The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is encouraging its member states to adopt school-based community broadband plans to bring ICT access to disadvantaged and vulnerable groups.
The ITU effort was endorsed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the ITU Telecom World Youth Forum, with ITU Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun Touré and the Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT), Sami Al Basheer both present.
The initiative aims to facilitate public-private partnerships that will help member states establish school-based ICT centres.
While ICTs provide unprecedented opportunities to accelerate social and economic development, communities that currently lack access and know-how are being further marginalised. Many of these communities also face additional barriers to development beyond mere connectivity, which prevent them from participating fully in the information society.
Capacity building through training in the use of information and communication technologies and application development is critical. At the same time, persons with disabilities require assistive technologies and accessible websites in order to gain access to the many benefits ICTs offer. But providing connectivity, special training, services and equipment for disadvantaged and vulnerable groups on an individual basis is often too expensive for many developing countries.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says: "Connected schools can become connected community ICT centres. They can provide a vital link to marginalized and vulnerable groups. They can become an information lifeline for women, indigenous people, persons with disabilities and those living in rural, remote and underserved areas."
Ban stresses the need for teamwork in turning this goal into reality, and emphasised the importance of political will. "I urge world leaders to support this effort and take the needed steps to meet the agreed targets of connecting all schools by 2015," he says.
Through the Connect a School, Connect a Community initiative, ITU will work with a range of partners to identify and compile best practices on policies, regulation, applications, services and practical experiences. These best practices will be shared with member states through the development of an online toolkit and related capacity-building activities.
ITU Secretary-General Dr Touré welcomed the initiative as an important milestone in driving broadband access globally: "Designed not only for students but also for the communities in which they live, smart policies and innovative public-private partnerships promoting school-based community ICT centres represent an attractive, affordable and scalable step forward in addressing the digital divide."
Promoting connectivity to enable schools to serve as community broadband ICT centres involves a series of critical issues which must be addressed holistically. These include understanding and implementing technology; related policy and regulation; cost analysis; access to end-user equipment such as low cost computing devices; basic ICT training for teachers and, in turn, members of the local community; providing a safe online and physical environment for children; providing assistive technologies and an accessible environment for persons with disabilities; and developing and accessing content for education.
Sami Al Basheer, director of BDT, comments: "Young people adapt easily to ICTs, and schools have always been the natural hub of a community, so where better to invest in connectivity? A connected school can provide access for a whole community: for youth, for vulnerable and marginalized groups, indigenous people, persons with disabilities and people in underserved areas. I believe the Connect a School initiative will make a significant contribution to achieving our connectivity goals."