Governments around the world need to rapidly formulate and implement national multi-sectoral broadband plans – or risk being seriously disadvantaged in today’s increasingly high-speed digital environment, according to a new report released today by the Broadband Commission for Digital Development during its third meeting at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.
Entitled Broadband: A Platform for Progress, the report advocates a coordinated, nationwide approach to broadband development that more closely resembles the development of national railway or electricity networks than the more laissez-faire, market-driven approach that has generally characterized the roll-out of mobile cellular technology.
“To optimize the benefits to society, broadband should be coordinated on a countrywide basis, promoting facilities-based competition and with policies encouraging service providers to offer access on fair market terms . . . efforts should be coordinated across all sectors of industry, administration and the economy. Developing isolated projects or piecemeal, duplicated networks is not only inefficient, it delays provision of infrastructure that is becoming as crucial in the modern world as roads or electricity supplies,” the report says.
For emerging economies and developing countries, wireless broadband looks likely to be the platform of choice, bringing services like micro-banking, telemedicine and fast sharing of information in local languages to communities, no matter how isolated.
“Provided it is available to all and affordable for all, broadband-powered applications and content can be a powerful lever for achieving Education for All goals. Inclusive, universal and equitable broadband roll-out can be a tremendous accelerator for development and growth – one way to build Knowledge Societies and to share the wealth of the world’s cultural, linguistic and scientific resources,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.
“However, access to broadband is only one part of the picture – developing human capacity is absolutely vital, to ensure that individuals have the skills to make the most of new technologies,” she added. “This means education, it means media literacy, it means ensuring that all marginalized groups are included. All actors – national, international, private and public – must work together to these ends. The case for this has been made. Now we must make it happen.”
The report makes a strong case for broadband as a driver of economic growth and new jobs, citing country case studies and reports by leading consultancies that point to increased employment opportunities, higher labour productivity and a strong stimulus to GDP. In low and middle income countries, for example, the report cites World Bank figures indicating a boost of 1.38 additional percentage points to GDP growth for every 10-percentage point increase in broadband penetration – and effect more pronounced than any other telecommunication service.
“History has witnessed many ‘declarations of independence’. But in today’s interconnected world we might propose a new ‘Declaration of Inter-dependence’ – a recognition that the economic welfare of each individual country increasingly depends on access to the rest of the world through broadband Internet,” said ITU Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun Touré. “This new Broadband Commission report indicates that improvements in broadband penetration directly correlate to improvements in GDP. Basically, the more available and cheaper broadband access is, the better for a country’s economy and growth prospects.”
Offering much more than faster access to web pages, broadband networks are a crucial element of the ‘Internet of Things’, by which ordinary inanimate objects communicate with one another using technologies like RFID, without the need for human intervention. Such networks are already revolutionizing inventory control and fleet management, and are set to play a growing role in key social sectors like healthcare, through e-health applications, education, through remote learning and teacher training, and environmental management through applications like smart grids, monitoring systems and smart buildings.
The cost of broadband remains a problem in many nations. Recent ITU figures show that while in the top 21 most wired countries, broadband access costs less than 1% of an average monthly salary, in the least wired nations – which include the world’s poorest countries – access to broadband can cost double an entire month’s salary or more. That prohibitive pricing means that while advanced markets enjoy broadband penetration of over 30%, most of the world struggles with 5% penetration or less.
Prices falling, but most of the world remains unconnected
Positive findings released by ITU last week show that, on average, consumers are paying 50% less for high-speed Internet connections than they were two years ago. However, this fall is mainly due to price decreases in developing countries, with steep declines often reflecting the extremely high cost of broadband in the developing world.
The top countries with the cheapest broadband prices relative to average national monthly income are all high-income economies: Monaco, Macau (China), Liechtenstein, the US and Austria. Customers in 31 countries – all of them highly industrialized nations – pay only the equivalent of 1% or less of average monthly GNI per capita for an entry-level broadband connection.
At the other end of the scale, in 19 countries, a broadband connection costs more than 100% of monthly GNI per capita. And in a handful of developing countries the monthly price of a fast Internet connection is still more than ten times monthly average income.
Despite encouraging trends, Africa continues to stand out for its relatively high prices. Fixed broadband Internet access in particular remains prohibitively high, and, across the region as a whole, still represented almost three times the monthly average per capita income. Only one out of ten people in Africa is using the Internet.