ITU Is Worried About High Cost of Broadband in Africa*

Technological advancements may have been achieved in leaps and bounds in recent times beyond expectations. But the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations specialised agency for the Information and Communications Technology industry, is disturbed that regions such as Africa still lack access to broadband, and where available it remains too expensive. Ahead of the  ITU Telecom World 2016 in Bangkok, Thailand on  November 14, the ITU Secretary-General, Houlin Zhao, gave a rare interview to MKPE ABANG for IT & Telecom Digest ahead of the event, and responded to many interesting questions. Excerpts:

Question: After 151 years of existence, what will you describe as the key achievements of ITU especially in the current world order?

In our 151 years on the international stage, ITU set the technical and regulatory standards that have made the world far more inter-connected than at any time in human history. In practical and important ways, information and communications technologies (ICTs) supported by ITU are transforming peoples’ lives by improving their environments and adding value to existing public services. ICTs today play a transformative role in securing a sustainable and energy efficient future and will be a frontline tool in the fight against climate change, social and economic inequality and conflict. Furthermore, the standardisation work that ITU carries out, as well as the spectrum harmonisation, contributes to a world where access to technology is more affordable and widespread and where businesses can become more competitive through scaled up competition and greater market access. These are just some of the on-going socio-economic benefits that result from the combined efforts of the ITU’s diverse membership of governments, regulators, private sector, civil society and academia.

ITU says it is committed to connecting all the world’s people – wherever they live and whatever their means.’ How true is this commitment with regards to some of the poorest peoples of the world, including rural Africa and war-torn zones?

Commitment to connecting the least connected communities in the world is deep in ITU’s DNA. ITU provides the world’s leading information platform to facilitate collaboration between African leaders and ICT ministries and companies from around the world. A key part of my role is to work with ITU’s membership in industrialised countries, and our private sector members in particular, to stress not just the urgent need, but the immense opportunity, the world has to bring the poorest peoples of the world online.

Various forms of financing can be provided to countries in special need for the development of new rural connectivity infrastructure, upgrading old systems and developing the human capacity needed to sustain and maintain these increasingly important utilities. This assistance also includes the design and review of early warning and emergency telecommunications plans and the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

Technology’s greatest strength has always been its ability to solve problems and to help individuals tackle the most pressing needs of their communities. We need to prioritise bringing the world of knowledge to the 3.9 billion disadvantaged people that are currently without a broadband connection, so that they too will be empowered to take advantage of the problem-solving tools they are currently excluded from. They will then be in a better position to carve out a more prosperous and positive future for themselves and their communities.

What are the fundamental obstacles that the ITU faces in delivering on its mandate to all parts of the world?

One of ITU’s key areas of focus is to bring about a fully connected world by supporting access to broadband for all, in a universal and affordable way. The main obstacles to this include:
Access to ICT infrastructure: According to the latest ITU estimates, there will be 3.5 billion people online by the end of 2016, but more than half of the world’s population (some 3.9 billion people) will still be offline and unable to connect regularly, if at all. But in the 48 UN-designated Least Developed Countries (LDCs), only around one in seven people will be online at the end of 2016. Pushing basic connectivity out beyond major urban centres to more rural and remote areas continues to prove a major challenge. Significant investments are therefore needed to build the necessary networks and services to expand access to broadband for all.

Affordability of broadband services: Broadband still remains unaffordable in much of the developing world. According to our latest price research, a monthly fixed broadband package cost 1.7% of average income in developed countries, compared with 31% of average income in developing countries, and 64% of average income in Africa. Measures should be considered to make broadband more affordable.

Relevance of ICTs/skills: Even where people have access to the Internet, a significant obstacle in several parts of the world is that this access is not accompanied by a range of relevant services nor localised content. Availability of services (e-Commerce, e-Government, social networking etc.) and related digital literacy skills are required to make full use of these services.

Building confidence in the use of ICTs: Enhancing confidence and security in the use of ICTs will further promote their beneficial use, and minimise any negative impact, such as cybersecurity threats and potential harm to the most vulnerable parts of society, in particular children.

Innovation and partnerships: Fostering an ecosystem conducive to innovation so that small and medium size enterprises and entrepreneurs can play a crucial role in improved digital transformation, leading to interdependent ecosystems with new players, new industries and new business models.

