Committed to connecting the world

ICTs for a Sustainable World #ICT4SDG

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

Infocomm Development Authority

8 June 2010, Singapore




Cloud of words: Broadband, Singapore, countries, mobile, people...


Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be with you here in Singapore today and to be able to take part in the IDA ‘Distinguished Infocomm Speaker’ event.

The title of my talk today is ‘Broadband Paving the Way’.

And what better example could we look at than Singapore, one of the most networked and connected cities on earth?

Looking at the IDA’s excellent website, I see that the mobile population penetration rate reached 138% in March this year, and that Singaporeans sent an astonishing 2.2 billion text messages that month. That’s three million SMS messages every hour.

Even more extraordinary for me was to see that the household broadband penetration rate here in Singapore reached 158% in March – and still continues to grow. The number of fixed broadband subscriptions now stands at well over a million, and there are over five million wireless broadband subscriptions.

So much for the extraordinary numbers here in Singapore, but is broadband really so very important?

Isn’t it enough that almost 90% of the world’s population now has mobile phone coverage? That over half of households in many developing countries now have a mobile phone? That we will surpass five billion mobile cellular subscriptions worldwide in 2010?

No, it’s not enough.

And yes, broadband really is that important!

Ladies and gentlemen,

In places like Geneva and Singapore, it’s easy to forget how much we now take broadband services for granted.

But can you imagine trying to apply for any kind of skilled job today without a fast, always-on internet connection? Can you imagine what it would be like if you suddenly couldn’t do your shopping online? Or if you couldn’t check the weather forecast at the touch of a button? Or if you couldn’t access email?

What seemed like a luxury not so very long ago has very quickly become a necessity, for all of us here today. And it has been interesting during the worst moments of the financial crisis to notice that we have not seen people giving up broadband access. Indeed, quite the opposite.

It is therefore encouraging to see governments around the world following Singapore’s excellent example and developing national broadband network strategies. Indeed, hardly a day goes by without us hearing of new national broadband plans in both the developed and the developing world.

While this is of course very important, we must remember that it is not just a question of broadband being available, but also of it being affordable.

And here, I am afraid, we still have very far to go. Indeed, it is arguably the single biggest brake holding back widespread broadband access on a global basis.

Let me give you some dramatic figures from ITU’s ‘Measuring the Information Society 2010’ report, which was published in March.

In the top 21 countries included in the fixed broadband Internet sub-basket, published in the report, broadband subscriptions cost less than 1% of average monthly income – and under 3% of average monthly income in a further 22 countries.

Here in Singapore, broadband access is among the most affordable in the world, costing just 0.6% of average monthly income in 2009, down from 0.8% in 2008.

This is a very far cry from the other end of the scale, where in the most expensive 28 countries in ITU’s list – most of which are UN-designated Least Developed Countries, LDCs – a monthly broadband subscription costs over 100% of average monthly income.

Think what a terrible irony that is – that the people who can least afford access to broadband are being asked to pay the most, relative to their income.

Even in absolute terms, the contrast is shocking. Here in Singapore, broadband access cost an average of 17 US dollars per month in 2009. But in 23 countries on our list, a broadband subscription cost over 100 US dollars a month.

That said, however, there is some really good news in the report: almost every country that ITU measures is now seeing the cost of broadband falling sharply – and we saw a drop of 42% in broadband prices globally in the year between the 2009 and 2010 reports being published.

This is both encouraging and important.

And it leads me to believe that the second decade of the 21st century – starting right now – can be the decade of broadband.

Distinguished guests,

I see this as perhaps the greatest opportunity we have ever known for human progress.

Because we now have within our grasp both the power and the means to deliver broadband access to everyone. Affordable, equitable access to ubiquitous broadband networks.

That may seem like an exaggerated claim, given what I was just saying about affordability – or the lack of it – in many parts of the world today.

But this all changes, once we recognize that embracing broadband development helps drive growth and delivers benefits right across society – and right across every industry sector.

This is important – as you know all too well in Singapore – because it means that suddenly broadband can move off the telecoms agenda and onto the national agenda. And that means that national broadband network rollout becomes economically viable – for two main reasons.

Firstly, research consistently shows that investment in any sort of ICTs has a direct positive effect on GDP growth. Higher-end technologies – such as broadband networks – have been shown to deliver the greatest benefits.

A 10% increase in fixed line teledensity seems to increase GDP by around 0.5%. The same increase in mobile teledensity increases GDP by some 0.7 percentage points. And a 10% increase in broadband penetration can boost GDP by an average of 1.3%.

