Committed to connecting the world

ICTs for a Sustainable World #ICT4SDG

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

Westminster Media Forum

2 September 2010, London, United Kingdom

A Future Built on Broadband

Cloud of words: broadband, countries, itu, networks, people, services, access,...


Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am here today to share with you my passion, as leader of the International Telecommunication Union, to Connect the World.

For those of you not familiar with ITU, we are the world’s oldest intergovernmental organization, and were recognized in 2002 by Booz Allen as one of the world’s 10 most enduring institutions.

Our roots are here in Europe, where we were set up over 145 years ago to connect the first telegraph systems across national borders.

But with the spread of telecommunications systems across the world, our remit quickly became truly global, and in 1947 we became the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies.

ITU is the organization that manages vital shared ICT resources – such as the international phone numbering system, the global allocation of radio frequency spectrum and satellite orbital resources, and the international standardization of communication technologies – so that all the world’s ICT systems can interconnect and talk to one another.

We’re also the organization with a mandate to ensure all the world’s people have access to the power of ICTs. In the past, that used to mean promoting fixed network access. Over the past ten years or so, it has increasingly meant mobile. And in the decade to come, I have no doubt whatsoever that it will mean broadband.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Is broadband really that important?

My answer is simple: for any country wishing to remain a major player in today’s global market place, it could not be more important!

Imagine trying to do any skilled work or apply for any skilled job in the modern world without a broadband connection. Imagine how difficult things would be for any of us here in the room here today without email or web access. No online shopping. No access to the vast wealth of information resources on the internet.

And this is just the very beginning.

We cannot predict how the development of the information society, built on broadband, will enrich the lives of everyone on the planet, but we can already see, as the second decade of the 21st century unfolds, that broadband is an extraordinary tool for social and economic development.

Indeed, it is perhaps the greatest opportunity we have ever known for human progress.

Because broadband is about much more than accessing the Web.

  • With broadband networks, health services can be delivered far more effectively to ageing or isolated populations.

  • With broadband networks, we can better educate the next generations of children, wherever they live.

  • 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, we can dramatically accelerate progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals, which are now just five years away.

My belief in the truly transformational power of this technology – which I believe will be at least as important as electricity in shaping our future – led me to spearhead the formation of the Broadband Commission for Digital Development earlier this year.

The Commission, which will deliver its outcome reports to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 19 September, just ahead of the opening of the UN Summit on the Millennium Development Goals, includes some of the brightest and most visionary minds of our age –  including Britain’s Richard Branson and WPP Chairman Martin Sorrell.

Distinguished guests,

Two things need to change if broadband is to become a ubiquitous resource for all the world’s people.

Firstly, governments need to raise broadband to the top of the agenda so that rollout is accelerated and the benefits are brought to as many people as possible.

In the UK, the government is taking a proactive role in defining a new broadband future for Britain. This is far-sighted, and laudable. But it is vital that Britain remains firmly focused on realizing the goal of getting everyone connected to the kinds of networks that will serve them well into the future.

It is only by achieving ubiquitous broadband coverage that the truly transformational power of broadband will be attained.

I believe the UK needs to dream big. Universal 2Mbps service can look rather modest when one considers the plans of some of your near neighbours. By 2015, when Britain aims to have two thirds of the population connected to fibre, Finland’s population will already be enjoying 100Mbps as a basic legal right. Belgium, Sweden and Luxembourg are advancing quickly with plans for near-ubiquitous Fibre-to-the-Home coverage.

Some emerging economies have been quick to recognize that broadband offers a chance to steal a march on competitors in the developed world. In Korea, for example, 50-100Mbps connections are already common. Other Asian countries are now looking to follow suit, using broadband as a powerful lever to shift the economic power balance.

In the Middle East, both the United Arab Emirates and Israel will have nationwide fibre-to-the-home networks in place within the next two years. Egyptian subscribers can now access 24Mbps packages. And in Africa, agile young economies like Rwanda are re-shaping themselves as prime outsourcing locations through the proactive deployment of high-speed connectivity.

Looking at metrics such as affordability and subscriber penetration, the UK is currently well-positioned, and actually boasts one of the most affordable broadband services in the world. What’s vital is that it does not squander this advantage, but capitalizes on it by defining a broadband vision that will keep it at the forefront of global markets.

Which brings me to my second main point. As the organization Committed to Connecting the World, ITU is an active champion of broadband access for all – even the world’s poorest communities. That means making broadband affordable everywhere, not just in rich countries like the UK.

Let me give you some dramatic figures from ITU’s ‘Measuring the Information Society 2010’ report.

In the report’s top 21 countries included in the fixed broadband Internet sub-basket – and that includes the UK – broadband subscriptions cost less than 1% of average monthly income.

At the other end of the scale, in the most expensive 28 countries in ITU’s list – most of which are UN-designated Least Developed Countries – a monthly broadband subscription costs over 100% of average monthly income.

What a terrible irony that is!

The people who can least afford access to broadband are being asked to pay the most, relative to their income.

Reversing this situation is clearly a moral imperative. But it’s also an economic one. Wealthy countries need to ensure the markets where they do business are also well-connected. That goes for the markets they hope to sell into – the booming BRIC economies, for example – and the markets they will increasingly rely on to provide outsourcing and offshoring services. So helping countries aboard the broadband bandwagon is a win-win for all.

Concerning affordability, there are grounds for optimism. ITU figures show that broadband prices worldwide dropped by 42% between 2008 and 2009, and broadband became more affordable in almost every market across the globe last year.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Broadband networks deliver benefits across society as a whole, delivering improvements in services and reductions in costs – particularly in sectors such as healthcare, education, energy and transport.

This means that they can quickly pay for themselves. Indeed, 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, can justify the entire cost of building national point-to-point, fibre optic networks.

Research also consistently shows that investment in any sort of ICTs has a direct positive effect on GDP growth – and that higher-end technologies, such as broadband networks, deliver the greatest benefits: a 10% increase in broadband penetration can boost GDP by an average of 1.3%.

How countries decide to finance these networks is a matter for each government to decide. There is no ideal model, and some form of partnership with the private sector will be fundamental to success. Rather, what IS indispensable is a national broadband vision.

I encourage you to think big, and to embrace Digital Britain as not just a challenge, but a major opportunity to excel and to stimulate strong and sustained economic growth long into the future.

Thank you.