The ITU Telecom World 2016 aims to help governments, corporations and SMEs accelerate ICT innovation for economic growth and social cohesion. What level of progress has the programme achieved on this goal since it was introduced?

ITU Telecom World is an international platform increasingly geared towards supporting and recognising the critical role SMEs play in the digital economy, in creating jobs, growth and opportunity and in driving socio-economic development. ITU Telecom World 2016 will be the second annual event with this new SME focus and I am happy with what we have achieved so far. This is just the beginning for us and we still have a long way to go. Our partners from across the ICT sector have signalled to us that this new direction, with its specific focus on SMEs and emerging economies, is one that is needed and relevant to their needs.

We have extended our outreach within the global SME community, welcoming them to our show floor within National Pavilions and Thematic Pavilions with industry associations and as independent stands. SMEs have been invited to join targeted discussions with governments and leading ICT players at roundtable sessions in a series of B2B and B2G dialogues, as well as taking part in Forum debates exploring the challenges and opportunities of building innovation ecosystems.

SMEs also have the opportunity to meet, network, share views and best practices with their peers and with other key players from public and private sectors in networking events, activities and workshops throughout the event. 2015 also saw the launch of the inaugural ITU Telecom World Awards, recognising excellence in innovative ICT solutions with social impact, focusing in particular on highlighting promising SMEs and providing a launch pad to success through UN recognition, international visibility and networking and partnership opportunities. We look forward to seeing the innovative ideas entering this year’s ITU Telecom World Awards!

As we take steps towards becoming this truly inclusive international platform, it is our aim to give  all our stakeholders – be they top-level government, ICT SME or leading corporate player-  their chance to have a voice on the issues which are vital to help accelerate ICT innovation and improvement of lives.

The ITU Telecom World changed from every two years to becoming annual. With nations’ resources thinning, does this not impact attendance and expected outcomes, especially as nations are supposed to implement such outcomes back home for good feedbacks?

We have been holding ITU Telecom World events annually for a number of key reasons. Firstly in response to requests from our membership which told us that they want to see our events organised on a predictable and regular basis. Secondly, the pace of technological innovation is occurring so rapidly that we consider that there is need to come together, explore the latest trends, learn, discuss and disseminate knowledge on an annual basis instead of every two years. Finally, holding events on an annual basis allows host countries to bid in a process that sees ITU Telecom in different countries and regions throughout the world on a regular basis, highlighting regional issues and players in the ICT ecosystem.

There used to be ITU Telecom Africa, just as there were also similar events for other regions of the world. Is there a plan to reintroduce this regional version of your well-received event under the Telecom World series?

Although we have no plans to hold a Telecom event in the African region in the immediate future, this certainly does not mean that we won’t be returning to Africa with an ITU Telecom World event in the future. Host countries for our events are decided on the basis of a bidding process, so we would certainly welcome bids from the African region to host future events! That said, the ITU is regularly working with our members in Africa to organise events. Directly after Telecom World 2016 for instance I will travel to Botswana for another major ITU international event, the World Telecommunications and ICT Indicators Symposium where among other things we will launch our landmark ‘Measuring the Information Society’ report together with our ICT Development Index for 2016 which measures progress in access to ICTs.

What are your overall expectations from countries, governments, experts and organisations as well as general delegates, for this year’s ITU Telecom World to be a success?

We measure success in a number of different ways, in terms of delegates, geographical spread of participants and representation across the industry. Crucial for us is also that our host countries are happy with their experience hosting our event and of course that our participants have had a fruitful and highly beneficial experience. It is our overriding aim that our event be the global meeting place for the ICT community: SMEs; corporations; and governments, where fruitful discussions will be held, vital contacts established between these different entities, where policy declarations will be made and deals will be struck which will help grow the ICT sector. We look forward to a meaningful sharing of knowledge and perspectives on enhancing global socio-economic development using ICTs and on the concrete role of ICTs in meeting the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs).

We are already delighted to be welcoming C-level participants including at the very highest level from the Kingdom of Thailand and confirmed Heads of Government from different world regions. We are also very pleased to be welcoming an international set of exhibitors spanning the top ICT players- including ATDI, Huawei, Intel, KT, LS telcom, Rohde & Schwarz, MasterCard, as well as countries and SMEs from around the world and an expert set of Forum speakers drawn from across the ICT sector.

This interview was firts piblished by the IT Telecom Digest. The original interview can be found here. Pic courtesy of IT Telecom Digest.

Leave a Comment