And secondly, broadband networks can very quickly pay for themselves through the benefits that get delivered across society as a whole. This means that broadband network rollout could be financed by innovation and cost-savings in sectors such as health, education, energy and transport.

Recent estimates show that in most developed countries, cost savings of just 0.5% to 1.5% over ten years, in these four key sectors alone, could justify the cost of building national point-to-point, fibre optic networks.

In Australia, it has been estimated that cost savings in healthcare alone could pay for Australia’s National Broadband Network twice over.

Or take energy – a resource which will become ever more precious as this century unfolds. Today, almost a third of all energy is simply wasted, through a lack of smart grids and an advanced ICT infrastructure. The potential savings are enormous.

But if we recognize that broadband networks deliver benefits at a national level, then we must also recognize that strong national policies will be needed to get other sectors involved in planning – and paying for – broadband infrastructure.

This vision needs to be driven by leaders at the very highest level, who have the national interests at heart and don’t work within any individual sector.

It also means understanding that broadband networks are national infrastructure – just like roads, railways or water systems. And that there needs to be some kind of structural separation between infrastructure and the services that are delivered over that infrastructure.

Not only do the right regulatory frameworks need to be put into place,  but the private sector needs the right incentives to partner with the public sector, in designing, building and operating national broadband networks.

This will require well-structured partnership arrangements, and a strong combination of cooperation and trust between government and industry – and I’m sure that many countries will look to Singapore’s singularly successful broadband implementation as a good example of how it can be done.

I have tremendous faith that the public and private sectors will work together to invest in, and to roll-out, the necessary infrastructure. They did this so well in the creation of mobile cellular networks around the world, and I expect to see the pattern repeated for broadband.

I am also convinced that in partnership, they will also help create the necessary services that people need, and that we will quickly see enriched content developed and created that will stimulate demand.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I hardly need to spell out the arguments in favour of broadband to anyone here in Singapore, but it is worth remembering just how much of an enabler broadband is, and will be – especially in the developing world, and in countries with large rural and remote populations.

With broadband networks, health services can be delivered far more effectively to ageing or isolated populations. Remote monitoring of patients, for example, has proven to be far more effective than bringing people in to clinics or hospitals.

With broadband networks, we can better educate the next generations of children, wherever they live. With wireless and mobile networks we can reach out to them wherever they are.

With broadband networks, traffic networks can be streamlined, government services can be delivered more efficiently, and energy supplies can be properly monitored, controlled and conserved.

With broadband networks, we can create the right environment for applications like mobile banking, which can improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

With broadband networks we can help to ensure environmental sustainability and help to manage and mitigate climate change.

And with broadband networks, progress can be accelerated towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals.

Indeed, on that last point, I think it’s fair to say that without broadband networks I honestly don’t see how we can make the rapid progress we need to make towards the MDGs.

To reinforce this message, and to raise the profile of this vital issue, ITU and UNESCO launched the Broadband Commission for Digital Development in Geneva, just four weeks ago.

The Commission is chaired by President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Carlos Slim Helú, Honorary Lifetime Chairman of Grupo Carso, and Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, and myself are the vice-chairs. We will be reporting to the UN MDG Summit in September with a set of clear recommendations for broadband development.

We are delighted to have around thirty very high-level commissioners from government, industry and civil society from all corners of the globe – including IDA’s Director General of Telecoms and Post, Mr Leong Keng Thai.

We look forward to presenting the Commission’s final report to the UN MDG Summit in New York in September.
Distinguished colleagues,

Those of you who know me will know that I am by nature an optimist – and I firmly believe that we will see extraordinary success stories around the world during this decade; the decade of broadband.

We will see broadband successes in every region, in rich countries and poor, and in developed and developing nations.

We will see broadband successes wherever we find human ingenuity, and the will to build a better world.

I truly believe that we are at the dawn of a new era, an era of unprecedented connectivity, and an era where all the world’s people will have access to the wealth of riches available online – just as great majority of the people of Singapore already do today.

As mobile devices become smarter and cheaper, and as internet bandwidth increases, and access costs fall, we will see more and more people accessing web-based services wherever and whenever they want.

So people will no longer be stuck at their desks, but will have the freedom to be wherever they are most comfortable – in whichever room in the house, out at the beach, on trains and planes and in cars, with their friends or family, or on their own.

They will be as connected as they want to be.

And I look forward to playing my part in the coming years by helping to create a world where ICTs improve life for all the world’s people, and for future generations.

Thank you.