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ITU Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun I. Touré has challenged global leaders to ensure that more than half of all the world’s people have access to broadband networks by 2015, and make access to highspeed networks a basic human right.

Dr Touré threw down this challenge to politicians, Executive Heads of United Nations agencies and industry heavyweights at the second meeting of the Broadband Commission for Digital Development. The Commission delivered its report1 to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York on 19 September 2010, during a side-event held in conjunction with a UN Summit on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The Millennium Development Goals

Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
Achieve universal primary education
Promote gender equality and empower women
Reduce child mortality
Improve maternal health
Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
Ensure environmental sustainability
Develop a global partnership for development

“Broadband is the next tipping point, the next truly transformational technology. It can generate jobs, drive growth and productivity, and underpin long-term economic competitiveness. It is also the most powerful tool we have at our disposal in our race to meet the MDGs, which are now just five years away,” said Dr Touré.

Receiving the report, Mr Ban noted the power of technology to inject new impetus into the development paradigm. “Information and communication technologies are playing an increasingly important role as drivers of social and economic development, but it will take partnerships such as the Broadband Commission to ensure that those technologies live up to their extraordinary potential,” said Mr Ban. “The Commission’s report is an important contribution to our efforts to ensure that the benefits of information and communication technology can further the United Nations goals of peace, security or development for all.”

The Commission’s report entitled “A 2010 Leadership Imperative: Towards a Future Built on Broadband”, includes a High-Level Declaration in which the commissioners make a clarion call for “Broadband Inclusion for All”. In addition, the declaration underlines the need “for global leadership from the top and a groundswell of support in shaping the broadband future through the deployment of National Broadband Plans, and for full-scale recognition in policy-making of technology, innovation and private-sector investment as the critical enablers of the international development agenda and development in the 21st century.”

From Brussels to Kigali, and from New Delhi to Washington, forward-looking policies and plans are being put in place for a ubiquitous broadband Internet. Countries such as Australia, Brazil, China, India, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and South Africa have launched broadband initiatives, offering important insights and experience to other countries. The Commission’s report says that “these developments are radically and irrevocably shifting the policy and investment debate away from arguments over increasing the supply of connectivity to high-speed broadband links towards increasing demand and adoption of digital public and private goods and services for the benefit of all society, via access to a vast range of content, information, knowledge and applications delivered by and across all sectors of the economy.”

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Photo credit: ITU/G. Tubbeh
Broadband commissioners in New York
“The new realities and opportunities for digital development must be firmly fixed in the minds of world leaders as a leadership imperative,” says the report, urging leaders to replicate the “mobile miracle” of the first decade of the 21st century in a “broadband boom” that will create shared highspeed resources accessible and beneficial to all. ITU forecasts a total of 900 million broadband subscribers by 2010 – and predicts that mobile broadband will be the access technology of choice for millions in the developing world, where fixed link infrastructure is sparse and expensive to deploy.

“From Brussels to Kigali, and from New Delhi to Washington, forward-looking policies and plans are being put in place for a ubiquitous broadband Internet. Countries such as Australia, Brazil, China, India, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and South Africa have launched broadband initiatives, offering important insights and experience to other countries.”
Defining broadband

The Commission did not explicitly define the term “broadband” in terms of specific minimum transmission speeds because countries differ in their definitions. Recognizing that broadband is sometimes also defined in terms of a specific set of technologies, many members of the Commission found it appropriate to refer to broadband “as a network infrastructure capable of reliably delivering diverse convergent services through high-capacity access over a mix of technologies”. The Commission’s report therefore focuses on broadband as a cluster of concepts, such as an always-on service (not needing the user to make a new connection to a server each time), and high-capacity: able to carry lots of data per second, rather than at a particular speed.

“A World Health Organization report reveals an estimated shortage of almost 4.3 million medical staff worldwide — the most severe shortages being in the poorest countries. Medical advice, monitoring, diagnosis and training delivered through broadband can help a great deal to overcome these gaps.”
Key findings

The report summarizes the key findings of the Commission’s consultations to date. It says that one of the many applications that can be enabled by broadband is e-health. It cites a World Health Organization report revealing an estimated shortage of almost 4.3 million medical staff worldwide — the most severe shortages being in the poorest countries. Medical advice, monitoring, diagnosis and training delivered through broadband can help a great deal to overcome these gaps. Broadband can enable a range of services, from finding and exchanging medical information via basic e-mail and web browsing, to real-time high-definition video transmissions of medical procedures for diagnostic and training purposes. These health services can contribute to achieving many of the MDGs.

In the area of education, the Commission’s report highlights an example from Uruguay, where every child has been provided with a laptop and Internet access at school. The total expense of the “Ceibal” project, completed in October 2009, came to less than 5 per cent of the country’s education budget — but the “connected” children are likely to reap tremendous educational rewards.

