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ITU Internet Report 2006: (Chapter One)

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chapter one: going digital

In a sense, humans have always been digital. The digits of the hand have been used to create, innovate, and communicate over the ages. And just as they can be used to represent discrete numbers, in recent times a system of discrete binary digits (zero and one) has been developed, heralding the dawn of the digital age. Digital technologies have been vital to the distribution of knowledge and information, which, as many will argue, are at the core of power in society. Through the use of communication technologies like the internet and the mobile phone, the reach of our relatively short digits has been extended to a much larger sphere—that of the global digital world.


The thumb is a good example, as expressions like “thumb culture” and “thumb tribes” abound: from the narrow streets of Varanasi (India) to the wide avenues of Barcelona (Spain), people are regularly seen walking, eating, talking and even driving while their thumbs busily tap on the keypad of handheld digital devices. As an industry sector, messaging on mobile phones has in the space of just a few years become a global industry generating around USD 80 billion in annual revenue. It has also, interestingly, taken off faster in some developing countries, such as China, than in many developed ones. The internet, too, has radically transformed businesses and individual lifestyles alike, and enabled people to create and share information and knowledge instantly and on a global scale. Not surprisingly, the global consumption of media today is predominantly in digital form.

The next phase in this digital revolution is the transition from low-speed to highspeed networks. Broadband networks are well advanced in the fixed-line world, where there were some 216 million broadband subscribers across the world at the end of 2005. Slowly but surely, this transition is also occurring for mobile networks, with the advent of mobile broadband, e.g. third generation mobile systems (3G). At the end of 2005, there were some 62 million mobile broadband users, with services launched in around 60 economies. In addition, wireless local and metropolitan area networks (e.g. Wi-Fi, WiMax) are starting to make an impact.

In the future, the digital revolution will take on an entirely new dimension, with the development of ubiquitous networks and pervasive computing based on technologies like RFID (radiofrequency identification) and sensor networks. In a future of digital ubiquity, the world’s networks will not only connect people and data, but also things. In this way, mundane daily tasks become increasingly automated, and the technology behind them progressively fades from the perception of the user. This will have important implications not only for society and individual lifestyles, but also for business strategy and policy priorities.

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Updated : 2011-04-04