Speech from Mr Houlin Zhao, ITU Deputy Secretary-General
Mobile for Development: The Role of Mobile Technologies in Promoting Sustainable Development
Geneva, Switzerland
8 June 2009

Ladies & Gentlemen, it is my pleasure to welcome you here to the ITU today. 

We are delighted to have this opportunity to welcome you here to the home of important standardization for mobile communication systems such as IMT (3G) or the IMT Advanced family of mobile broadband systems.  And we are looking forward to debating the valuable role that mobile telephony can play in promoting sustainable development.

ICTs have, of course, long been recognized as key drivers promoting social and economic development around the world and boosting innovation, jobs and investment everywhere. None more so, however, than mobile telephony.

According to ITU’s latest data, some 4 billion mobile subscriptions are currently in existence today, which suggests that over half the world’s population have access to a mobile phone, by some estimates. This is the first WSIS goal to have been achieved – we are close “to ensuring that more than half the world’s inhabitants have access to ICTs within their reach”.

Over two-thirds of these subscriptions are based in the developing world. Competition, new technologies and applications and flat-rate pricing models in the mobile market have allowed an ever greater number of people across the world to join the information society.

Between the end of 2005 and the beginning of this year, the number of mobile cellular subscriptions globally has grown at a stunning rate of over 20% year-on-year. The regions with the highest growth rates are the developing regions. Africa's annual average growth rate over the last three years stood at no less than 40%.

This makes mobile telephony one of the success stories of the developing world and a technology of intense interest to all those working in development, who strive to reduce poverty and improve the lot of poorer people around the world. Many people’s first experience of a communication device is through a mobile phone.

Now, however, the roll-out of advanced mobile broadband networks offering access to the Internet is enabling service providers to introduce innovative applications with broad market acceptance. The opportunities opened up by mobile banking, credit transfers, long-distance telediagnosis and public health text messages are enormous, and we are still only at the start of what can be achieved. I look forward to hearing more from my colleague, Dr. Lilia Perez-Chavolla, on the potential of mobile applications for sustainable development.

Building on its work with IMT (3G) mobile technologies, ITU is now working on standards for new-generation mobile IMT-Advanced technologies and low-power, energy-efficient mobile technologies. Much of the standardization work involved in ensuring inter-operable mobile communication technologies has been carried out here at ITU.

Today, ongoing convergence in computing and mobility has led to the deployment of single-platform systems including smartphones, sophisticated mobile devices and super-computers offering value-added services including games, music, movies, TV, weather forecasts and location services. Mobile devices are now becoming navigation tools with in-built GPS (Global Positioning System), social networks and digital identities, offering secure and targeted services according to user’s attributes and geo-location. 

However, while mobile coverage has improved significantly across all regions, penetration rates of high-speed broadband connectivity in developing countries remain low, and these services are far too expensive. How many advanced mobile broadband services are widely used, in the developing world?  And what is the impact of the recent financial crisis on the deployment of mobile networks around the globe?
The current financial crisis is challenging the industry and governments and policy-makers everywhere, but at the same time, it could help shake up the industry and overturn the established order, revitalizing the industry.

ITU has monitored the impact of the financial crisis on the telecommunications industry since it first erupted in September 2008. In February of this year, we published our report, “Confronting the Crisis: Its Impact on the ICT Industry”. On 21 April 2009, we held a one-day Strategic Dialogue on the Financial Crisis, preceding the World Telecommunication Policy Forum (WTPF), which united a range of speakers from different backgrounds across the ICT industry to discuss how the financial crisis was affecting their business and prospects for the near future.

Our research has shown that the mobile industry has emerged relatively unscathed from the financial crisis in developing countries, where massive growth is still being seen in monthly additions in large developing markets including Egypt, Nigeria, Brazil, China and India. Handset turnover and shipments in developed economies have been impacted more severely, but growth is forecast to return to the mobile devices market later this year – Nokia’s decision not to downgrade its forecasts for the handset market this year is being interpreted as the bottoming out of the mobile devices market in Q1 2009.

ITU is continuing to monitor the evolving impact of the financial crisis and we are preparing the next edition of our “Confronting the Crisis” report series for World TELECOM 2009 this October, when we shall host a follow-up Summit and Strategic Dialogue on ICT investments for economic recovery. Our research has shown that astute operators are seizing the opportunity and taking this time to reposition and invest to emerge stronger, when the recovery happens.

ITU remains committed to bringing together partners from industry, government, technical and financial institutions to bridge gaps in ICT infrastructure, supporting affordable connectivity and applications to stimulate economic growth. ITU is working with industry and Governments to help the industry reposition itself and emerge stronger and more resilient from these challenging times.

ITU has launched several work programmes and initiatives that seek to reduce digital divide – for example, with its “Connect the World” programme, ITU has launched a strategic partnerships with the private sector including mobile operators and equipment vendors to promote the deployment of communication networks in developing countries that need them the most.

ITU remains committed to mobilizing financial and technical resources worldwide for the extension of wireless broadband infrastructure to promote economic development around the world, especially in developing countries.

ITU is also continuing its body of work on the standards enabling the roll-out of advanced mobile networks, to ensure interoperable, reliable, secure and more accessible communications. In my view, the mobile industry can only emerge stronger and more successful from these challenging times, so that they lead the way out of this crisis and continue to boost access to mobile communications everywhere. Our challenge remains to facilitate the work of the private sector through intelligent and flexible policy-making and standards, to enable as many people as possible to enjoy the benefits of access to ICTs.

Thank you.