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United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)
Statement by Mr. Mongi Hamdi, Chief Science, Technology and ICT branch, Division for Technology and Logistics


On behalf of the Secretary-General of UNCTAD, as well as on behalf of the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development, I would like to congratulate the Secretary-General of ITU for his excellent report to the 2009 World Telecommunication Policy Forum. UNCTAD aligns itself with the findings of the Report. We appreciate this opportunity to address this forum. Let me confine my comments to a couple of remarks.

As the Report rightly recognizes, major developments have occurred in recent years in the ICT sector with significant and far-reaching implications, not least for developing countries. The current global economic crisis represents an added challenge for policymakers and other stakeholders to address.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have proven to be a tremendous accelerator of economic and social progress. Concerns raised at the time of the WSIS Summit in Tunis over a widening “digital divide” have now waned as recent trends show that developing countries are fast adopting ICTs.

Mobile telephony is especially important in low-income countries. For example, in some least developed countries, they outnumber fixed lines by 10 to 1. The divide is also narrowing in terms of Internet penetration.

Despite such positive trends, there is no room for complacency. Many difficult challenges remain and the international community must pursue vigorously its efforts to continue to bridge the digital divide. Large disparities still exist in terms of penetration and affordability both across and within countries. ICTs continue to be largely unaffordable to most people in many poor nations, and significant gaps prevail in ICT access between rural and urban areas, between men and women, and between English and non-English speakers. Lack of content – in local languages, reflecting the values, lifestyles, and needs of local communities – is a serious obstacle to closing the divide.

Moreover, the debate is shifting away from measurements of basic connectivity to issues of speed, capacity and other matters related to quality. For example, the gap between the developed and developing worlds in broadband penetration is large – and widening. This represents a particular challenge, as broadband enhances a range of economically and socially desirable online services.

Against this background, it is important to pay particular attention to the situation facing developing, and especially low-income countries. The case of the advent of next-generation networks (NGNs), addressed in Draft Opinion 2, is relevant in this context. In the poorest economies, mobile telephony is substituting for fixed telephony and the focus is primarily on exploring various wireless solutions to the broadband challenge. The required national backbones and international connectivity to facilitate the roll-out of NGNs are simply not there.

This has several ramifications. One is whether developing countries, with their much lower diffusion of fixed infrastructure, stand to become marginalized from the benefits of NGNs. Even when ADSL is available, most users in developing countries cannot afford the service. Furthermore, the lack of fixed infrastructure to the home in developing economies means that households are not able to have next generation integrated services. This will slow the move to NGNs and convergence in those countries and prevent citizens from having various applications, services, and lower costs associated with delivery over broadband networks.

The question remains whether some developing countries will feel pressured to invest more in fixed networks on a large scale to introduce NGN-based services or if wireless solutions will turn out to be an adequate substitute.

UNCTAD would welcome a strengthened focus on low-income countries in the Opinions. This is important from the perspective of overcoming the digital divide, and in view of the rapid technological developments that we are witnessing.

Well-designed national policies coupled with effective international support can make a difference. In this context, UNCTAD can offer various kinds of technical assistance in the area of ICT Policies and law reform that can complement the work of the ITU and other international organizations.

Before I conclude, I wish to thank the Government of Portugal and the ITU for the excellent organization of this forum.

Thank you for your attention.