Committed to connecting the world

PP-18 coneference

Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development

Speech by ITU Secretary-General, Houlin Zhao​

Spring Meeting : Opening Remarks

13 March 2016, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Distinguished colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen

It is a great pleasure to be with you here in Dubai for this spring meeting of the Broadband Commission.

I would like to express my warm thanks to my co-vice Chair, Irina Bokova. We are sorry that our co-Chairs President Paul Kagame and Carlos Slim could not be with us here today. They are both very busy with other commitments, and send their regrets, along with a message of strong continuing support for the Commission and its work – and we look forward to seeing them in New York in September.

Let me also express my sincere appreciation to our hosts, Sunny Varkey and his team, who have been fantastic in welcoming and supporting us all.

Distinguished colleagues,

2015 was a momentous year for the United Nations system. It was of course the seventieth anniversary of the UN, but more importantly it saw the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which expanded on the solid foundations laid down by the MDGs in the year 2000.

It is our shared conviction that today, more than ever before, broadband and ICTs offer large-scale opportunities to empower individuals, transform economies, and contribute to development. This is a view which I think we all share around this table.

The UN is now getting to grips with the detailed exercise of establishing how we are going to measure and monitor the SDGs, and I know many of us here are engaged and closely involved in that work.

Ladies and gentlemen,

These are also momentous times for the ICT industry. For a start, thanks in part to many of the players assembled here around this table, we are seeing an explosion in mobile broadband and 4G around the world. We are seeing significant, and accelerating momentum for the awards of 4G licenses by regulators and 4G network launches by operators.

Recently, joint tests by Telstra, Ericsson and Qualcomm offer realistic prospects of download and upload speeds of 1 Gbps speeds and 150Mbps commercially available over a mobile network by the end of this year. This development will smash the longstanding rough ratio between fixed and mobile network speeds of around 10:1.  This is a very exciting development, promising 'fixed'-like capacities and throughput over mobile access networks.

The potential for development could be enormous – just think of all the applications that could be made possible by expanding mobile access capacities in mbanking, mhealth or mlearning applications.

None of this will come cheaply, however.  And at our Special Session in Davos in January, the Broadband Commission published an estimate of a cost of US$450 billion dollars for connecting the next 1.5 billion people by 2020. Which is a very considerable sum of money, so obviously, governments and industry will have to work together in partnership to be able to fund and finance new and upgraded networks.

We should not be too preoccupied by transmission speeds, however. As I believe the work of the Broadband Commission has shown, the true potential of broadband for development does not lie in increased speeds, but rather the way broadband will change our approach and transform the ways in which we do things.

For example, how will health and education sectors adapt to the digital transition?  Most people would agree with doctors or nursing staff having access to confidential health files in the name of diagnosing and treating disease.  But what would happen if that information were leaked or shared intentionally with health insurance providers?  I know there was some discussion of that, in the Working Group meetings yesterday.

In the classroom, electronic teaching methods can be used to inform and educate and enhance learning. But at the same time, students may get distracted or derailed, and is there any evidence that digital learning methods can really replace teachers?  Most people would argue that ICTs can be used to enhance access to teachers, including remote access.  But can computers ever really replace or substitute – even partly – for person-to-person explanations to help overcome students' learning difficulties?

And that is also why I am very pleased to be here at the GEMS Forum to learn from the broader discussion about how we can transform our way of thinking, not just to accommodate digital technologies into existing ways of educating students, but how to ensure that real-world processes are redesigned to embrace and really integrate digital approaches.

Distinguished colleagues,

As this is a working meeting, we are expecting certain things from you, in addition to your insights and debate.

In particular, as the Commission's targets are now five years old, we would like to ask you for your inputs and insights with regards to modernizing and updating them, noting that over the past five years the targets have really helped highlight the Commission's work, and allowed us to measure the real progress that has been made.

I'd also like to note the recent launch of the US State Department's Global Connect initiative. I support this initiative to work together to connect the world, and I invite you to pledge your support individually, or as the full Commission for the April 14 meeting of the Global Connect initiative.  It could be good if we can find concrete ways to work together between this meeting and the NY BB Commission meeting in the fall, as there are undoubted synergies to be gained from a closer alliance between our two bodies.

Thank you – and let me conclude these brief remarks by wishing you all a very productive and fruitful meeting.