Kathy Gibson is at ITU Telecom World in Durban – As connectivity moves towards attaining status as a basic human right, more governments are benchmarking the status of broadband in their countries.
A new report from the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development shows that at least 15 countries now include artificial intelligence (AI) as part of their national broadband plans.
The report, The State of Broadband: Broadband Catalyzing Sustainable Development, highlights the critical role that broadband connectivity plays for the world’s people, from accessing online health services to receiving social security payments via mobile phones to receiving life-saving disaster warnings.
“Broadband infrastructure is vital country infrastructure, as essential as water and electricity networks. The data analysis and policy recommendations contained in the 2018 State of the Broadband report come at a crucial time when Internet access is more important than ever before,” says Houlin Zhao, secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), who serves as co-vice chair of the commission alongside UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay.
As South Africa’s mobile penetration reaches 106%, there is more incentive than ever to invest in broadband infrastructure, he adds.
“Digital technologies are changing our lives and economies – and are also changing our societies at very rapid speed,” says Zhao, addressing the Huawei-sponsored ICT Ministerial Forum held at ITU Telecom World.
“Technology has the potential to improve people’s lives and help us to achieve all the Sustainable Development Goals,” he believes.
To transform technology into a development solution., Zhao says the ITU lists its “four I’s” priorities. They are infrastructure, investment, innovation and inclusiveness.
“Infrastructure is key,” Zhao says. “And to build infrastructure we need investment through public-private partnerships (PPPs).”
To boost broadband, the Broadband Commission recommends a number of interventions:
* Building national leadership for broadband;
* Promoting Internet training and stimulating consumer and business demand;
* Monitoring ICT developments to inform policy; and
* Reviewing universal service measures; strengthening digital skills and literacy; supporting local eBusinesses and entrepreneurs; adapting legal frameworks; and reducing taxes and duties on telecom products and services.
While the report demonstrates the value of Internet connectivity in today’s increasingly digital world, it also raises concerns for the growing inequalities in access to broadband and how connectivity is used within and between countries, sexes and regions.
Today, almost half of the world’s people uses the Internet, mostly in urban and densely populated areas. The challenge of connecting people living in rural and remote areas to the Internet persists in many countries.
The scale of the infrastructure that must be built or upgraded to bridge the digital divide and deploy emerging technologies is considerable – last year, ITU estimated that connecting the next 1,5-billion people will cost $450-billion.
The new report provides a global snapshot of broadband network access and affordability, with country-by-country data measuring broadband access against the Broadband Commission’s seven advocacy targets.
It also highlights the impact of rapidly evolving communication and information technologies (ICTs), including the implications of emerging trends like the Internet of Things (IoT), big data and artificial intelligence (AI).
Advances in mobile broadband (such as 4G and 5G) and next-generation satellite technologies will mean the delivery of digital services more quickly and reliably, with implications for the future of agriculture, climate, disaster relief, education, health and transportation.
Key highlights of the report include updates on the Broadband Commission’s advocacy targets.
Making broadband policy universal (Target 1)
Progress is being made in the establishment by countries of broadband policies, but only incrementally.
The total number of countries with a National Broadband Plan (NBP) has seen a net increase of three, from 80% (156 countries) to 81% (159 countries).
In addition, a number of countries have approved their NBP (for example Bolivia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Maldives, Mali and Kuwait), while other countries’ NBPs have lapsed.
Making broadband affordable (Target 2)
The Broadband Commission, in its new 2025 Targets, has reduced the broadband services affordability threshold target from less than 5% to less than 2% of monthly gross national income per capita.
This new target will particularly assist lower income groups in developing and least developed countries to gain connectivity.
The change in target, though, results in a lower number of countries meeting the affordability threshold. For fixed broadband affordability, 73 countries had achieved the new target, and 122 countries have yet to achieve it.
For mobile broadband affordability, 109 countries had achieved this target, and 86 countries have yet to achieve it.
Getting people online (Target 3)
The report highlights the inherent challenges of bringing the “other half” of the world’s population online, noting that it has taken more than 25 years to bring nearly half of the world online – mainly by connecting those in urban and easy-to-reach areas.
It will be difficult to bring another quarter of the world’s population online in the next seven years at current population growth rates of 5% per annum – especially in developing and least developed countries.
Acquiring minimum digital skills and literacy (Target 4)
The report cites low data availability related to digital skills, and shows how global averages for digital skills vary from 5.2% (using a programming language) to 43.7% (transferring files). As such, it identifies the need to define what can be considered a “minimum level of proficiency in digital skills”, and to increase data collection in order to effectively measure advancements.
Using digital financial services (Target 5)
The report cites the rapidly expanding use of digital finance services – currently at 15.8% of the global population and 21.4% of the global adult population, and anticipated to increase to 40% of the global population by 2025.
Getting businesses online (Target 6)
The report identifies key enablers to bring more businesses and small- and medium-sized businesses online. This includes creating supportive legal and regulatory environments, increasing digital skills and literacy, and reducing costs such as import duties on telecommunication/ICT equipment and services.
Achieving gender equality in access to broadband (Target 7)
The report highlights that, as per the most recent data available, the digital gender divide in fact grew from 11% in 2013 to 11,6% in 2016; and that women are, on average, 26% less likely to use mobile Internet than men.
The report identifies increasing global efforts to address the digital divide, including the EQUALS Global Partnership and, as such has an optimistic outlook for achieving gender equality in access to broadband by 2025.