The link between broadband penetration and economic growth

“Recent research suggests that positive returns can be expected from investment in broadband infrastructure. For example, an analysis for the European Commission estimates that broadband can create more than 2 million jobs in Europe by 2015, and an increase in GDP of at least EUR 636 billion.”
Recent research suggests that positive returns can be expected from investment in broadband infrastructure. For example, an analysis for the European Commission estimates that broadband can create more than 2 million jobs in Europe by 2015, and an increase in gross domestic product (GDP) of at least EUR 636 billion.

In Germany, research carried out early in 2010 predicts that the construction of broadband networks will create almost a million jobs over the next decade. Meanwhile, a study in Brazil has revealed that broadband added up to 1.4 per cent to the employment growth rate. In China, every 10 per cent increase in broadband penetration is seen as contributing an additional 2.5 per cent to GDP growth.

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Affordability — a burning issue

With these and other examples, the report says that the question is not: Why broadband? Rather, the questions are: Who will rise to the challenge for social and economic transformation offered by the mobile and broadband revolutions? Are governments aware of the enormous potential of broadband to deliver services to their citizens? Can industry deliver broadband inclusion for all, even for market segments where the business case is less certain? These lead to an important question: How can broadband connectivity and content be delivered in the most accessible and affordable way to all citizens, in their own languages?

The Commission believes that, in a world of “digital opportunity”, the burning issue is what price will be paid by those who fail to make the global, regional, national and local choices for broadband inclusion for all — choices which must be made sooner rather than later? This is a stark warning in the light of huge disparities in broadband affordability worldwide. Relative to average national monthly income, those who can least afford it pay the most for access.

“ITU forecasts a total of 900 million broadband subscribers by 2010 — and predicts that mobile broadband will be the access technology of choice for millions in the developing world, where fixed link infrastructure is sparse and expensive to deploy.”
Affordability has a clear and direct correlation to take-up, so that while around 30 per cent of people in the highly “wired” countries of Western Europe, Asia-Pacific and North America have a broadband subscription, in BRIC countries (Brazil, Russian Federation, India and China) penetration is modest at around 10 per cent, and in the world’s poorest nations broadband reaches less than 1 per cent of the population.

Out of 132 countries worldwide having established a definition of universal access and/or universal service, more than two-thirds have included Internet access in that definition. And at least 30 countries have explicitly mandated access to broadband, including Brazil, China, Ghana, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Peru, Spain, Sri Lanka, Switzerland and Uganda. Some countries have gone even further. For example, in Finland, every person is entitled to have access to a 1 Mbit/s Internet connection since July 2010, following a law passed in 2009, making it the first nation to declare broadband a legal right.

The Commission’s report stresses the importance of promoting cultural diversity and multilingualism in the online world. It also urges governments not to limit market entry nor tax broadband and related services too heavily, and to ensure ample availability of spectrum to support mobile broadband growth.

Forging consensus for commitment and coordination

As next-generation networks based on broadband rapidly become the backbone of the digital economy, certain assumptions can be made in crafting a consensus for commitment and coordination towards broadband inclusion for all. According to the Commission:

Fundamentally, this will require government-wide leadership from the very top, at the level of Prime Minister or Head of State, with a supporting governance mechanism.

A broad-based “bottom-up” approach is also required to build commitment to the concept of broadband inclusion for all.

Awareness of the economic and social benefits of broadband will need to be increased among policy- and decision-makers, as well as the general public.

Most of the investments for broadband will come from the private sector, so policy-makers need to engage with industry and investors to promote policy objectives more broadly.

For areas where private investments are not feasible, public authorities and private entities should find innovative ways of cooperating to achieve widespread access to, and use of, broadband.

The Commission’s report stresses that to achieve the expansion of broadband, these efforts must be coordinated across all sectors of industry, administration and the economy. “Developing isolated projects or piecemeal, duplicated networks, is not only inefficient; it also delays provision of infrastructure that is becoming as crucial in the modern world as roads or electricity supplies.”

A platform for progress

“Developing isolated projects or piecemeal, duplicated networks, is not only inefficient; it also delays provision of infrastructure that is becoming as crucial in the modern world as roads or electricity supplies.”
Entitled “Broadband: a Platform for Progress” the second report of the Broadband Commission is currently being reviewed by the commissioners and will be issued when they have completed their review. It will offer more detailed examples, evidence, technical choices and strategies for extending broadband networks within the reach of all. Meanwhile, the “Executive Summary” of the report, which was circulated at the Commission’s meeting on 19 September in New York, is available at www.broadbandcommission.org/report2.pdf.

The Broadband Commission’s online repository of information was inaugurated in September 2010. Called the “Sharehouse”, the repository will carry research reports, case studies from both developed and developing countries, and other materials to encourage and inform governments and industry — and individual communities themselves — about why broadband is crucially important in today’s world and about ways to get connected. All are welcome to access its content, and to submit contributions (www.itu.int/bbcommission/sharehouse.html).

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