Committed to connecting the world

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

CITEL: High-Level Forum

8 March 2010, Mexico City, Mexico



Cloud of words: broadband, ITU, networks, people, access, mobile, region... 

Distinguished colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to speak this morning about a subject which is very close to my heart: the future of ICTs, and in particular broadband networks – which to my mind are the future of ICTs.

I am absolutely convinced that the second decade of the 21st century – starting right now – will be the decade of broadband.

Without question, the past decade was the decade of mobile. By the end of this year, 2010, we will see the number of mobile cellular subscriptions worldwide surpass the five billion mark – having reached the first billion in 2002, the second in 2005, the third in early 2007 and the fourth in late 2008.

By the beginning of 2009, there were 750 million mobile cellular subscriptions in the Americas region alone, up from 300 million just five years earlier. Mobile cellular teledensity over the same period grew from 34% to 82%.

Many countries in the region now have mobile penetration rates of well over 100% – and some of the smallest nations boast mobile teledensities of over 150%.

Across the world, internet access has come hot on the heels of mobile, and within the next year or so there will be over two billion people on the planet using the internet.

Here in the Americas region, however, although there were over 420 million internet users in total by the beginning of 2009, over 60% of them were in the United States and Canada. That means that just one third of people in South America had internet access, compared to three quarters of the population in North America.

I am convinced that this gap will narrow dramatically over the coming decade – largely through the rapid growth and uptake of mobile broadband.

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.

This is particularly true in the Americas region, which has seen the number of fixed lines fall over the past five years, while the number of mobile and wireless connections has mushroomed.

So people will no longer be stuck at their desks, but being where they are most comfortable – in whichever room in the house, out in the fields, on trains and planes and in cars, with their friends, or alone looking up at the night sky.

They will be as connected as they want to be.

Today, however – at any rate for the vast majority of the world’s people – this is just a vision, and not a reality.

The internet may now be used by around a quarter of the world’s people, but that means three quarters still do not have access to the wealth of information and services which can be found online.

And when you look at broadband, the situation is even more dramatic – especially in the developing world, where access is still very limited, and usually extremely expensive, especially in terms of local salaries.

Ladies and gentlemen,

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.

First, we must recognise that today, access to broadband is limited primarily – especially in the developing world – by being prohibitively expensive.

Let me give you some figures from the ITU’s new report, ‘Measuring the Information Society 2010’ which was published just two weeks ago.

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

At the other end of the scale, however, in the bottom 28 countries in the list – most of which are LDCs – a monthly broadband subscription costs over 100% of average monthly income.

This is a terrible irony: that the people who can least afford it are being asked to pay the most.

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.

There is also increasing awareness around the world of the need for national broadband networks which can then deliver efficiencies across huge swathes of the economy, and bring tangible benefits to governments and their citizens alike.

Indeed, embracing broadband development will help drive growth and deliver benefits right across society and right across every industry sector.

This is important, because it means that suddenly broadband moves 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. Interestingly, 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%.

That’s an impressive amount – and which government wouldn’t leap at the chance to achieve such extra GDP growth, which comes with added social benefits too?
Distinguished colleagues,

The second reason is even more powerful than the first: broadband networks very quickly pay for themselves through the benefits that get delivered across society as a whole.

This makes them incredibly cost-effective – since broadband network rollout can effectively be financed by innovation and cost-savings in sectors such as health, education, energy and transport.

Recent estimates show that in some 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.

If we recognize that broadband networks deliver benefits at a national level, however, 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 – presidents and prime ministers for example – who have the national interests at heart and don’t work within any individual sector.

This applies just as much to developing countries as it does to developed ones – with a clear need for:

One: national broadband strategies and policies;

Two: meaningful broadband targets and goals; and

Three: putting in place the necessary incentives to achieve rapid broadband deployment.

We know this works.

At the turn of the millennium, the Republic of Korea  had a broadband penetration of just 1% – in other words, about the same as Paraguay or Suriname in this region at the beginning of last year, and far below where Mexico, say, is today.

To drive take-up, the government launched Cyber Korea 21, a programme offering affordable IT education to marginalized groups like housewives, the elderly, and the disabled.

Complementing this, Korea embarked on a wide-ranging e-government programme, investing US$ 24 billion in a national fibre backbone that provides more than 28,000 government departments and agencies with fast broadband access.

Today, Korea is one of the world’s most advanced broadband markets – standing well ahead of either the US or Canada, for example –  demonstrating the power of political will in bringing broadband to the people.

As many of you know, ITU will be holding its four-yearly World Telecommunication Development Conference in Hyderabad, India, at the end of May, and ahead of this we had Regional Preparatory Meetings in each region of the world.

It is particularly encouraging that one of the regional initiatives identified by the Regional Preparatory Meeting for the Americas region, held in Santa Marta, Colombia, last September, was “Broadband access and uptake in urban and rural areas”.

I am confident that there will be fruitful discussions around the issue of broadband at the WTDC, and that there will be a real opportunity to exchange ideas and formulate the right strategies for accelerating development across the region.

Although the ‘Agenda for Connectivity in the Americas’ has been a top political priority for almost a decade now, it has yet to assure broadband connectivity.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This is vital, because I am absolutely certain that broadband networks will play a transformational role in every country on earth in the 21st century. Much as the advent of transport, power or water networks transformed human life in past centuries.

