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Chapter Highlights from ITU Internet Reports 2003: Birth of Broadband

Chapter Seven:  Broadband and the Information Society

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“Broadband’s particular promise is in its capacity to enable multiple applications over a single network, and the related economic gains—meaning greater access at lower cost.”

The weaving together of digital networks and information with the social networks of the twenty-first century has implications for everyone. No matter how we choose to define the “information society”, there are many unanswered questions about how, and why, we should promote developments that give an increasingly central place to the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in our lives. Box 3 looks at some of the history of the information society vision, and some of the initiatives taken to build it.

In industrialized countries and especially developing countries, there is a pressing need to address the persistent exclusion of people, in some geographical areas and social groups, who are marginalized with regard to access to ICTs and the knowledge and skills to use them (i.e. the “digital divide”). Technological innovation alone is not enough to ensure a sustainable, growth-oriented information society. It takes multi-stakeholder cooperation.

While broadband is only one among many technologies present on the scene, its particular promise—viewed through an information society “lens”—lies in two areas: First, broadband’s capacity to enable multiple applications (voice communications—for example using voice over broadband, Internet applications, and television/video and audio applications) over a single network. Second, the related economic gains, which also translate into lower costs for consumers. With increased data transfer and speeds, as well as the effects of competition among service providers; the tendency is for prices to drop, bringing access to information closer to more of the world’s population. As well as these particular features of broadband, network security and ethical issues are among the topics addressed in this part of the report, as are particular examples of how broadband can help or pose risks to developed and developing societies in the transition to a global information society.

In some contexts, wireless broadband may hold particular promise. “Hotspots” (e.g. in airports, hotels, cafés) are now being expanded to create whole urban areas with wireless coverage. Although these initiatives are only in their incipient phases, organizations such as the United Nations have begun to embrace the potential that wireless technologies, such as Wireless LANs, may hold for developing countries, where basic wireline infrastructures are often lacking. As pointed out by the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, “it is precisely in places where no infrastructure exists that Wi-Fi can be particularly effective, helping countries to leapfrog generations of telecommunications technology and infrastructure and empower their people”.

As well as stand-alone initiatives though, standardization efforts are essential to harmonize interfaces and protocols between networks and to ensure network security. Governments and industry are already actively involved in such standardization activities, including through ITU. Coordination of the radio frequency spectrum also requires strong international cooperation, as does research and development (R&D), the cornerstone of future technological development. In these and other areas, international cooperation is an essential prerequisite to realize any kind of global vision of the information society.

Box 3: From technological innovation to a “knowledge-based society”

As well as numerous initiatives to set out “visions” for the information society, an emphasis on the need to foster “knowledge-driven economies” to underpin inclusive information societies began to gain currency in policy circles in the late 1990s. The European Union set targets for becoming the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-driven region in the world. In the United Kingdom, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) gave priority to building the knowledge-driven economy in a White Paper published towards the end of the decade. In the United States, there were strong hopes that investment in “new economy” services would continue to boom and that there would be substantial economic benefits from investment in digital technologies. The World Bank’s 1998/99 Development Report made a strong case for greater investment in knowledge as a means of tackling poverty and a range of persistent development problems.

Discussions about the growing importance of knowledge accumulation and absorption were often accompanied by assertions about the impact of rapid innovations in ICTs and of increasing investment in digital networks and their applications. Many acknowledged that the new technological “tools” could have both positive and negative social and economic consequences. It was also recognized that there might not be a straightforward relationship between investment in digital technologies and services and positive gains for economies or social welfare. Nevertheless, the mobilization of concerned stakeholders around the problems posed by knowledge-driven growth continues to emphasize the technical and economic features of these developments over the social and cultural features.

The rush to develop information society visions and knowledge-driven economy strategies has not been limited to the industrialized countries. For instance, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa developed the Africa Information Society Initiative (AISI); Singapore developed its “Intelligent Island” vision and others such as South Africa also developed their own visions and strategies. In the “hope department”, many experts have argued that ICTs would provide the opportunity for the developing world to “leapfrog” over generations of technology and catch-up with—or occasionally even surpass—wealthy countries in the industrialized world. Just as the end of the boom abruptly curtailed many utopian dreams, contemporary economic realities have tempered idealism. More positively perhaps, visions are now more inclusive of progressive patterns of technological development and of local adaptation of ICTs into individual cultures.

The creation of the G8 Digital Opportunities Task (DOT) Force and the decision to hold a United Nations World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), under the leadership of ITU, are indicators of the significance of these developments at the highest levels. Most participants in these, and many related forums admit today that social considerations are as important as the economic and technological dynamics of emerging information societies.

More information on the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), to be held in two phases in Geneva in 2003, and in Tunis in 2005, can be found at the website: In addition to full information on the Summit and its working documents, the site also offers background resources; research papers; links to worldwide information society initiatives, ICT success stories, interest groups and organizations; press materials, and specialized documentation on specific subject areas.

Source: Adapted from “The nature of the information society: an industrialized world perspective”, in Visions of the Information Society (ITU, 2003). More information can be found at:

Relevant links

ITU New Initiatives Workshop on Promoting Broadband

World Summit on the Information Society Declaration of Principles

How ICTs can help achieve broader development objectives such as the Millenium Declaration Goals [PDF]

ICT Success Stories

ITU workshop on Creating Trust in Critical Network Infrastructures

Broadband Infrastructure Deployment: The Role of Government Assistance, OECD

National Telecommunications and Information Administration,  A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet (Word doc.)


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