ITU Calls For Global Action On Broadband Inclusion

The International Telecommunication Union says that broadband is a basic civil right, and half the world should have access by 2015

As high-speed networks continue to change the way people work and communicate, governments around the world are being urged to prioritise broadband deployment and work to enable “broadband inclusion for all”.

At the second meeting of the Broadband Commission for Digital Development in New York, Dr Hamadoun Touré, secretary general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), called on global leaders to make access to high-speed networks a basic civil right and ensure that more than half the world has access to broadband networks by 2015.

“Broadband is the next tipping point, the next truly transformational technology,” Touré told UN agency chiefs and industry heavyweights attending the conference. “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 Millennium Development Goals, which are now just five years away.”

Broadband Commission report

The Commission has produced a report (pdf), which includes a detailed framework for broadband rollout and ten action points aimed at mobilising stakeholders and governments. The report states that “In the 21st century, affordable, ubiquitous broadband networks will be as critical to social and economic prosperity as networks like transport, water and power.”

The report also stresses that broadband has the power to “cut a swathe through the silos” of individual government sectors, and therefore urges governments not to tax broadband and related services too heavily, and to ensure ample availability of spectrum to support mobile broadband growth.

“Broadband will serve as tomorrow’s fountain of innovation. It represents the ripening of the digital revolution, the fruits of which have yet to be invented or even imagined,” said the report.

The report was presented to UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon, who described it as “an important contribution to our efforts to ensure that the benefits of ICT can further the UN’s goals of peace, security and development for all.”

Cost disparities

However, the report also highlights enormous disparities in broadband affordability worldwide, meaning that those who can least afford it often pay the most for access. While subscribers in countries such as the UK, US, Canada and Australia pay less than one percent of their average national monthly income for a fast broadband connection, even a relatively slow broadband connection in many of the world’s least economically developed countries costs many times an average monthly salary.

This lack of affordability means that broadband penetration in BRIC counties (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) is modest – at around 10 percent – and in the world’s poorest nations, broadband reaches less than one percent of the population. This compares to 30 percent penetration in Western Europe, Oceania and North America.

The ITU forecasts that there will be a total of 900 million broadband subscribers by the end of this year – and predicts that mobile broadband will be the access technology of choice for millions in the developing world, where fixed-line infrastructure is sparse and expensive to deploy.

“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. It urges leaders to replicate the “mobile miracle” of the first decade of the 21st century in a “broadband boom” that will create shared international high-speed resources.

UK broadband

In the UK, meanwhile, the government is currently working to get the last remaining ten million Brits online before the end of 2012. However, the government’s digital champion, Martha Lane Fox, has been given no budget to complete the task. The UK is currently ranked 33rd in the Ookla Net Index, which measures consumer broadband speeds around the globe.

However, the regulator Ofcom recently reprimanded UK broadband operators for not delivering the speeds promised to consumers. The regulator revealed that, while the average speed of fixed-line broadband had gone up, the percentage of the advertised speed that was being achieved had actually fallen from 58 percent in 2009 to 45 percent in 2010. This is particularly apparent in rural areas of the UK, where a recent experiment in Yorkshire saw a pigeon beat a computer in a file transfer challenge.

Ofcom has also launched a review of mobile broadband services over the UK’s five mobile network operators: 3, O2, Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone.

According to analyst firm Ovum, the government’s market-driven approach to broadband rollout could result in a widening of the digital divide in Britain – with households in urban areas signing up to 50Mbps, and above, while small villages are left far behind.

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