Committed to connecting the world

ICTs for a Sustainable World #ICT4SDG

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

Informática 2011

8 February 2011, Havana, Cuba

 Broadband: the key to accelerating progress towards the Millennium Development Goals

Distinguished colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,

At the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000, world leaders put forward a bold and brave challenge: nothing less than to end poverty around the globe.

The task was defined in a set of Millennium Development Goals, which have a target date of 2015 – which is now just four years away.

Can we reach the target? I believe that we have a very strong chance of doing so, if we harness the unique power of a technology that is revolutionizing our lives. I refer, of course, to broadband access to the Internet.

The eight Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, aim to:

Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger;

Achieve universal primary education;

Promote gender equality and empower women;

Reduce child mortality;

Improve maternal health;

Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases;

Ensure environmental sustainability; and

Develop a global partnership for development.

These goals cannot be separated from each other. For example, if you combat disease you also reduce child mortality; if you give every child at least a primary education, you promote gender equality. It is because all these goals are interlinked that broadband access to the Internet is so important.

But what does broadband really mean?

Even if you have a slow connection to the Internet, you are already at an advantage. With 56 kilobytes per second, you can send and receive email, and browse web pages – albeit slowly. Through mobile phones in particular, more and more people are using such links, especially in the developing world. It is not only a question of personal messages being exchanged, of course, but also of valuable information being accessible – such as farm prices, for example, or medical advice.

The next, giant step forward is broadband.

I do not want to define any particular speed for this kind of connection to the Internet — because speeds are constantly rising as technologies advance. Rather, broadband means connections that are ‘always on’, without the need to dial-up every time you want to go online. Broadband also means high-capacity networks that can deliver very large amounts of information simultaneously. As a result, they can deliver voice, data and video, all at the same time.

In practical terms, this leads to advanced services such as telemedicine, or to instant interaction with teachers and fellow students in a virtual online classroom.

For governments, businesses and individuals alike, the benefits are dramatic.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let’s look at the economic impact of broadband, and start by looking at economies as a whole. Many studies have pointed to positive returns from investment in broadband infrastructure. For example, research on behalf of the European Commission estimates that broadband can create more than two million jobs in Europe by 2015 1.

In China, every 10% increase in broadband penetration is seen as contributing an additional 2.5% to growth in GDP 2. In Thailand, where only 3% of households and 12% of individuals had access to broadband in 2010, it has nevertheless been forecast that broadband could add nearly 1% to the country’s GDP growth rate 3.

Moreover, the initial results of an analysis being conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (the OECD) suggest that the expansion of broadband will significantly boost labour productivity. The same conclusion was drawn in a study by management consultants, Booz and Company, in 2009, which also found that “countries in the top tier of broadband penetration have exhibited 2% higher GDP growth than countries in the bottom tier.” 4

In this region, research in 2009 concluded that deployment of broadband in Latin America could lead to the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs, both directly and indirectly 5. And a study in Brazil, also published in 2009, reported that broadband added up to 1.4% to the employment growth rate there 6.

So it is not surprising that, following the global financial crisis, many countries have included the expansion of broadband networks as crucial elements of their economic stimulus plans 7. In fact, as of the beginning of this year, more than 80 countries had formulated national plans for the deployment of broadband, aware that in the 21st century these networks have become essential infrastructure, just like electricity or water supplies.

In this respect, it is excellent to see that Cuba’s Internet connectivity is about to receive a huge boost, with the scheduled arrival this month of the Alba-1 submarine cable from Venezuela.

As I said during my opening remarks yesterday afternoon, this will propel Cuba into the broadband era, by moving from slow and expensive satellite links to ultra-fast broadband, and enabling state enterprises to work more efficiently to communicate between themselves and to deliver improved services to the people of Cuba.

But what of the specific relationship between broadband and the Millennium Development Goals?

To elaborate further, I would like to divide the goals into three broad areas: education, health, and the environment.

Distinguished colleagues,

Looking at education first, around 90% of children in the developing world are now enrolled in primary school. However, in some regions – and notably sub-Saharan Africa – up to 30% of children drop out of primary education before their final year 8. At the same time, demand from those who continue is putting pressure on the next step in the system: secondary school.

Broadband offers a solution for providing education in developing and developed countries alike. These networks can deliver information straight to the classroom, thus helping to level the playing field for everyone.

