In the Knowledge Societies of tomorrow, networks need to allow people to contribute and collaborate, not only through the accessing of information, but also by using, creating and sharing content, knowledge and applications
Dr Hamadoun Touré
Telecommunications are a vital part of the modern world. For many citizens, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine daily lives without the use of computers and mobile phones. Neither is this an exclusively Western phenomenon. Over the past decade, mobile penetration in the developing world has enjoyed unprecedented growth. Despite this success, however, there is still more to be done.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is a specialised agency from the United Nations (UN) family. For over 145 years ITU has coordinated matters of global communication, making it the world's longest-lived intergovernmental organisation. It is ITU's mission to ensure that all of the world's citizens have access to the power of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Whilst this has hitherto necessitated the promotion of fixed and mobile network access, over the next decade, the onus will be on broadband.
Dr Hamadoun Touré, Secretary-General of ITU, explains how we can connect the world by 2015…What are the major challenges involved in connecting the unconnected by 2015?
30 years ago, when ITU commissioned the Maitland Report
to map global telephone access, we talked about a 'missing link'; now, we speak of a 'digital divide' or 'digital gap'. This gap can be geographic – between cities and rural areas for example, or between different countries. But it can also be economic – between rich and poor – and demographic, whereby certain segments of society, such as women, the elderly, the disabled and the poorly educated, find themselves excluded from full access to the power of ICTs.
Thanks to the advent of the mobile, we've made enormous progress since Maitland. In today's world, access to an ordinary telephone line is no longer an issue, with overall global mobile penetration at close to 90 per cent. But that doesn't mean the problem has gone away. The challenge now is broadband access.
Broadband has the potential to massively expand the effective delivery of vital services such as healthcare and education to geographically distributed populations that could never be properly served by traditional, centralised models. In the Knowledge Societies of tomorrow, networks need to allow people to contribute and collaborate, not only through the accessing of information, but also by using, creating and sharing content, knowledge and applications.
Two key challenges to broadband service roll-out are pricing and capacity. Pricing remains a major impediment to broadband take-up in the developing world. Indeed, figures from ITU's report 'Measuring the Information Society' show that in the top 21 most wired countries, broadband subscriptions cost less than one per cent of average monthly income – and under three per cent of average monthly income in a further 22 countries. At the other end of the scale, in the most expensive 28 countries in ITU's list – most of which are UN-designated Least Developed Countries, LDCs – a monthly broadband subscription costs over 100 per cent of average monthly income. That effectively means that the people who can least afford access to broadband pay the most.
I believe there are grounds for optimism. Broadband access is getting more affordable every year. Worldwide, broadband prices dropped by 42 per cent between 2008 and 2009, and broadband became more affordable in almost every market across the globe in 2010. Last September, the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, which ITU co-founded with UNESCO in 2010 in an effort to drive broadband to the top of the global political agenda, set four key targets for countries around the world:
• Making broadband policy universal
. By 2015, all countries should have a national broadband plan or strategy;
• Making broadband affordable
. By 2015, the cost of entry-level broadband services should amount to less than five per cent of average monthly income;
• Connecting homes to broadband
. By 2015, 40 per cent of households in developing countries should have internet access;
• Getting people online
. By 2015, internet user penetration should reach 60 per cent worldwide.How are the ITU and its partners working to overcome these obstacles?
ITU recognises that efforts to bridge the digital gap require the involvement of all key stakeholders. The UN World Summit on the Information Society, which ITU led in 2003 and 2005, was the first global development conference to open its doors to representatives from government, industry, civil society and consumer groups. We gave everyone a voice because we believe that this needs to be a collaborative effort that has everyone's buy-in and embraces everyone's needs. And I'm pleased to say we no longer need to convince any political leader about the need for a sound policy and regulatory environment to foster ICT growth, which I think testifies to the success of our work in the regulatory sphere through key events like the Global Symposium for Regulators.
One thing we did to accelerate the process was to launch the 'Connect the World' series of events, starting in Africa with 'Connect Africa 2007' in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2007, which served as the platform for an unprecedented US$55bn in investment pledges. 'Connect CIS' followed in 2009, and this year we are staging two more Connect events – 'Connect Arab Summit' in Doha in March, and 'Connect Americas' in Panama in July. These events demonstrate that if the regulatory environment is right, investment will follow. We are talking about a profit-making business: If you have good policies and practices, business will make a profit, creating jobs, spurring further innovation and giving people the services and applications they really need.
