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

CommunicAsia 2011

Broadband in Asia – Challenges & Trends

22 June 2011, Singapore

Distinguished guests,
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, the MDGs, which have a target date of 2015.

That is just four years away. Can we achieve the MDGs by then? Personally, I believe that our only real chance of doing so depends on us harnessing the unique power of a technology that is revolutionizing our lives, and which has been recognized as a key focus for CommunicAsia this year.

I am referring, of course, to broadband.

By constructing next-generation networks, Asia will continue its progress towards breaking the cycle of poverty, while continuing to enhance the lifestyles and the economic opportunities of people right across the region.

The Asia-Pacific region has seen considerable growth in broadband, and it has recorded the world’s highest numbers of mobile broadband subscriptions.

But let’s not forget that Asia has a huge population. Despite the large number of subscriptions, by the end of 2010, ITU statistics show that broadband penetration rates in the region had reached just 7.1% for mobile broadband and 5.7% for fixed broadband.

And of course there are huge variations among countries in the Asia-Pacific region, from major economies to small island developing states.

Among the countries in the world with the highest penetration of fibre-to-the-home – or building-plus-LAN-penetration – we find the Republic of Korea, Japan, China and Singapore.

Economies such as these are spearheading the expansion of next-generation networks, and will be the first to leverage the full benefits of broadband for social and economic development.

Japan has been a pioneer in creating broadband networks, as well as in new technologies such as near field communications and ‘mobile wallets’. Following the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in March, Japan also provided an example of how vital broadband is in emergency communications, and in the sharing of information among disaster victims.

China is now the world leader in terms of Internet users, and is witnessing an increasingly rapid development of Internet businesses. The government is encouraging this through projects such as Government Online, Enterprise Online, and Family Online.

Another interesting example in this region is Australia, which is in the process of creating a National Broadband Network that will offer high-speed Internet access to all homes, schools and businesses – even those in the most remote locations.

I was pleased to hear more about this ambitious project from the Australian Minister of Communications, Senator Stephen Conroy, who played an active role in the most recent meeting of the Broadband Commission for Digital Development in Paris earlier this month.

Like Mr Leong Keng Thai, of Singapore’s Infocomm Development Authority, Senator Conroy is one of our Broadband Commissioners, and we are delighted with the advocacy role that each of the fifty commissioners is playing in getting the broadband message out.

Here in Singapore, of course, you have your ‘Next Gen NBN’ project, a ‘fibre-to-anywhere’ implementation which falls within Singapore’s ‘Intelligent Nation 2015 ICT master plan’. The deployment of the network began in 2009, and is on track to cover almost all premises across Singapore by 2012 – and I must say it is a remarkable achievement, and to be commended.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me remind you of the eight MDGs for a moment, which aim to:
  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women
  4. Reduce child mortality
  5. Improve maternal health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability, and
  8. Develop a global partnership for development.

These eight goals cannot of course be separated from each other. If you combat disease, for example, you also reduce child mortality; and if you give every child at least a primary education, you promote gender equality.

It is because these goals are all interlinked that broadband access to the Internet is so important.

Let’s start by looking at economies as a whole. Many studies have pointed to positive returns from investment in broadband infrastructure. For example, in China, every 10% increase in broadband penetration is seen as contributing an additional 2.5% to GDP growth.

So it is not surprising that many countries included the expansion of broadband networks as crucial elements of their economic stimulus plans, following the global financial crisis. They understood that these networks have become essential infrastructure, just like roads or power grids.

But what of the specific relationship between broadband and the MDGs?

Looking at education first: in some regions up to 30% of children drop out of primary school before they finish. Broadband offers a solution, allowing information to be delivered to the classroom, enabling interactivity and helping to level the playing field for everyone.

Online training is also easing the shortage of qualified teachers – with UNESCO estimating that as many as 10 million additional teachers will be needed globally by 2015.

Broadband can help not only students, but also the communities in which they live. I am proud to say that the ITU is targeting this area with our ‘Connect a School, Connect a Community’ initiative, where a school becomes the hub for everyone in the surrounding area, as well as the pupils themselves.

And using broadband does not need to be limited to children. It can also include adults who might never have had the chance to complete their education, including people with disabilities.
Distinguished colleagues,

There is also no doubt that broadband is a powerful tool for achieving the MDGs relating to health.

To give you a concrete example, more than half-a-million women die every year as a result of complications in pregnancy and childbirth. Most of these deaths are preventable – yet in Africa and South Asia, fewer than half of all births are attended by a health worker.

Broadband is helping to train professionals and to provide parents with advice. In addition, health workers can use mobile devices to access patient records and transmit data to regional hospitals, which can then provide remote diagnoses.

Telemedicine is becoming more and 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 helped to stay living at home, rather than having to go into care.

Indeed, according to the World Health Organization, because of rising and, in many places, ageing populations, 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.

Education, health, the empowerment of women and the development of communities in general – none of this can be sustained without a safe and stable environment.

The MDG on environmental sustainability spans a wide range of targets, from the provision of safe drinking water and basic sanitation, to protecting biodiversity.

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 as I mentioned earlier, support emergency communications and medical assistance when disaster strikes.

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 comes in the case of ‘smart’ electricity grids that allow energy suppliers to limit losses, prevent outages, and provide customers with real-time information for managing their own energy use.

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

Ladies and gentlemen,

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.

Broadband access to the Internet gives small businesses everywhere the opportunity to participate in e-commerce. Perhaps most importantly, broadband can give a voice to less wealthy communities, which are sometimes excluded from the political process.

Sharing experience of what works, learning from others and changing people’s expectations are all part of empowering people to improve their own lives.

The eighth and final MDG is to ‘develop a global partnership for development.’ It is, perhaps, the most fundamental, because it is the best way in which we can make progress towards all the others.

Developing such a global partnership is a fundamental part of ITU’s mission. And because we understand the amazing potential of broadband, we launched the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, which I mentioned earlier, in conjunction with UNESCO, last year.

The Broadband Commissioners are all top-level leaders in their field, representing governments, industry, academia and international agencies.

They have 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.

Our second, much more detailed, report, ‘Broadband: a Platform for Progress’, was launched at the Paris meeting of the Commission earlier this month.

The report analyses the challenges and opportunities in deploying broadband. It takes into account local needs, financing constraints and technical hurdles. And it 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 focus areas, such as education, health, public-private partnerships and youth. The Broadband Commission intends to continue its activities right up to the 2015 target date for the MDGs.

Distinguished colleagues,

We have only four years to go before then. But, as I have said, all the goals are closely interlinked.

If the deployment of broadband is approached in a coordinated manner, it is one of the most powerful tools we have for achieving our aims.

Broadband access to the Internet holds the promise of making the best of knowledge that can be shared instantaneously across the globe. In short, broadband networks offer the possibility of unleashing the full potential of individuals and communities everywhere – in Asia and across the world.

Thank you.