Online training is also easing the worldwide shortage of qualified teachers. UNESCO estimates that as many as 10 million additional teachers will be needed globally by 2015 9. Many countries are already actively pursuing an intensive programme of teacher training via the Internet, but more needs to be done, particularly in the developing world.

A wonderful example at the primary school level can be found in Uruguay, where every child has been provided with a laptop and Internet access at school. The total expense of the government’s ‘Ceibal’ project, completed in October 2009, came to less than 5% of the national education budget. But the ‘connected’ children are likely to reap tremendous educational rewards, and will also almost certainly go on to better jobs and careers than would otherwise have been the case.

Public-private partnerships can be designed not only for students but also for the communities in which they live. And they achieve a great deal in accelerating progress towards bridging the broadband divide. I am proud to say that the ITU is targeting this area with its ‘Connect a School, Connect a Community’ initiative. A school becomes the hub for everyone in the surrounding area, as well as the pupils themselves.

Using broadband to advance universal primary education does not need to be limited to children, but can also include men and women who might never have had the chance to attend school, or to complete their education – including people with disabilities.

In addition to Internet access at schools and other places, mobile devices are becoming more common as tools for e-education, now that they are being used by billions of people around the world.

In late 2009, for example, a partnership between Ericsson and the Indira Gandhi National Open University was formed to allow two-and-a-half million students from India and 34 other countries to download courses from the university to their mobile phones via a 3G network.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Looking now at health, the MDGs aim in particular at improving child and maternal health, and at eradicating such diseases as malaria and AIDS – and there is no doubt that broadband is a powerful tool for achieving these aims. It can also do so much more to support health services in every field and in every country.

To give you a concrete example, more than half-a-million women die every year as a result of complications in pregnancy and childbirth, almost all of them in the developing world .

The majority of these deaths are preventable. However, in Africa and South Asia, fewer than half of all births are attended by a midwife or skilled health worker. Lack of access to health services is particularly acute for women in remote parts of the countryside.

Of course, there is no substitute for a healthcare professional being present with the mother and baby, but broadband is helping to train those professionals and to provide parents with advice that protects health – and indeed lives.

High-speed Internet connections permit health workers who are based outside major centres to receive quality training, and to exchange experience and information through videoconferencing and online discussion forums. Mobile phones or computers linked to broadband networks enable health workers to access online patient records and to transmit data to regional hospitals. Remote diagnosis and specialist advice can be obtained from those hospitals by the same route.

And there is an important and growing role for community centres equipped with broadband to deliver essential health information. They can provide easier access to advice on family planning, for instance, as well as hygiene and other health issues, including materials in local languages. Expectant and new mothers can get better information about childbirth and learn about preventing disease for themselves and their children.

Telemedicine, as it is sometimes known, is becoming ever-more widely used in developed countries too. Through broadband, a patient wearing a heart monitor, for instance, can send regular data to their doctor. Elderly people can be supported while they continue to live at home, rather than having to go into hospital.

According to the World Health Organization, because of rising and, in many places, ageing populations, in future it will not be possible to sustain adequate levels of medical care without many more services and personnel being made available.

Broadband will play an essential role in delivering them.

Distinguished colleagues,

We must now turn to the environment, because none of the things we have discussed so far – education, health, the empowerment of women and the development of communities in general – can be sustained if the environment is not safe and stable.

The Millennium Development Goal on ensuring environmental sustainability spans a wide range of targets, from the provision of safe drinking water and basic sanitation, to protecting biodiversity and improving the lives of slum-dwellers.

In many of these areas, broadband networks are a vital link. They can, for example, swiftly transmit information from ground sensors or satellites to monitor the effects of climate change or impending natural disasters such as drought or floods. They can provide early warning systems, and when disasters do strike, they can play a vital role in supporting emergency communications and medical assistance.

Wireless broadband in particular provides a platform for reliable communications in natural disasters, when terrestrial communications are often damaged or destroyed. Finally, by making it easier to track changes or damage to the environment, broadband networks can help policy-makers devise protection strategies and make more efficient use of resources.

A clear example of that increased efficiency in using resources comes in the case of so-called ‘smart’ electricity grids that use broadband for monitoring and control. Smart grids allow electricity companies to limit losses, prevent outages, and provide customers with real-time information for managing their own energy use at work or at home. In addition, smart grids make it easier for locally-generated electricity (including from renewable sources) to be integrated, stored and shared as demand fluctuates across the grid.

