|Photo credit: AFP/Imaginechina
There is a wealth of recent evidence suggesting that the Internet
can contribute significantly to the economy, economic growth,
job creation, and innovation in the development of new services
and applications. For example, a 2011 analysis of 13 countries by
the McKinsey Global Institute found that the Internet contributed
11 per cent of growth over the past five years. This important
topic is examined in a report by the Broadband Commission for
Digital Development, “Broadband: A Platform for Progress”, published
in June 2011 (see June 2011 issue of ITU News).
The range and quality of services that can be offered over the
Internet is greatly enhanced by faster data rates. High-speed infrastructure
is surely a win-win situation — good for consumers,
who enjoy greater choice of services; good for governments and
national competitiveness in their communications infrastructure
and ability to attract foreign direct investment and create jobs in
diverse sectors; and good for industry, where operators sell faster
Internet connectivity to gain competitive edge and market share
at higher prices and, potentially, higher margins (witness the 4G
wars, for example).
But how fast is fast enough? And what factors need to be
taken into account in setting targets for speed and deploying
infrastructure? Speed does not always mean reliability — and
the relationship between speed and reliability is not always easy.
ITU News and the Broadband Commission for Digital
Development are launching a new series of mini-debates to
promote the objectives of the Commission, underlining the
importance of broadband infrastructure in helping accelerate
progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals.
This first debate examines the need for speed.
Slow, but steady?
Sometimes, it is basic connectivity that matters, regardless
of the speed of the connection. The phenomenal growth of 2G
mobile connectivity in the developing world has done much to
empower the previously unconnected, whether by giving people
livelihoods (for example, the Grameen “phone ladies” of Sri
Lanka and Uganda) or simply by making people contactable and
more available for work.
In the developing world, lack of infrastructure often prevents
health workers from delivering health care efficiently to isolated
patients in rural areas. Some of the gaps in local health systems
can be mitigated using simple, locally appropriate communication
technologies. In Malawi, Medic Mobile has used SMS and
mobile open-source platforms (including Ushahidi, Google Apps
and HealthMap) to mobilize communities for vaccination campaigns,
collect data and map health services. Using text messages
and mobile phones, St. Gabriel’s Hospital in Malawi has
tracked new symptoms and doubled the number of patients
being treated for tuberculosis, while saving thousands of hours
of travel and work time. Medic Mobile is using mobile technology
to great effect to monitor drug stocks in rural Ethiopia, track
vaccinations in India, support the prevention of mother-to-child
transmission of HIV in Malawi and streamline test result delivery
for cervical cancer screening in Nicaragua.
In agriculture, e-Krishok is an initiative launched by the
Bangladesh Institute of ICT in Development in Bangladesh, which
aims to provide farmers with both general information and answers
to specific questions through a web-portal. This project has
grown from just ten locations in October 2008 to 100 centres
with Internet and mobile access by February 2010, as e-Krishok
has become the preferred source of information for the many
farmers reached by the campaign.
These real-life examples show how even basic ICT can make
a real difference to the way people live, work or get health care.
Part of the success of these projects is attributable to the use of
robust technologies and simple devices that are reliable and do
not need a lot of power.
Faster is automatically better?
If these are the gains that can be achieved through lowspeed
applications, imagine how much more could be achieved
through high-speed connections. Although a precise definition
of broadband is elusive (speed of upload versus download, and
whether this capacity is sustained in data transfer rates to the
exchange or end user), broadband as a concept embraces highspeed,
high-capacity, always-on access to ICT services capable of
providing various services (voice, video and data).
ITU recognizes fixed (wired) broadband services as subscriptions
to high-speed access to the public Internet (over a TCP/
IP connection) at downstream speeds equal to, or greater than,
256 kbit/s. Booz & Company note, for example, that speeds of
up to 100 Mbit/s are needed for some telemedicine and distance
learning applications, compared to 4–6 Mbit/s required for webbased
The Phoenix Center in the United States sees the true value
of broadband access to a society as varying according to its use,
connection speed and method of access. Some countries (such
as Denmark) have set national targets for achieving specified
levels of coverage with certain speeds by set dates. France and
the European Union are seeking to provide universal coverage
of broadband Internet access. The UK’s Digital Britain Plan envisages
100 per cent coverage of rural areas with 2 Mbit/s service,
in part as the minimum speed needed to deliver iPlayer, the
BBC’s Internet TV service, although this target has been deemed
modest by some observers. Other countries are now including
broadband Internet in their definitions of universal service.
National targets for coverage and transmission capacity
(speed) are an important signal by governments of their commitment
to establishing the foundations for a modern economy with
|Photo credit: AFP/Imaginechina
In order for broadband to thrive, and for the market to grow
successfully, national targets and operators’ deployment plans
should take account of customer needs and the geography of
the areas, as well as what the technology is likely to be used for.
How fast is fast enough depends on these, more specific factors.
In an era where data usage is growing at an explosive
rate, sometimes at a cost to quality of service, operators have
to deploy technologies to meet the needs of specific markets or
specific geographies in certain areas (for example, urban versus
rural), according to the distribution of customers — for example,
Clearwire’s selection of new markets for the deployment of mobile
broadband in certain areas of the United States. A mismatch
between speed and usage may mean that consumers in developing
countries find that technologies are not locally appropriate to
their real needs. Consumers in developed countries are already
finding that brakes are being applied to their data capacities —
both for fixed as well as mobile service. In the United States,
AT&T has set limits on customers’ use of its high-speed network
(with charges for additional capacity), and similar arrangements
are common in Canada, Asia and Europe. Matching speeds to
needs seems to be the way to go.