determine if it should comply, and the implications of non-compliance, before responding.
In other words, while our stakeholders can demand that we implement solutions to the risks posed by the use of ICT services and restrict or withdraw our services in some instances, they can at the same time demand that we also extend access to telecommunication services.
Failure to comply with either demand has implications for our licence to trade, thus undermining our reason for existence - to deliver a bold new digital world to our customers. Understandably, satisfying the often diametrically-opposed demands and requirements of a range of stakeholders is a daily challenge.
One of our core values is to respect the human rights, including privacy, of the people in all the markets in which we operate. We oppose the abuse of such rights by any party, including governments.
Indeed we acknowledge that we will from time to time experience challenges, given that we operate across diverse geographical, political, legislative, regulatory, cultural and social contexts. Yet our intention is to always conduct our business responsibly, ethically and legally, ensuring that in all instances, we act to the best of our ability.
The relationship between telecommunications and human rights is not just a developing world phenomenon, nor is it confined to the so-called pariah states. As we speak today, this issue is exercising the minds of diplomats, human rights activists and technology service providers in the EU zone, the United States, China, Russia and South Africa - to mention but a few.
The issue of human rights in the context of telecommunications is an emotive one, as it should be, and how it is dealt by each country provides an indication of the extent to which citizens enjoy their civil liberties.
It is our considered view that mobile networks have been a key catalyst in the exercise of these rights, and that the dividend of mobile telecommunications has contributed significantly to freeing millions of people from hardship and economic isolation.
Spare a thought for the telecoms industry as we continually look at ways to make a lasting impact on the lives of our customers and communities.
Sifiso Dabengwa is Group President and CEO of MTN