Big savings can be made in this way – both financially, and in reducing the impact of electricity generation on the environment. What is more, smart grids can also be used to deliver broadband connectivity itself, along with power supplies.

There is nobody who cannot benefit from the better management of resources through broadband, and there are many other ways in which these networks help in daily life.

Farmers and fishermen, for example, can already receive weather forecasts directly on their mobile phones; broadband gives more power to these systems, by supporting better modelling of weather patterns and faster sharing of data. In addition, information on sustainable farming techniques can be sent directly to where it is needed.

Working lives are being changed through broadband. The need to travel to an office (and the pollution caused by transport) is reduced by videoconferencing or working at home via a computer. Innovative projects are also improving the lives of slum-dwellers – for example in Brazil, India and Kenya – through providing access to employment and training.

Broadband access to the Internet gives small businesses everywhere the opportunity to participate in e-commerce. Broadband can also give a voice to less wealthy communities, which can benefit enormously from sharing experience of what works and learning from others –which help to empower people in improving their own lives.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I have talked about the Millennium Development Goals in terms of education, health and achieving a sustainable environment. The eighth and final goal is to ‘develop a global partnership for development’. It is, perhaps, the most fundamental of all the goals, because it enables progress towards all the goals.

Developing such a global partnership is a basic element of our work at ITU, with our mission is to connect the world. And because we understand the incredible potential of broadband, we launched a major initiative in May last year, together with UNESCO, to push forward progress in expanding these networks.

The Broadband Commission for Digital Development comprises more than fifty commissioners – all top-level leaders in their field, representing governments, industry, academia and international agencies. The Commission is co-chaired by Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, and Carlos Slim Helú, the Honorary Lifetime Chairman of Grupo Carso. Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director-General, and myself, serve as co-vice-chairs.

The Commission has defined a vision for accelerating the deployment of broadband networks worldwide, with the aim of improving the delivery of services across a huge range of social and business sectors, and accelerating progress towards the MDGs.

The Commission presented its first report to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in September last year, ahead of the MDG Summit in New York. The report includes top-level recommendations designed to serve as a global blueprint for rapid broadband development worldwide.

A second, more detailed, report will be published soon, analyzing the challenges and opportunities in deploying broadband across a range of different types of economies. It takes into account local needs, financing constraints and technical hurdles, and makes practical proposals on routes towards deployment of ubiquitous high-speed networks at affordable prices in every country, at every stage of development.

Working groups have been set up among commissioners to look at particular areas, such as education, e-government and climate change. The Broadband Commission intends to continue its activities right up to the 2015 target date for the Millennium Development Goals.

Distinguished colleagues,

We have only four years to go before then. But it is highly significant that, among all the MDG targets, the most advanced is the one involving ICTs. As I said earlier, the MDGs are all closely interlinked, and – if deployment is approached in a coordinated manner –broadband will help enormously in making those links even stronger, and in creating scalable projects that can be repeated in many places.

As the technical and policy debates on broadband deployment unfold, it is essential that both developed and developing counties take a seat at the table to ensure that this powerful new tool is made as widely available as possible.

Broadband access to the Internet holds the promise of breaking infrastructure bottlenecks and short-circuiting the traditional development cycle. These networks have the potential to make the best of knowledge that can be shared instantaneously across the globe.

In short, broadband offers the possibility of unleashing the full potential of individuals and communities everywhere.

Let me conclude therefore by urging global collaboration on establishing broadband networks and hastening our progress towards the MDGs.

Broadband networks must be embraced everywhere for the public good — and the sooner the better.

Ubiquitous broadband is a big idea whose time has come. 

Thank you.

1 MICUS, Management Consulting GmbH “The Impact of Broadband on Growth and Productivity” (2010)

2 Value Partners “Broadband in China: Accelerate Development to Serve the Public” (2009)

3 Craig Warren Smith, Chulalongkorn University “Broadband Thailand 2015” (2010)

4 Booz & Company “Digital Highways: The Role of Governments in 21st Century Infrastructure (2009)

5 Columbia University, ACAD “Estimating Broadband Demand and its Economic Impact in Latin America” (2009)

6 The Multilateral Investment Fund, Inter‐American Development Bank “Economic Development and Inclusion through Local Broadband Access Networks” (2009)

7 ITU “Confronting the crisis: ICT stimulus plans for economic growth” (2009)`

8 UN “The Millennium Development Goals Report 2010”

9  ITU “World Telecommunication/ICT Development Report 2010”