Committed to connecting the world

ICTs for a Sustainable World #ICT4SDG

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

CommNexus Event

11 March 2010, San Diego, USA



Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be with you here in San Diego this evening and to be able to take part in this CommNexus event.

The title of my talk today is ‘The Future is Broadband’.

Sitting here in one of the most networked and connected cities on earth, that may seem a bit strange – but I will explain…

Here in California, and around the world today, information and communication technologies – ICTs – are now virtually ubiquitous.

Cloud of words: broadband, networks, people, countries, national, mobile, benefits...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.

As the Secretary-General of the ITU – which is ‘committed to connecting the world’ – this obviously means a great deal to me.

Indeed, we are well on the way towards meeting our goal – and more specifically of achieving the target of connecting the unconnected by 2015.

So – is ITU’s mission nearly complete? Will I soon be able to pack up my office and look for a new job?

Not anytime soon!

Because as everyone here in this room knows, simple connectivity is no longer enough.

Can you imagine trying to apply for any kind of skilled job here in San Diego without a fast, always-on internet connection? Can you imagine what it would be like if you suddenly couldn’t do your shopping online any more? Or if you didn’t have easy access to your email or a web browser?

In places like Geneva and California we take these services for granted – and indeed for most of us they have quickly moved from being a luxury to being a necessity.

But even here in the United States there are still many people without access to broadband – and all the benefits it can deliver.

I am therefore very encouraged to see the efforts being made by the US government to fund the expansion of America’s broadband network to help better serve rural areas and needy communities.

And of course in parallel to any government efforts we will see enormous growth in wireless and mobile broadband networks across America over the coming years, as the industry responds to public demand for ever-greater bandwidth and functionality.

Recent estimates suggest that by 2013, 95% of American households will have broadband access speeds of 5Mbps or greater – either through wireless or wireline connections.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Access to broadband is not just a question of it being available, of course, but also of it being affordable.

Let me give you some dramatic figures from the ITU’s new report, ‘Measuring the Information Society 2010’, which was published just a couple of 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 average monthly income – and under 3% of average monthly income in a further 22 countries.

Here in America, broadband access is among the cheapest in the world, costing just 0.5% of average monthly income.

This is a very far cry from the other end of the scale, where in the most expensive 28 countries in ITU’s list – most of which are UN-designated Least Developed Countries, LDCs – a monthly broadband subscription costs over 100% of average monthly income.

Think what a terrible irony that is – that the people who can least afford access to broadband are being asked to pay the most, relative to their income.

Even in absolute terms, the contrast is shocking. Here in America, broadband costs – on average – 20 dollars a month. But in 23 countries on our list, a broadband subscription costs over 100 dollars a month.

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.

This is both encouraging and important.

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

Distinguished colleagues,

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.

That may seem like an exaggerated claim, given what I was just saying about affordability – or the lack of it – in many parts of the world today.

But this all changes, once we recognize that embracing broadband development helps drive growth and delivers benefits right across society – and right across every industry sector.

This is important, because it means that suddenly broadband can move 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%.

And secondly, broadband networks can very quickly pay for themselves through the benefits that get delivered across society as a whole. This means that broadband network rollout could be financed by innovation and cost-savings in sectors such as health, education, energy and transport.

Recent 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, could justify the cost of building national point-to-point, fibre optic networks.

In Australia, it has been estimated that cost savings in healthcare alone could pay for Australia’s National Broadband Network twice over.

Or take energy – a resource which will become ever more precious as this century unfolds. Today, almost a third of all energy is simply wasted, through a lack of smart grids and an advanced ICT infrastructure. The potential savings are enormous.

But if we recognize that broadband networks deliver benefits at a national level, 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 also means understanding that broadband networks are national infrastructure – just like roads, railways or water systems. And that there needs to be some kind of structural separation between infrastructure and the services that are delivered over that infrastructure.

This approach applies just as much to developing countries as it does to developed ones – with a clear need for national broadband strategies and policies; meaningful broadband targets and goals; and putting in place the necessary incentives to achieve rapid broadband deployment.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Broadband is a true enabler.

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. With wireless and mobile networks we can reach out to them wherever they are.

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.

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.

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, in rich countries and poor, and in developed and developing nations.

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

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.

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 will have the freedom to be wherever they are most comfortable – in whichever room in the house, out at the beach, on trains and planes and in cars, with their friends or family, or on their own.

They will be as connected as they want to be.

And perhaps then my job will be done, and I can pack up my office, and look for a new challenge.
Thank you.