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Indispensable broadband

by Claudia Isabel Rittel

In brief

Data storage: an operator fixing a server at a computer centre in Berlin.

Data storage: an operator fixing a server at a computer centre in Berlin.

The digital divide is dwindling, but a new one is opening up: only users who have broadband connections can make full use of the internet. The UN subsidiary International Telecommuniciation Union (ITU) is monitoring developments. It has noted several healthy trends.

“Even in the smallest developing countries, people don’t ask whether you have internet access or not. They just want to know how fast it is.” That is a comment by Sami Al Basheer Al Morshid, the director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau (ITU-D). The ITU-D recently published its annual global report, according to which two billion people now have internet access – either at home, at work or at a nearby public place such as a café or a library.

The UN World Summits on the Information Society in 2003 and 2005 set the target of 50 % of the world population having internet access by 2015. The goal was reached before the end of 2009, because children, for instance, are not counted.

Many people today access the internet via mobile phones. “This is a case of development driven purely by the private sector,” says Geraldine de Bastion, a consultant with newthinking, a Berlin-based agency for open-source strategies. So much for the good news.

The bad news is that a new divide is opening up. On its first side are those who have affordable broadband connections and can thus access numerous new applications such as internet telephony, videos and other services that require lots of data. On its other side are those for whom even a simple modem connection is next to unaffordable.

Even though internet-connection prices in ITU member fell by an average of 15 % between 2008 and 2009, fast connections are still luxury items in many places, especially in Africa. According to the ITU-D report, broadband access in Africa costs around 500 times an average monthly income. The document considers broadband the “most expensive and least affordable service in developing countries”.

To change matters, the ITU has made broadband connections a priority. ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun I. Touré has announced an initiative called “Build on Broadband”.

The ITU and UNESCO have also established a joint Broadband Commission chaired by Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and Carlos Slim Hélu, the Mexican telecoms billionaire. With 30 members, the Commission is to propose measures to the UN summit on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in September.

“Thought is now being given to using mobile broadband to close the gap,” says Monika Muylkens, a consultant for ITU. The buzzword is “3GN”. This term stands for third-generation networks, that are based on technologies that allow the provision of broadband services over mobile-phone infrastructure. At present, various options exist side by side – UMTS and WIMAX are probably the best-known. The big question now is which technology serves remote areas best.

Broadband is only one of many items on the ITU-D agenda however. Others include resource-sparing technologies, capacity building, internet governance and security.

“A lot has been achieved in comparison to 2005,” says Muylkens. According to her, the focus is now more on how people use the internet than whether they have access at all. Of 191 member countries, 161 have drafted strategies on internet utilisation.

It is universally accepted that advanced information and communication technologies (ICT) can help to achieve the MDGs. Sectors like education, health and others can benefit massively from ICT. That was one of the conclusions reached at the World Telecommunication Development Conference in Hyderabad, India, in early June. Its final declaration therefore called internet access a catalyst for various development goals. Accordingly, the ITC stressess its close cooperation with other UN bodies. (cir)