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16th World Congress on Information Technology: "Connecting People - Empowering People" 
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
19 May 2008

Keynote Address by ITU Secretary General Dr Hamadoun I. Touré

Prime Minister,
Distinguished colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It’s a pleasure and privilege to be here today, in a country that is fast emerging as one of the prime movers of global ICT growth. Asia itself now has over two billion telephone subscribers. And at the heart of this vibrant ICT market, Malaysia’s own teledensity now surpasses 100%, while the country’s visionary MyICMS 886 plan is paving the way to the fast, converged Next Generation Networks that will support a whole host of exciting new services and opportunities.

Around the world, the challenge facing us today is not how to best incite interest in new technologies. Here in Malaysia, throughout Asia, and in any country you care to name, young people are clamouring for access to ICTs. The young instinctively recognize the unprecedented potential of technology to transform their lives and open up new vistas and new opportunities for learning, for sharing, and for economic prosperity.

Our challenge lies in finding ways of rapidly giving young people in the developing world what they want, and what they need, to cast off the bonds of poverty, discrimination and isolation. To empower them with the tools and resources they need to realize their potential and, in turn, empower their own children through better access to information, medical care, and employment opportunities.

If this seems a daunting challenge, it’s worth noting just how far we’ve already come since ITU held Phase One of the UN World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva just five years ago.

Back then, our estimates indicated that over 800,000 villages worldwide had never had access to any kind of ICT. Back then, our figures showed that one billion of the world’s people remained largely unconnected from the benefits of modern information and communication technologies. And ITU statistics sadly revealed that the Internet was often reaching less than 1% of the population of the world’s poorest nations and isolated island states.

Today, Africa alone has over 265 million cellular connections and the highest ratio of mobile subscribers in the world, with mobile accounting for almost 90% of all lines. With around 235 million subscribers, India is poised to soon fall into rank behind China as the second largest mobile market on the planet. Brazil now has a mobile penetration of 63%. And many of the emerging economies of south-east Asia are catching up very fast indeed.

New, lower cost technologies are helping. But much of that phenomenal growth has been spurred by an evolving regulatory landscape that’s proving conducive to entrepreneurial initiatives. Almost 90% of the world’s Least Developed Countries now allow competition in the provision of mobile services – a development that has helped drive the cost of access downwards at the same time as it has driven the reach of networks outwards.

Ladies and gentlemen,

If these figures are encouraging, it is not because they show that we have almost reached our goal of bridging the Digital Divide. It is because they show what is possible, given the right investment climate and operating conditions.

The Digital Divide, as we all know, is still very much with us. Even in Africa’s booming market, the continent’s top 10 economies account for a full four-fifths of all mobile users. And nowhere is the Digital Divide more pronounced than here in Asia, where mobile penetration ranges from below 5% in countries like Myanmar, Nepal and Papua New Guinea to over 100% here in Malaysia, or Hong Kong China, or Singapore, and where Internet access rates of over 65% in countries like the Republic of Korea and Japan contrast sharply with access figures of below 2% in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Lao.

Certainly, we’ve made some headway through the myriad development initiatives that many of us are actively engaged in, which target needy countries and regions around the world.

But if experience teaches us anything, I think it’s clear that we’ve made the fastest and most effective progress where we’ve succeeded in developing frameworks and policies that take into account the needs of all stakeholders in ICT provision. In practice, that means actively engaging with the private sector to develop investment partnerships that can help fund capital-intensive projects, while working to ensure that policies and regulations create a level playing field that encourages, rather than stifles, entrepreneurship.

In 2005 ITU launched an innovative development initiative called Connect the World, which is entirely modeled on fostering cooperative initiatives between government and private industry. Building on that, in October last year we held our first-ever Connect Africa summit in Kigali, Rwanda, in a bid to inject the impetus needed to bring Africa within reach of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals.

Those of you who participated in this event know that the level of interest and enthusiasm was nothing short of extraordinary – proof, if it were needed, that investors are now looking seriously at developing countries to drive growth as other markets begin to saturate. By the end of the event, ITU had garnered over 55 billion dollars in investment pledges, all focused on helping spur continent-wide connectivity through cooperative projects designed to break many of Africa’s most crippling ICT bottlenecks. We will build on this successful approach by holding similar Summits in other regions, with the ultimate aim of Connecting the World by 2015.

I spoke earlier about the need for a fair, transparent and enabling business environment that can help ICT entrepreneurs realize their goals, to the benefit of both users and local economies as a whole.

Infrastructure investment of the kind targeted by Connect Africa is vital – but our best efforts will come to nought if we fail to create a climate in which operators and service providers can flourish.

For many years, ITU has been very active in promoting regulatory best practice, through our wide range of online regulatory resources, our range of authoritative reports such as Trends in Telecommunication Reform, our ongoing programme of regional seminars and professional training, and, of course, our annual Global Symposium for Regulators.

Our latest GSR, held in March in Thailand, brought over 600 top-level policy-makers together around the issue of sharing – shared infrastructure, certainly, but also shared financing models, shared regulatory frameworks – and best of all, shared rewards.

This radical new approach to the age-old problem of financing network build-outs and the introduction of new technologies has the potential to generate big payoffs for low income countries. Operators can not only share facilities – towers, ducts, or rights of way – but can look at sharing the cost of civil works with other infrastructure-centric sectors like energy, transportation and water. Governments can look at stimulating investment through shared-risk ventures with trusted private sector partners. And a shared, harmonized approach to regulation can help open up new markets and drive down costs for operators and users alike by creating important economies of scale.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Our challenge, as I see it, is to find effective and innovative ways of harnessing today’s huge user demand to the growing willingness of investors and operators to venture into what, for some, is uncharted territory.

In the spirit of sharing that characterized the GSR, we need to view the challenges before us as shared challenges, to be tackled together, rather than left to someone else to sort out. Governments need to understand and come to terms with the real business needs of infrastructure suppliers, operators and service providers, while the private sector needs to be prepared to take the longer view, and recognize that the rewards are most definitely there, even if they take a little more time in coming.

By working constructively together, we can give those young people what they want – affordable access to the most powerful tools ever invented for human advancement and economic prosperity: information and communication technologies.

 

 

 

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