The Connect Series is just one example of the initiatives underway within ITU's telecommunication development sector. But the role of the ITU is multi-faceted. Our Radiocommunication Sector is the international one-stop-shop for all issues spectrum related – a role that has become even more vital with the recent surges in demand for mobile broadband, satellites, earth monitoring systems and wireless navigation services. Meanwhile, our Telecommunication Standardisation Sector is working to ensure technologies interoperate seamlessly, expanding access and making the end-user experience all the more satisfying.What are some of the most significant ways in which those who are currently 'unconnected' will benefit from becoming 'connected'?
Millions of people – even in the world's poorest nations – are now developing innovative uses for mobile cellular technology, from m-banking in Kenya to market price access for farmers in India, to SMS messages that are being used to send reminders to patients to take anti-retroviral drugs, or come in for a vaccination or a pre-natal health check.
Broadband is not essential for many of these services – but in the future, the most powerful applications will require a high-bandwidth connection at the back-end when it comes to sharing and accessing large volumes of data. A few simple examples illustrate the point:
• The prices paid for food produced by the remotest rural farmers in Africa are determined by national, regional and global marketplaces, using advanced ICT networks;
• Essential shipping forecasts broadcast to fisherman in coastal areas come from data gathered by sophisticated satellite systems;
• Services provided by local or national governments – from healthcare and education to public transport and power supplies – all increasingly rely on complex ICT applications.
Healthcare is potentially one of the most important areas where broadband can make an impact. It has been estimated that at least $5.5trillion is spent worldwide on healthcare provision, but cost savings of between 10 per cent and 20 per cent could be achieved through the use of telemedicine delivered by broadband. If such systems are not put in place, many people could remain deprived of adequate care: a World Health Organization (WHO) report revealed an estimated shortage of more than four million medical staff worldwide, with the situation being most severe in the poorest countries. Medical advice, monitoring, diagnosis and training delivered through broadband can help overcome gaps – and will be increasingly important in developed countries too, because of chronically ageing populations.
Scientific research on a major scale is also greatly assisted by broadband networks. Not only can researchers now exchange vast amounts of data extremely rapidly, but new methods have emerged for tackling highly complex tasks. Distributed or 'grid' computing permits thousands of small computers to be joined together to analyse and share huge amounts of data. Regional networks (like NRENs) have been hailed as essential for developing local knowledge and content, to prevent the single-sided flow of information online.
The power of broadband also underpins the collection, sharing and analysis of vital data on the environment, gathered via satellite, for example, or via direct sensor technology. This information can be used to predict natural disasters such as floods or famines. Wireless broadband in particular also provides a platform for reliable communications in the event of natural disasters when terrestrial communication networks are often damaged or destroyed.
Broadband networks will also be a cornerstone of 'the internet of things' by which objects and machines communicate without the need for human intervention, making processes more efficient while improving our lifestyle. One example is intelligent transport, which reduces accidents as well as fuel consumption. All these benefits bring greater energy efficiency that, alongside monitoring and data analysis, helps significantly in meeting the challenge of climate change.Why is effective collaboration between governments, industry, development banks and financial institutions, civil society and other partners, so important for the completion of this project?
As the Secretary-General of the world's oldest intergovernmental organisation, one of my jobs is to emphasise the positive role that can be played by public-private partnerships. By adopting a multi-stakeholder approach – taking into account the needs of government, the private sector, NGOs, international and regional agencies and civil society – ITU works to build consensus at the global level across all aspects of its work, to support social equity and sustainable development. This approach applies just as surely to cyberspace as it does to the real world.What are your priorities for 2015 and beyond?
My pledge to ITU members is to keep the Union firmly focused on its core mandate of connecting the world, to further improve the efficiency of our internal working processes, to find new ways of strengthening our membership base, and to continue to strive to best meet the needs of the industry we've been serving for more than 145 years. In an increasingly complex, interconnected world, ITU is more relevant and more essential than it has ever been. Two words characterise the next few years: improvement and innovation. ITU will strive to build its many achievements and innovate to adapt to the ever-changing environment in which it operates.