Speech from Dr Hamadoun I. Touré, ITU Secretary-General

Conferencia Magistral “The Importance of ICTs and Broadband as Bital Enablers for Social and Economic Development”
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
9 July 2009

Distinguished colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be here with you this evening.

From the richest nation to the poorest, information and communication technologies – ICTs – are now virtually ubiquitous.

The number of mobile cellular subscriptions globally has comfortably passed the four billion mark, and over 1.6 billion people now use the Internet.

Here in the Dominican Republic huge progress has been made – especially in the past five years, and especially in the vitally important areas of mobile communications, and in access to the Internet.

Indeed, your country’s economic progress is exemplified by the advances made in ICTs – and it was an honour to present the Dominican Republic’s First Lady, Dr Margarita Cedeño de Fernández, with the World Telecommunication and Information Society Day Award in 2007, for her outstanding personal contribution towards building an inclusive and equitable global information society.

Five years ago, at the start of 2004, the Dominican Republic had 2.1 million mobile cellular subscriptions; by the beginning of this year that number had grown to over 7.2 million.

And today, almost 2.6 million people here have access to the Internet, compared to just 731,000 five years ago.

This is very encouraging news. But we must do more – and at a global level – if we are to avoid creating a new digital divide just as we are succeeding in bridging the original divide.

This new digital divide might be called the ‘broadband breach’ – a gaping chasm separating those communities that enjoy fast access to an online world increasingly rich in multimedia content, and those communities still struggling with slow, shared, dial-up links.

Why does this matter?

It matters, because in the 21st century, affordable broadband access to the Internet is becoming as vital to social and economic development as networks like transport, water and power.

Broadband access – and the next generation broadband network infrastructure which underpins it – is a key enabler for economic and social growth.

Distinguished colleagues,

Broadband changes everything.

It enables not just great new enabling applications, such as VoIP and IPTV, but also the delivery of essential services – from e-health to e-education to e-commerce to e-government.

And broadband is helping us make great progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals – and improving the quality of life for countless people around the world.

But speed is of the essence.

It takes over six days to receive a classroom DVD over a dial-up connection, but only just over an hour with a good broadband connection.

Broadband is not just fast, but ‘always on’. That means government agencies and commercial businesses can keep their websites up and running 24/7 and can deliver their products and services in real time – whether that’s an online primary school lesson, a remote health monitoring service or a broadcast of a local football match.

Broadband is also a disruptive technology. It changes the way services are provided and accelerates the trend towards the adoption of next-generation networks.

Broadband enables providers to offer triple-play services – such as voice, data and video – over one platform. The disruption also occurs through new broadband-focused companies that are able to leverage market liberalization and compete with incumbents.

As more users, particularly in higher-income economies, shift to broadband, the take-up of voice and television services delivered over the Internet is growing fast, and in a number of rich countries over a quarter of all fixed-line subscribers are now accessing voice telephony over the Internet.

This is all very good, but there remain tremendous challenges ahead –  especially in the developing world, where broadband access remains not just limited but prohibitively expensive.

In the top 15 countries included in the fixed broadband Internet sub-basket published in the ITU’s recent report, ‘Measuring the Information Society’, broadband subscriptions cost less than 1% of monthly Gross National Income (GNI) per capita – and under 2.5% of GNI per capita in a further 25 countries.

At the other end of the scale, however, in the bottom 30 countries in the list – most of which are LDCs – a monthly broadband subscription costs over 100% of monthly GNI per capita.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This is simply not acceptable.

So what can administrations do to drive down costs and accelerate broadband development?

Among the most important steps are to:

  • update or formulate plans recognizing the important role of broadband for social and economic development;

  • diversify broadband provision by encouraging new broadband operators and stimulating competition;

  • consider using universal service funds to distribute broadband to rural and underserved areas, and to schools;

  • create investment incentives – by aggregating demand, for example, or reducing customs duties;

  • help bring down costs by conforming to global standards such as the ITU Recommendations;

  • and to move quickly to award spectrum for wireless broadband such as third generation mobile telephony or fixed wireless technology.

Finally, it is very interesting to note that broadband projects are among the most noteworthy initiatives announced recently in the industrialized countries’ economic stimulus packages.

One problem we face, however, is that the same technology which is bringing a host of exciting and empowering new services to the world’s people is also enabling the rise of cyber-threats and cyber-crime.

As a result, cybersecurity has become a global preoccupation.

Back in 2005, the World Summit on the Information Society recognized that ICTs cannot flourish in the absence of user trust and confidence in the online world.

That is why – as the facilitator of WSIS Action Line C5 on Building Confidence and Security in the use of ICTs – we at ITU took the important step of launching the Global Cybersecurity Agenda, or GCA.

The GCA is designed as a framework for cooperation and response, and focuses on building partnerships and effective collaboration between all relevant parties.

At ITU, we have made tremendous progress, particularly in the past year, with the opening of the GCA’s physical home at the IMPACT centre in Malaysia.

As well as our pioneering work in cybersecurity, I am also pleased to be able to say that ITU is working on a whole range of initiatives that will both increase global access to ICTs – and especially broadband – and at the same time bring down the cost of that access.

Let me give you just a few examples of the work we are doing.

One of our most exciting projects is the ITU Wireless Broadband Partnership, which is mobilizing key stakeholders to finance, plan, build, operate and maintain wireless broadband infrastructure within beneficiary countries.

One of the most important aspects of the partnership is the recognition of the need to balance social and economic development aims with the need for investors and industry participants to see sufficient returns.

We are also rightly proud of our Connect a School, Connect a Community initiative – a new public-private partnership effort to promote broadband school connectivity to serve both students and the communities in which they live.

Connected schools have the potential to serve as community ICT centres to provide access to services for people in isolate, rural, and marginal urban areas – with a particular focus on groups such as women and girls, indigenous people, persons with disabilities, and youth and children.

Another innovative project is our Connecting Villages programme, which aims to help expand access to basic connectivity – including voice and SMS/text services – in rural and remote areas.

The singularity of Connecting Villages is that it applies smart, low-cost solutions, while leveraging flexible, bottom-up business models and public-private partnerships to reach those who still remain unconnected.

The guiding principal behind Connecting Villages is that the networks and services being rolled out to rural and remote communities need to be practical, affordable and sustainable.

While it is absolutely vital to bring connectivity to the world’s unconnected, there is not much sense in doing so if we do not also ensure that people have the right skills and knowledge to use and take advantage of that connectivity.

As a result we have launched the ITU Academy, an umbrella framework for ITU’s numerous learning and development initiatives – which provide training to thousands of individuals in developing countries every year.

Distinguished colleagues,

Each of these programmes and initiatives builds on the tremendous power of partnership and the cooperative will of the international community.

Concrete proof of this incredible collaborative power came with the holding of ITU’s first Connect event in Africa in 2007, which raised an unprecedented 55 billion US dollars in investment commitments targeting intra-regional connectivity.

The ITU Connect Africa Summit, held in Rwanda, saw the international community and the ICT industry make firm commitments to interconnect all African capitals and major cities with ICT broadband infrastructure, and to strengthen connectivity to the rest of the world by 2012 – as well as to extend broadband and ICT services to all African villages by 2015.

These are highly ambitious targets, but I am confident they can be achieved.

Indeed, if there is any justice in this world, they must be achieved.

Thank you.