Broadband is a true enabler – especially for governments and the people they serve.

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. These children are our future, and what we deliver to them in the coming years will affect the whole world.

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

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

For all these reasons – and more – the ITU has launched its ‘Build on Broadband’ initiative. Because if you build on broadband, everything else will follow.

This issue has captured the attention of the United Nations.  With only months to go before the 2010 MDG Summit, it is already clear that new and urgent work is needed to get the MDGs back on track.  In this context broadband is a uniquely powerful tool for enabling countries worldwide to lead forward a generation. 

Under the Chairmanship of Rwanda President Paul Kagame a Broadband Commission for Digital Development is being established.  I am pleased, together with Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, to be the Vice-chair of this important Commission. 

The commission will comprise an eminent group of global leaders from government, business, civil society and international organizations.  Its task is to define and deliver key criteria for scaling up and fast-tracking achievement of the MDG agenda on poverty, education, gender equality, health and environmental protection, all within the global partnership for development. 

The Commission will deliver its report to the UN SG in time for the MDG Summit in September.

I myself 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 of the world, in rich countries and poor, and in developed and developing nations.

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

This brings me onto a very important matter, and that is the need to take our most abundant natural resource – human brainpower – and to channel it in the right direction.

There is no sense in making technology available if people are not able to use it, and I am proud of the work ITU has done in capacity-building around the world, and particularly in this region.

Indeed, of the six Centres of Excellence ITU has established worldwide, it is the one in this region which is the most successful. It consists of a network of more than 20 nodes which now organize more than 30 courses a year – many of them in partnership with CITEL, and most of them delivered through e-learning.

Perhaps most encouraging of all is the fact that the Americas Centre of Excellence is already financially self-sustaining, and so its future is well-assured.

Distinguished colleagues,

All three sectors of the ITU are working to promote universal access to broadband. The Radiocommunication Sector in the next WRC in 2012 will look at mobile broadband. The Standardization sector as part of its core business is working to ensure the interoberability of these systems. In the Development Sector, many of the programmes are addressing this from different angles.

In closing, I would like to give you just two examples of the work ITU is doing that will not only increase access to broadband but at the same time bring down access costs.

One of our most exciting projects is the ITU Wireless Broadband Partnership, which is mobilizing key stakeholders to finance, plan, build, operate and maintain wireless broadband infrastructure within beneficiary countries.

We are already working with governments and other partners to identify specific areas to be covered within each participating country and to determine and mobilize the resources required for implementation.

One of the most important aspects of the partnership, in my view, is the recognition of the need to balance social and economic development aims with the need for investors and industry participants to see sufficient returns. Only then will the model be truly sustainable in the long term – and able to be widely replicated.

We are confident that there will be strong, positive, outcomes for the countries which participate in the Wireless Broadband Partnership. These include:

The deployment of wireless broadband infrastructure – including both backbone and access networks;

The development of a national ICT broadband network plan;

The training of local experts on the operation of the deployed network;

The development of ICT applications and services that will improve public services and create opportunities for sustainable economic growth and employment; and

Provision of low cost devices to expand ICT access – starting with laptops for schoolchildren in least developed countries.

Another flagship project which I think ITU can be rightly proud of is Connect a School, Connect a Community.

This is a new public-private partnership effort to promote broadband school connectivity to serve both students and the communities in which they live.

We all know that ICTs provide unprecedented opportunities to accelerate social and economic development – and as a result, communities which lack ICT access and know-how therefore risk being even further marginalized.

The problem is that providing individual or even household connectivity in rural and underserved areas is often too expensive to implement. The same is true when trying to serve disadvantaged and vulnerable groups within communities.

Smart policies and innovative public-private partnerships promoting community access through schools therefore represent an attractive, affordable and scalable alternative.

Connected schools have the potential to serve as community ICT centres to provide access to services for people in isolate, rural, and marginal urban areas – with a particular focus on groups such as women and girls, indigenous people, persons with disabilities, and youth and children.

Through Connect a School, Connect a Community, ITU is working with a range of partners to identify and compile best practices on polices, regulation, applications and services – as well as practical experiences to be shared with interested countries through the development of an online Toolkit and related capacity-building activities.

Initial content for the toolkit was developed as part of the ITU’s Americas Regional Initiatives in 2009, with particular reference to:

Connectivity in rural areas, marginal urban areas and isolated areas in the Americas region; and

Tthe design and implementation of policies and programmes for the large-scale development of broadband access.

We have also been developing a repository of training materials, applications and tools that can be used by connected schools and their community ICT centres. This includes in-depth training materials for people who have previously had little or no access to ICTs, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

We hope that the project will act as a ‘one-stop shop’, bringing together all best practices systematically, and holistically addressing all of the inter-related layers of the school connectivity ecosystem.

Ladies and gentlemen,

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.

That is my goal, as Secretary-General of the ITU, and it is a goal I shall continue to pursue, unwaveringly, as we move forward.

Thank you – and let me just say once more how much I look forward to seeing many of you here again in Mexico in October, at the ITU’s Plenipotentiary Conference in Guadalajara.