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PP-10 Newsroom: Backgrounders

A Future Built on Broadband

“I see broadband as perhaps the greatest opportunity we have ever known for human progress,” says Dr Hamadoun Touré, Secretary General of the International Telecommunication Union. It is a big claim, but broadband around the world has a big future.

Increasingly, experts see broadband networks as a fundamental infrastructure, as vital to modern economic and societal development as roads and rail systems. In a time of global financial crisis, many governments are showing renewed interest in mandating or directly organizing national broadband capability to stimulate economies.

From this perspective, broadband is not merely a higher speed version of the Internet, offering the same services but with faster connectivity. Rather, it represents a major paradigm shift, reordering economic and societal potential worldwide if networks get deployed on a large enough scale. Countries as diverse as Singapore, Australia and Korea (Rep. of) have developed or are planning to develop advanced networks of this kind to increase their economic competitiveness. Other countries such as Finland have legislated to make broadband a legally-binding universal service.

Broadband will enable applications and services of all kinds to be delivered more widely, cheaply and reliably, with positive economic impact. Analysis1 suggests that increasing broadband penetration by 10 per cent can lift GDP growth by 1.2 per cent in developed countries and nearly 1.4 per cent in developing countries. That means direct implementation of broadband will not only help economies grow: it will assist the most marginalized people on the planet and save lives. ”Broadband will be vital to meet the most pressing humanitarian item on the international agenda, the UN Millennium Development Goals,” says Dr Touré. The MDGs were set up to alleviate poverty, improve healthcare, education and empowerment across the world, but in many cases the target date of 2015 may not be met without bringing the power of broadband into the equation.

The multi-faceted challenge

Getting broadband deployed widely is a complex and multi-faceted task – and one that has been a long-time focus of ITU. As a unique intergovernmental, multi-stakeholder organization, ITU has the political and technical breadth to address the policy, technological and economic issues that broadband brings:

  • Recognizing that broadband needs to be pushed to the top of government agendas in developed and developing countries alike, ITU teamed up with UNESCO to establish the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, drawing on the expertise of the world’s leading policymakers, technical gurus and entrepreneurs.

  • In standardization and radiocommunication, ITU has been active in developing the critical wired and wireless next generation technology standards that will shape the future broadband world, and has established an active dialogue with early adopters, such as groups involved in defining intelligent car and smart grid solutions.

  • In development, ITU has been proactive in providing training for policymakers, analyzing economic issues, establishing best practice for market deployments, and developing strategies to address the fundamental needs of connectivity in the Least Developed Countries.

  • ITU has pooled its own expertise, and works on a cross-sectoral basis to ensure the broadband world will be both secure and environmentally friendly.

What is broadband?

When ITU talks of ‘broadband’, the emphasis is indeed on the high speed of connection, but more importantly on what high-speed networks can deliver. Broadband means users having high-speed connectivity to engage in a wide range of applications and services, such as high quality videoconferencing, multimedia downloading, and telephony – often all at the same time.

At a nuts and bolts level, broadband will use not only wired networks with fibre optics and upgraded copper transmission lines, but also advanced ‘3G’ and IMT-Advanced ‘4G’ wireless networks. We’re likely to see complementary deployments, with wireless broadband covering rural areas and supporting nomadic users, while fixed broadband offers very high speeds and data volumes. And whether you’re accessing broadband via fixed or wireless networks, high capacity fibre-based infrastructure will be needed to support broadband wireless backhaul demands.


Why is broadband so special?

Applications such as e-education, e-health or smart grid are increasingly information ‘heavy’ and generate vast amounts of data exchange over the network. At the same time, an explosion in social networking – particularly involving video – means users demand increasingly more bandwidth. Broadband provides the huge capacity to do this, and can aggregate applications and data on a single network, cutting service costs dramatically.

Furthermore, broadband networks are often cheaper to deploy, operate and upgrade on a like-for-like basis than previous technology generations, and have very high green credentials compared with older technologies.


What will broadband do?

Authoritative analysis already suggests that broadband on a national scale can make a major impact on the delivery of education, health, energy and transport services. It is estimated that cost savings in these key sectors of just 0.5 per cent to 1.5 per cent over a decade would be enough to pay for a near-ubiquitous broadband fibre network.

  • Education –educators see high quality, multi-functional e-learning powered by broadband as the vital strategy for rapid training and relieving the pressure on physical school and college facilities around the world.

  • Health – broadband can empower individual doctors and nurses, community clinics and entire healthcare systems with the knowledge tools to combat preventable disease. In developed countries where demographics mean big prospective rises in elderly populations, broadband will enable remote monitoring and communication.

  • Transport, Energy and Environment – broadband will be a key component of so-called smart grid technologies in the future. Smart grids will optimize power generation and consumption meaning potentially huge cost savings in energy use. Already, broadband is being incorporated into national smart grid strategies in countries such as Australia, Korea (Rep. of) and the United States. Transport can be made more efficient and environmentally friendly with intelligent transport systems. The environment benefits, because waste and emissions are reduced through a move from physical goods to information goods and services, through more efficient networks and ICT equipment, and through substituting applications like videoconferencing and virtual collaboration tools for physical travel. 

  • E-governance – broadband may also change many aspects of the relationship citizens have to their governments. From passport and ID card applications, citizen benefit claims, to voting and accountability, e-governance could produce unprecedented societal benefits – and massive cost savings – as well as increase the efficiency and transparency of governments.


1 World Bank: Building broadband: Strategies and policies for the developing world

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Updated : 2010-09-17